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January 28, 2013

More Anti-Israel Activism at Brooklyn

Brooklyn College - my home institution -- doesn't exactly enjoy the best reputation for fair-mindedness regarding Israel. A few years ago, the institution embarrassed itself by requiring incoming freshmen to read one and only one book, written by Moustafa Bayoumi, containing unsubstantiated, inflammatory attacks on U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. To its credit, the college leadership subsequently reformed the book selection policy, a necessary move after revelations that the English Department, which up until that time had sole authority to choose the freshman book, unanimously endorsed the Bayoumi selection.

Middle Eastern matters have returned the college to the news, in a less-than-flattering way. The New York Post reports that a handful of CUNY student groups, joined by one academic department--Brooklyn's Political Science Department--will sponsor a campus appearance from two anti-Israel extremists, Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti. (The official announcement for the event actually claims that, contrary to an assertion by the Brooklyn College spokesperson, the Political Science Department has "endorsed" the event.) The duo will be speaking on behalf of their joint efforts to promote an international boycott/divestment/sanctions against Israel. Barghouti has penned a book on the concept, which even the status quo-oriented AAUP opposes, while Butler's hostility to Israel has led her to make such bizarre claims as her assertion that "understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important."

In response to protests from students and some in the community, college spokesman Jeremy Thompson noted, "As a university, we are committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We don't tell student groups or academic departments what topics they can or cannot discuss."

The spokesperson's remarks were superficially reasonable but divorced from reality. First of all, academic departments have limited time and resources; they don't sponsor talks from random crackpots off the street. So it matters to see what sort of talks they do sponsor. That an academic department chose to sponsor a talk from BDS extremist speaks to its values and overall intentions. Would the Political Science Department have been willing to sponsor--or in this case, at least according to the official announcement, "endorse"--a talk from figures who sought to delegitimize China? The current government in South Africa? Sweden? To ask the question illustrates its absurdity.

Second, on Middle Eastern matters, the Brooklyn Political Science Department reflects the broader situation within the academy: there's little, if any, indication that the department seeks to stimulate discussion by exposing students to a wide variety of perspectives on the Arab-Israel relationship. There's certainly no indication that the department would even consider "endorsing" a talk by figures at the opposite extreme from Barghouti and Butler--which in this case would be, perhaps, an MK candidate from the far-right fringe of the far-right Otzma LeYisrael party list.

Too often in the academy, it seems, the "free exchange of ideas" on matters related to Israel proceeds only in one direction.

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