NYT: Appearance by Group Advocating Boycott of Israel Roils Brooklyn College

Appearance by Group Advocating Boycott of Israel Roils Brooklyn College

Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times. Students at Brooklyn College, where a planned appearance by a group that advocates a boycott of Israel has created tension.


January 31, 2013

Brooklyn College, in the Midwood neighborhood, would seem an unlikely place for Jewish students to feel besieged. Nearly a fifth of the undergraduate population is Jewish, and the college, at the heart of a once predominantly Jewish area, has produced a long line of prominent Jewish graduates.

Enter B.D.S., an international lobbying movement that advocates Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territories — a demand that caused a furor in another unlikely enclave of Brooklyn last year when members of the Park Slope Food Co-op rejected a motion to boycott Israeli products.

Next week, two leading voices of B.D.S., which stands for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” are scheduled to speak at the college at an event cosponsored by a student group and the college’s political science department, prompting a furious response from pro-Israel groups on campus and others who say the department’s sponsorship amounts to tacit endorsement.

“You do not have a right, and should not put the name of Brooklyn College on hate,” saidWilliam C. Thompson Jr., the former city comptroller, who is running for mayor, at a news conference with more than a dozen elected officials, students and B.D.S. opponents outside the campus on Thursday. “They should be heard, but not with the official stamp of this college.”

The department’s decision — made after a vote by its professors — has brought condemnation and praise.

On one side are Alan Dershowitz, the prominent Harvard Law School professor, whopublished a column in The Huffington Post criticizing the sponsorship as academically biased, and the Anti-Defamation League; on the other are a left-leaning group, Jewish Voices for Peace, and leaders of the college and its parent, the City University of New York.

Supporters of the department argue that whatever their personal distaste for B.D.S.’s views, academic freedom and freedom of speech allow the college to host controversial guests. (The two speakers, Judith Butler, a philosopher, and Omar Barghouti, are cosponsored by several student and nonstudent groups in addition to the department.)

“The term ‘endorsement’ has been bandied about,” Jeremy Thompson, a college spokesman, said soon after speakers at the protest accused the college’s president, Karen Gould, and the political science department of implicitly endorsing B.D.S.’s point of view and “making it kosher.” He said the administration encouraged students to hold events that express competing views.

In an e-mail on Thursday, Ms. Butler said she believed it was “terribly wrong” to call B.D.S. a hate group, and praised the college for honoring academic freedom. “My own aim next Thursday remains the same: to consider some of the debates for and against B.D.S. in this public forum provided by Brooklyn College, to clarify my viewpoint, and consider carefully challenges from the audience,” she said.

Controversial speakers are nothing new on campus, including David Horowitz, the conservative pro-Israel commentator, who spoke in March 2011, though not as a departmental guest.

“Cosponsorship of an event doesn’t necessarily mean endorsement of a movement,” Mr. Thompson said.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew and a Brooklyn College alumnus, had not seen it that way. Speaking at Thursday’s protest, Mr. Hikind said he believed the college was implicitly supporting B.D.S.

At one point, the student group hosting the event, Students for Justice in Palestine, changed the language describing the department’s role on its online flier from “cosponsored” to “endorsed,” raising Mr. Hikind’s suspicions. It was later changed back to “cosponsored.”

He said that he and the other opponents of the event were supporters of free speech, explaining that he did not object to the event itself, only the department’s sponsorship of it.

Other speakers were even more strident: “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” said Assemblyman Alan Maisel of Brooklyn.

Pro-Israel groups have demanded that the political science department also bring in a pro-Israel speaker, but the department has not responded, said Ahuva Kohanteb, 21, the president of the Israel Club. She said she did not want to mount a public attack on the department because she was a political science major.

“That’s going to put a target on my back,” she said.

Ms. Kohanteb’s anxiety reflects what several protesters called the “chilling effect” that the department’s decision would have on Jewish students on campus, who, the protesters said, might silence their own views for fear of angering their professors.

Toby Sklar, a junior, who is Jewish, recalled how one of her political science professors had explained in a lecture that she had voted for the event to promote “an open marketplace of ideas.” Ms. Sklar would have raised her hand to argue, she said, but it was only the second day of class and she did not want to antagonize the professor so early.

“I’m not afraid of arguing,” she said. “But it’s an uncomfortable feeling to be in class with a professor who voted for it.”

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