The BDS event at Brooklyn College took place last week, but the fallout continues and what is coming may be far uglier than even the dueling charges of anti-Semitism and Zionist censorship that preceded the event.
As has been widely reported, an effort was made to bar four Jewish pro-Israel students who had pre-registered and received written confirmation of admission for getting into the building, and then again in the building, for getting into the room where the event took place.
Then, once those four were finally in the event room, they were forcibly ejected within 15 minutes of their arrival at the behest of Students for Justice for Palestine leadership, by Brooklyn College security, and with the tacit approval of at least one Brooklyn College administrator, Milga Morales, the Vice President for Student Affairs.
We are now in a situation where there seems to be no two ways about it – someone is lying, maybe several people. And school officials, both administration representatives as well as faculty members were on the scene – so if the students were unfairly ejected, an apology will hardly suffice.
Perhaps the Jewish pro-Israel students who say they were tossed out of the anti-Israel event without cause aren’t telling the truth. Or perhaps it is the Brooklyn College administrators present at the event who confirmed and/or relied on students who claimed the pro-Israel students were being disruptive. But there is admissible evidence available upon which a conclusion can be made. So the next question becomes, what will the consequences be?
BACKGROUND As explained previously, the Brooklyn College division of Students for Justice in Palestine and the political science department of the college officially co-sponsored and endorsed an event at which two leaders of the virulently anti-Israel BDS movement – the Boycott of, Divestment from and Sanctioning of Israel – spoke on the Brooklyn College campus on February 7th. The purpose of the event was to promote the BDS movement.
Critics charge that the BDS movement does not merely encourage the Israeli government to stop policies with which it disagrees, as some claim, but through its form of economic and political warfare, BDS seeks to cause the ultimate elimination of Israel, the Jewish State.
PRECEDING THE FEB. 7 EVENT Prior to the event there was much heated debate over whether it was appropriate for Brooklyn College, a publicly-funded university, to host the one-sided BDS event at all and whether the political science department should have endorsed and supported it.
The administration issued statements defending the department sponsorship on the basis of academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas. Admitting that the school-sponsored event only offered one side of an extremely controversial and divisive event, these statements claimed there was no suppression of ideas or speech because anyone would be able – and all were encouraged – to “attend, listen and fully debate.” The BDS supporters got the green light from the school and the event took place.
THE CLAIM OF CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATIONS Several pro-Israel students say attempts were made to intentionally block their attendance – some successfully – that non-conforming viewpoints were silenced and that Jewish pro-Israel students were rounded up and thrown out of a “public” event simply for having the “wrong” ideas.
WHO WAS EXPELLED The four Jewish students who were expelled from the event (the Expelled Four) are: Melanie Goldberg, 21, is one of the heads of the college’s Israel Club, is a Hasbara Fellowships Fellow and is a journalism student. She said she has spoken up at other anti-Israel events in the past, but only to ask pointed questions, not in a disruptive way which others have confirmed. The other female student who was ejected, Yvonne Juris, 22, is also a journalism student. The other two are brothers, Michael, 21 and Ari Ziegler, 23 – a Brooklyn College graduate student - both of whom are members of the campus Hillel.
EVENTS AS CLAIMED BY EXPELLED FOUR According to two of the four Jewish students who were ejected, as reported by Ari Ziegler, in the New York Daily News, and Melanie Goldberg, in a Facebook posting, and in a blog at the Times of Israel:
• Goldberg explained that she and the other pro-Israel students had pre-registered for the event and received confirmation several times through several different sources, yet they were initially unable to enter the room or the building because their names had been removed from the “official” list. It was only after the students were able to get a school administrator to intervene that they were able to enter the event room. How did that happen? That should be part of the investigation.
• In addition, a New York Daily News reporter wearing a kippah was allegedly barred from the event, even though other members of the press were present. According to someone who claimed to be in line waiting to be admitted SJP people allowed in members of the public who were not on any pre-registration list. Yonah Fredman wrote in a talkback to an Algemeiner article that he believed he was not admitted because he was speaking against the BDS movement while waiting in line.
• Ten minutes later, the four students were approached by Carlos Guzman (Guzman, the SJP president at Hunter College, is not affiliated with Brooklyn College), who asked them to hand over their printed material. Goldberg gave him one copy, but refused to hand them all over.
According to Goldberg, this is what happened next:
“Let me reiterate that I was quiet this entire time at the event, that I was not disruptive, nor was I disseminating the material. Audio and video files from the event can prove that. Carlos then came very close to my face and threatened to have me forcibly removed if I did not hand all my documents over. I refused, turning to VP Morales for help. She was standing at the door to the event at the moment this was going on and I was sitting four seats in. She made eye contact with me but turned away, leaving my classmates and me to deal with security on our own.” When the four students were escorted out of the room by security, Goldberg said she turned to the college’s vice president for student affairs, Milga Morales, to ask her why she was being evicted. “Her answer shocked me,” Goldberg wrote, “and therefore I remember it, word for word. She said, ‘it’s their event and they’re calling the shots.’” When the students who had been ejected complained that all they were doing was, in Goldberg’s words, “simply taking notes so we could ask informed questions like we were encouraged to do by the school and Political Science Department.”
REASON FOR EXPULSION ACCORDING TO SJP
The official statement by the SJP denied that anyone was denied entrance to the event or was ejected for any reasons other than lack of space or because the students were being disruptive:
“The individuals in question were speaking loudly enough to prompt people sitting around them to ask them to be quiet. They were talking, shuffling papers, and moving noisily around in their seats for several minutes, while Dr. Butler was talking, prompting complaints from other attendees sitting nearby.”
The SJP further stated that they removed the students “after consulting with security, after they failed to comply with requests to be quiet.”
To bolster their contention that they did not discriminate, the SJP statement includes a claim that other supporters have made elsewhere: “There were many Jewish students and non-students in attendance, with varying viewpoints on the subject, some of whom asked challenging questions during the question and answer period.”
The presence of Jews at the BDS event and whether that means the Expelled Four were not removed for a discriminatory reason is one that will undoubtedly be examined during the official investigation.
However, some who claimed there were Jews present were clearly referring to two very visible members of the Naturie Karta sect, a vehemently anti-Zionist offshoot of Judasim whose adherents pose hugging Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appear at events aimed at De-Judaizing Al Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem) and protest at most major pro-Israel events.
EVIDENCE THAT STUDENTS WERE NOT DISRUPTIVE The clearest evidence that the Expelled Four were not creating a disruption at the BDS event is an audiotape of that event which was made public by the Algemeiner on February 12. “The recording device was positioned only two rows in front of the Jewish students and was able to clearly pick up the voice of Judith Butler several rows ahead.” Listen to the recording here; no disturbance can be heard, although some laughter, noises from outside the building, and even the clicking of pens is audible. It isn’t until Goldberg is heard asking why she had to turn over her written material that voices other than Judith Butler’s are heard at all.
Although at least one obviously Jewish member of the press was denied entry to the event, there were others present, yet their contemporaneous reports of the event did not indicate there were outbursts or disruptions. That is true for reports from the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
An interview printed the day after the event in the Electronic Intifada, a fervently pro-BDS site run by Ali Abunimah, one of the most aggressively anti-Israel media voices today, also confirms there were no audible disruptions.
Alex Kane, an editor at the radical leftist Mondoweiss blog, was at the event and was asked by the interviewer from the Electronic Intifada site to “[s]et the scene for us inside and outside the event, talk about what the speakers said and how they were received by the audience,” to which Kane replied, “the event really went off without any problems.”
After describing the scene outside and the lead-up to the event, Kane finished describing what occurred inside the room at the event this way:
Judith Butler did a fantastic job in refuting the anti-Semitism charge, as did Omar Barghouti. It was great, and the question and answer session was also interesting, there were a few questions that were critical of Barghouti and Butler, but in general the questioners were also friendly to Barghouti and Butler, and Barghouti got a lot of applause when he was speaking.
In general, it was a fantastic event and a real big victory for free speech, for academic freedom, and for the movement for Palestinian freedom.
In an additional report about the BDS event, an online commentator for the New York Times, Stanley Fish, who wrote as if he was present at the event, snarked at those who weighed in against the event. He wrote, “Had they been in attendance, they would have heard Judith Butler give a letter-perfect account of what academic freedom is. She said to the assembled audience, ‘I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered.’”
But the students who wished to test that “letter-perfect” account of academic freedom were unable to do so because of the actions of the very people Fish was so vigorously defending. And the fact that his column is headlined, “Academic Freedom Vindicated in Brooklyn” suggests that he also did not observe any disturbances.
A leftist blogger who was present at the event, described Butler’s talk: “The philosopher spoke with measured pauses that made audible, in turn, muffled chants from the wall behind her.” Nothing about any disruption, in fact, quite the opposite. Salon had a supportive article, which ran nearly 24 hours after the event, the subheadline of which was, “The Brooklyn College event went ahead without disruption, and the Berkeley philosopher [Butler] summed up why it matters.”
SO WHY DID BROOKLYN COLLEGE CLAIM THAT EXPELLED STUDENTS WERE DISRUPTIVE? Before the existence of the audiotape was known, Brooklyn College issued a statement condemning the Expelled Four.
The spokesperson for the college, Jeremy Thompson, was quoted in several news accounts, including the New York Daily News and the Algemeiner, claiming that the pro-Israel students were disruptive and disrespectful. His words were used as support for BDS proponents to prove the pro-Israel students were lying.
Thompson had said, “My understanding is that from the first speaker they began to speak out, they were becoming vocal and disruptive to the members around them and one of the student organizers of the event went to them and said ‘you really need to be quiet you’re disrupting other people around you.’ They then did not comply and a couple of police officers asked them to come out into the lobby.” Thompson also was quoted in the Algemeiner as saying that “school officials in attendance, including Morales, confirmed this account.”
The Jewish Press had a long interview with Thompson, to root out the basis for his statements.
Thompson was not at the BDS event, but several BC administrators were, as were several “faculty marshalls,” although he only heard from members of the administration. He was careful to make clear that it was unlikely any of the Brooklyn College officials were present in the room during the entire event, and that it was possible that what was reported to him was based upon reports made by students to the administrators who were on site that evening.
In addition to Morales, Ernesto Mora, media relations manager, senior vice president for finance and administration Joseph Giovanelli, and Donald A. Wenz, director of campus and community safety services were all on the scene, although Thompson repeatedly stated that all were in and out of the room and the building at various times, so it is unlikely any of them were present for all of the event.
Given that the students who were ejected were present in the room for such a short time, Thompson agreed that whatever disturbances were reported may have solely been what began only after the SJP member asked Goldberg to hand over her papers.
THE ALGEMEINER AUDIOTAPE CHANGED EVERYTHING When the existence of an audiotape revealed that there was no disturbance – which is consistent with the initial reports by those supportive of the event – and in fact it was so quiet in the room during Butler’s speech that people yelling outside could be heard through the walls, but no protests from within the room – an iron wall of silence came down.
Nobody was talking. Well, almost nobody.
Kane found a thin splinter of dissent and he proceeded to use it as a sledgehammer, attacking the Daily News and the Tablet for “publicizing one side of the story while omitting claims that complicate the story. I did not clearly see the incident, so I can’t definitively say who is right and who is wrong. But it’s the height of journalistic irresponsibility to publicize one narrative while leaving out another side of the story that complicates things greatly.”
Notwithstanding his earlier unequivocal statement that everything both outside and inside the event went off without any problems, Kane was now quoting SJP members who claimed the Expelled Four were disruptive, and invoked the statement from Thompson to support his claim.
But he then seizes upon the Holy Grail – someone whom he claims is an unbiased witness! Brooklyn College student Emma Snyders, wrote in a talkback to Goldberg’s Facebook posting, “I was directly in front of you and had to ask you to be quiet numerous times before you were asked to leave. While leaving someone you were with yelled, ‘This is a violation of our freedom of speech.’”
It remains unclear how it is that Snyders, who claimed to be in the row in front of the Expelled Four, could not be heard telling them to be quiet on the discovered audiotape of the event, given that she was just one row behind the Algemeiner‘s audiotape source. But what’s also odd is that Snyder suddenly disappeared after making this comment, even though she was answered by Ari Ziegler less than an hour later.
We’ll get to Ziegler’s response in a moment, but first, it’s worth noting that Kane had to place what he called an “update” – others might have called it a correction – on his report that the Expelled Four were not “distributing” the written material, as he had originally reported. What were they doing? “They were passing out flyers amongst themselves.”
And Kane also ignored his own advice. Although his article was posted on Feb. 12, Snyder’s comment appeared on Facebook on February 10, at 10:30 a.m. And Ziegler’s response to Snyder, very politely clarifying his own positions (opposed to BDS, not opposed to the event or the political science sponsorship) and asking her to please explain how she could describe his behavior or that of his three companions as disruptive. A portion of his lengthy comment – to which Snyder did not respond, nor did she respond to a request for comment from The Jewish Press – describes what he thought and experienced, and he was clearly asking for an explanation for how she could have understood it otherwise.
Emma, I’m sorry that you felt uncomfortable and I agree with you that Judith Butler is an amazingly articulate speaker and spoke quite logically from what I heard (I was one of the students removed before the end of her prepared remarks.) However, I must say that there was only one instance of speech from us that might be construed as disruptive or unsettling and that was after we were asked to hand over our info sheets or be forcibly removed. The instance of yelling “This is a violation of our freedom of speech,” was as we were leaving, as you rightly pointed out. But it was not in response to the event at all. Rather it was in response to the apparent reason that the organizing member was giving us for kicking us out, that we wouldn’t hand in our info sheets which would later inform our questions had we been allowed to ask. I’m curious what it was that we said that was not quiet or respectful, and since you were directly in front of us then perhaps you can tell me a bit about that.
Personally, I came to the event to hear and attempt to understand the BDS movement. Their goals, their aspirations, what would be a success in their eyes. Not to agree, disagree, or debate them. But to understand what they had to say and what they might have to say to their critics (which is what the info sheets had: past criticisms of the movement’s actions and consequences). I came to ask questions and try to understand an opposing viewpoint. There was another student who contacted me who also sat directly in front of me (as can be seen in one of the photos in SJP Brooklyn College’s facebook page album) and he actually needed me to explain to him how we disrupted and why we were kicked out because he didn’t hear any disruption at all.
You’re right, there was a lot of tension in the room, but I fail to see how my behavior, sitting, listening, and taking notes, or even my brother’s whispering to me about an aspect of the info sheet he didn’t understand, can be construed as behavior that would make someone feel “incredibly uncomfortable.”
A CUNY INVESTIGATION INTO THE ALLEGATIONS OF WRONGDOING The Chancellor of City University of New York, Matthew Goldstein, issued a statement on February 11. He wrote that because there were claims that students were wrongfully ejected, at the request of BC president Gould, he asked CUNY’s General Counsel and Vice President for Legal Affairs Frederick P. Schaffer, to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing. Schaffer will be working with an unnamed “independent investigator.”
It is hard to imagine that there would have been any investigation, given official school statement immediately after the students were expelled from the event, had an audiotape of the event had not been made, and then revealed by a protected source.
OPEN ISSUES Obviously the investigation should include interviews with all those officials present at the Feb 7 event, including all the “faculty marshalls” who were present.
In addition, photos from the BDS event show that someone was using a videotape recorder, with a microphone. That recording contains essential evidence. It is likely that other audiotapes, at least, were made at the event as well and they should be examined for evidence of any disruptions.
Goldberg and the other Expelled Four had documentary evidence that they were confirmed registrants for the event. How were their names removed from the lists of those who were to be permitted entry at the event?
Part of the evidence adduced by BDS supporters is that there were Jewish people who were not kicked out of the event, therefore the removal of the Expelled Four was not discriminatory. Several people have said that there were “Orthodox rabbis in the room who asked questions,” as evidence. Were there “Orthodox rabbis” present who were not members of the notoriously anti-Israel Naturei Karta? How did those two members of Naturei Karta obtain admission when they are neither members of the Brooklyn College community nor SJP members? Did someone invite them? If so, who? And why?
One New York Jewish Community Relations Council official who was involved with protests outside the event building and who worked with the Hillel students, Hindy Poupko, said she was aware of only one student who was able to ask a critical question during the event. The response to that student by Judith Butler was, “you obviously didn’t listen to my speech,” and everyone laughed. According to Poupko, “it didn’t seem like a place open to dialogue or dissenting opinions.”
Goldberg was quoted in a Brooklyn College newspaper article as saying prior to the event that she opposed the co-sponsorship by the political science department because, “If I’m in a political science class, I’d feel afraid to open up and that impacts my freedom of speech.” Was that why her name was removed from the list of people who should be admitted to the event?
Goldberg also said she had run-ins with SJP at another event in the fall, at which Guzman told her to “shut up.” She thinks she was blacklisted from the event after a confrontation during the Students for Justice in Palestine’s screening of “The People and the Olive” in November of last year, where Guzman claimed she “tried to disrupt and instigate one of our events last semester.”
A New York Daily News reporter wearing a kippah, Reuven Blau, who had pre-registered and received confirmation, was barred from entering the event, even though other members of the press were present.
According to someone who claimed to be in line waiting to be admitted, SJP people allowed in members of the public who were not on any pre-registration list. Yonah Fredman wrote in a talkback to an Algemeiner article that he believed he was not admitted because he was speaking against the BDS movement while waiting in line.
LEGAL ISSUES First, because Brooklyn College is a public university and because the political science department was an official co-sponsor and co-endorser of the event, as Prof. Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, the constitutionally protected freedom of speech is involved. The constitution only protects speakers from government censorship, not private censorship, but, as Dershowitz put it, “The sword of co-sponsorship may have become a shield to protect the First Amendment rights of the students who were prevented from handing out anti-BDS leaflets and asking anti-BDS questions.”
Jay Sekulow, the head of the American Center for Law and Justice and one of the leading “viewpoint discrimination” scholars told The Jewish Press, “to eject students merely because they had materials that opposed the point of view of the speakers – even if the students were distributing them – is classic viewpoint discrimination and is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.”
Sekulow went further, “even if the students were understood to be potential troublemakers, the perception of potential disruption is insufficient grounds for ejection, there has to be actual disruption or the students’ removal is unconstitutional.”
Viewpoint discrimination is exactly as it sounds: when only one point of view of a particular subject is allowed to be aired and the other side is prevented from speaking. The rule is that governments must make and enforce rules that are “viewpoint neutral.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union is frequently a litigant in viewpoint discrimination cases, but they did not return a call placed by The Jewish Press seeking comment on the potentially unconstitutional ejection of Jewish pro-Israel students from the BDS event.
The day before the BDS event took place, the NYCLU sent a letter denouncing the New York City Council member who threatened the “odious” event might harm public funding for the school. Executive Director Donna Lieberman and Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg called Fidler’s statement “a stunningly impoverished vision of academic principles,” pointing out that the “First Amendment, embracing principles of free speech and academic freedom, assumes its most critical role when individuals seek to engage in provocative or disturbing speech.”
If a full investigation is conducted which examines all the evidence that can be gathered – and there should be much – and if the Expelled Four were removed not because they caused an actual disturbance but because the SJP organizers did not want them present because of their viewpoints – or because they feared the students might be disruptive and not because they were disruptive – then a clear constitutional violation has taken place and serious consequences should follow.
And beyond the constitutional claim, the Brooklyn College administration repeatedly justified support for the BDS event by invoking the moral high ground of “academic freedom,” and “opportunity for questions and debate”; it committed an abuse of authority by failing to ensure there was just such opportunity for robust debate. Finally, the presence in the room of school administrators and faculty who stood by and allowed students to be removed from a public event for “vocal and disruptive” behavior that either did not happen or was so slight that a sensitive recording device did not pick it up and most people present were not aware of it, is shameful.
Trust in this academic institution is at a low ebb, making public the results of the investigation could go far to rebuild that trust.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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