Tag Archives: Palestinians

Brooklyn College Stifles Pro-Israel Voices

A few weeks ago, the David Horowitz Freedom Center caused a stir at Brooklyn College by placing posters on campus labeling two of the college’s professors “terrorist supporters.” The college’s president, Michelle Anderson, issued a statement condemning the posters as “targeted intimidation” designed to “defame and silence specific individuals,” claiming those targeted were “at risk for further harassment and abuse.” She further noted that “robust discourse” on public policy issues is central to the college’s mission and, thus, that those in the college community have a right to express opinions in an atmosphere “free from hate.

Related: How Soft Censorship Works at College

But the charge leveled by the Freedom Center is arguably true. In 2014, both of the accused professors, Samir Chopra and Corey Robin, were arrested outside the Israeli mission in New York for protesting the Israeli bombing of Gaza. The Israeli bombing at issue was the culmination of a series of events: Hamas members kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. During its operation to find the teens, Israel arrested a number of Hamas leaders. Hamas retaliated by launching 80 rockets from Gaza into Israel, and that prompted Israel to launch a major military operation into Gaza. The two professors were arrested protesting this operation.

By demonstrating against the Israeli bombing of Gaza, but not the rocket attacks against Israel that prompted that bombing, Professors Robin and Chopra clearly sided with the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Hamas has long been designated as a terrorist organization by both the European Union and the United States. Thus, a reasonable person could conclude that by publicly siding with Hamas, the two professors are indeed supporting terrorists.

Because the Freedom Center’s accusation against the two professors is arguably true, it is not “defamatory,” as President Anderson alleges. Indeed, labeling those who support the Hamas-led government as terrorists could catalyze useful discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the questions to be debated are: do rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel constitute terrorism, and at what point does Israel’s defense against these attacks become disproportionate and therefore unjustified?

Thus, the Freedom Center’s posters – provocative as they were – were not defamatory, and they might promote healthy debate. As such, they fall well within the realm of constitutionally protected speech

Related: How Colleges Promote Censorship and Undermine Free Speech

Further, President Anderson’s use of the term “hate” to describe the posters stifles the “robust discourse” she claims as central to the college’s mission. Opposing the strongly held view of the head of a college isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it would be especially risky in this case. Why would a student or faculty member even bother to seriously examine a college-condemned viewpoint if coming to accept its validity might get you shunned as a “hater.” Simply put, President Anderson’s argument is a rhetorical ruse designed to chill speech with which she disagrees.

Unfortunately, this incident is not an aberration: Brooklyn College has a history of suppressing the voices of Israel’s supporters. In 2013, Brooklyn College security officers removed four pro-Israel students from a campus forum featuring opponents of Israel, claiming later to the press that “official reports” had indicated that the students were disruptive. In fact, a subsequent independent investigation proved (based on audio tapes) that there was no disruption and, thus, no justification for removing the students. The so-called official report of that disruption was based on a false account of the incident given by a college vice president. That the college apologized to the students – over a year after the event – is small compensation for stifling their voices and defaming them to the press.

A Setback for BDS

The movement to impose a boycott on Israeli universities, to get colleges to divest from Israeli companies, and to impose other sanctions on Israel—the BDS movement (boycott, divest and sanction)—was launched in 2005 by a collection of Palestinian organizations.  Over the last decade it has gathered significant support in American higher education, but the enthusiasm of some American academics for the cause didn’t attract much attention outside the academy until the vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) in December 2013 to join the boycott.

That vote shocked many who had not yet heard of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.  The National Association of Scholars called on the ASA not to join the boycott.  And when the ASA went ahead with it, some colleges and universities responded by dropping their institutional memberships in it.  One consequence of the furor was a series of decisions by other scholarly associations, including the Modern Language Association, to reject proposals that they also join the boycott.

Since then, the BDS movement has been less prominent in American higher education but it has not gone away.  Last week the New School held a two-day conference, “Sanctions and Divestments:  Economic Weapons of Political and Social Change.”  Nimer Sultany, lecturer in public law at the University of London, who is Palestinian and one of the international leaders of the BDS movement, argued that BDS is a promising tool to advance the goal of returning “all Palestinian lands” to Palestinians and to “reverse Israeli colonization.”  Todd Gitlin, the 60s radical who is now the chairman of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, opposed BDS on the grounds that its stated goal is “too broad.”

Vagueness generally helps the proponents of BDS.  At the New School event, Sultany refused to be pinned down as to what exactly its goal might be.  The eradication of Israel?  He wasn’t ruling it out, but neither did he own it.

This reticence about goals may help proponents of the movement to draw in supporters who feel sympathy with dispossessed Palestinians but haven’t thought very much about the implications of the movement’s broad claims.  When those claims come into sharper focus, campus support dwindles.

That lesson was displayed on May 2, when students at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine voted down a proposal to support the boycott. With 1,619 students voting, only 228 voted in favor of the boycott, and 1,144 voted against it. (247 abstained.)  The students showed collective wisdom, and in this case they were influenced by Bowdoin’s out-going president, Barry Mills, who in 2014 issued a strong statement rejecting the boycott movement.

The National Association of Scholars pays special attention to Bowdoin College.  Our 2013 study, What Does Bowdoin Teach?  How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students, picked out Bowdoin to serve as a representative institution—one that was small enough to study in depth, but also one whose strengths and weaknesses are widely shared by other elite liberal arts colleges.  In that vein, we took a critical view of the readiness of the Bowdoin administration and the students to embrace fashionable progressive causes.

In this case, however, Bowdoin has demonstrated a more thoughtful and deliberative side.

The idea of getting Bowdoin to boycott Israel had come up before.  Mills’s 2014 statement was a response to an earlier round of advocacy.  A new round began this spring and eventuated in a petition circulated in April by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).   According to one of the group leaders, the goal wasto isolate parts of the Israeli state apparatus that are normalizing the maltreatment of Palestinians and abuses of their human rights.” The petition got enough student signatures for a student-body-wide referendum.  The success of the petition drive, however, alarmed other students who organized a counter campaign.

The Bowdoin Orient, the student newspaper, quoted students as saying that they didn’t know enough about the conflict in order to vote with a clear conscience.  This is noteworthy in that it means that students did not take the boycott as the default position.  They did not just assume that the case for the BDS movement was right.  Other students voiced more particular objections such as their preference for a two-state option.  Still others complained that the boycott “threatens academic freedom,” especially the “free exchange of ideas” about the conflict itself.

All of this is encouraging—encouraging that a college community that has often fallen into lockstep conformity on political issues and shown very little interest in allowing a diversity of opinions to flourish re-discovered the value of open debate.

It is especially encouraging because we are in a strange moment in American higher education:  a moment in which intellectual freedom seems terribly imperiled.  The rhetoric of “rape crisis”; the insistence that there is a “climate consensus” that obviates the need to hear from skeptics; the post-Ferguson hyping of the idea that America uses violence to maintain a racial hierarchy—these and many more pronouncements have fostered a campus climate across the country in which students congratulate themselves for shutting down discussion, dis-inviting speakers who might disagree with prevailing opinions, and attacking those few students who stray from the new orthodoxies. Intimidation is the hottest campus trend.

Bowdoin is far from immune to these disorders. It is not a place where intellectual freedom generally flourishes. But as we showed in What Does Bowdoin Teach? there is another, older, and better Bowdoin.  It is reassuring to see the college in this instance find its better self.  And if Bowdoin is indeed representative of elite higher education, perhaps the vote on May 2 is a sign of a broader recovery in American higher education. The BDS movement is an ugly retreat from academic and intellectual freedom. It is heartening to see it beaten back so decisively in a place where its proponents might well have expected an easy win.