There they go again

Institutions of higher education should foster the unfettered and free exchange of ideas for members of their own academic communities, but are under no obligation to provide support for the views of speakers from outside the campus walls.

December 3, 2013 22:04
4 minute read.
Boycotting Israel

Israel boycott 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Last year, Brooklyn College’s political science department voted to officially affiliate itself with a talk by two advocates of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. In other words, these professors openly endorsed boycotting (among other groups) fellow academics based solely on their nationality.

The department cloaked its move by expressing fidelity to the First Amendment, but events proved its purported free speech interest to be one-sided. According to a subsequent CUNY report, four Jewish Brooklyn students were improperly removed from the BDS event, all as a Brooklyn dean stood idly by. That same dean then apparently passed along misleading information suggesting the students’ eviction was based on their behavior, rather than their presumed opposition to the BDS speakers’ agenda. The department seemed untroubled.

Lest anyone think Brooklyn’s faculty was chastened by the BDS fiasco, consider that not one but two Brooklyn academic departments (political science and sociology) have voted to officially “support” a talk by the latest anti-Israel extremist invited to campus, propagandist Ben White.

The departments have claimed their move doesn’t imply an endorsement of White’s toxic views. Instead, they simply consider White’s perspective on Israel so insightful that Brooklyn’s students should take time out of their busy schedules to hear him speak.

So what is it that two Brooklyn departments, acting in their official capacities, deem of such import? In 2006, White tried to rationalize the indefensible, after former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly proclaimed that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” The figure two Brooklyn academic departments now support expressed the opinion that “Ahmadinejad had not necessarily, as many assumed, called for an apocalyptic battle to wipe out the Jews.” Instead, White mused, Ahmadinejad was merely expressing his concerns about “Palestine’s cartographic absence.”

A few years earlier, White was even more direct in apologizing for anti-Semitism.

“I do not consider myself an anti-Semite, yet I can also understand why some are,” he wrote. Imagine the outrage if two CUNY departments voted to support a talk from someone who asserted that while he didn’t consider himself a racist, he could “also understand why some are.”

It’s important to note that there is no First Amendment issue in the current contretemps over White’s talk. A student club called “Students for Justice in Palestine” is sponsoring the event, and White will be paid any fee out of student activity funds. Under longstanding CUNY and state policies, a student group has the absolute right to invite outside speakers of its choosing; if Students for Justice in Palestine wants to bring David Duke to campus it would have the authority to do so.

THE TWO departments’ blessing, therefore, is wholly symbolic, a way to demonstrate that these professors find White’s anti-Israel extremism congenial.

How should the college respond to this provocation? Some have suggested the college should invite a speaker to provide “balance” to White’s views, perhaps Brooklyn alumnus Alan Dershowitz. Yet such a move would unintentionally mainstream White’s arguments, implying that he’s about as anti-Israel as Dershowitz is pro-Israel.

Rather, an ideological “balance” to someone like White would be a speaker who advocates the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank. It’s inconceivable that any Brooklyn academic department would support a talk by such a figure, or encourage students to attend such a talk with an open mind.

In the contemporary academy, on matters related to the Arab-Israeli disputes it seems as if academics (like those in the two Brooklyn departments) are attracted to extremists on one side of the issue only. That’s the most important lesson to the drawn from the reactions to both the BDS event and the White talk.

Instead of attempting to achieve a “balance” that’s impossible to obtain, Brooklyn president Karen Gould should redeem herself from her poor performance in the BDS fiasco, and announce that departments, acting in their official capacities, can heretofore only support talks from student groups afflicted with the department. In light of the White affair, it’s clear that at least some of the college’s departments are unable to unwilling to respectably utilize the authority they now possess, and more aggressive oversight from the administration is necessary.

Finally, institutions of higher education should foster the unfettered and free exchange of ideas for members of their own academic communities, but are under no obligation to provide support for the views of speakers from outside the campus walls. This is especially true when, as in this case, the invited guests are well-known for their anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, and where their speech may well contribute to the creation of a climate of fear, harassment and intimidation for Jewish students and other supporters of Israel.

KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Asaf Romirowsky is acting executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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