A "We" Grows in Brooklyn: Another Fight for Free Speech

Another Free Speech Fight: Do Critics of Israel Have a Right to Be Heard?

Here we go again: Pro-Israel zealots in New York were threatening the funding of Brooklyn College.

The reason: Jewish Voice for Peace's New York City chapter was co-sponsoring an event at Brooklyn College, February 7, at which leading Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti and world-renowned scholar Judith Butler (who is also a member of JVP's advisory board) were scheduled to give a talk about Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) on the campus of Brooklyn College.

The event was under attack and blowing up into a media event.

There was an attempt to shut the event down. The allegation once again: anti-Semitism even as the sponsoring group is made up of Jews -- with at least one Israeli among them.

That Israeli filmmaker Esti Marpet who once worked with me says, "The truth is, boycott, divestment and sanctions are non-violent tools with a long history of being used by civil society to make social change, notably in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement here in the United States. In no way can it be construed as anti-Semitic."

This event echoes an earlier attempt at another branch of the City University to strip an honorary degree from another Jewish critic of Israel, acclaimed writer Tony Kushner who helped write the Academy Award-nominated movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Fervent supporters of Israel have been primed by their lobby, and the Israeli government, to confront any and all attempts to "delegitimize" Israel or even criticize its government. To them, as I explain in an essay in my book Blogothon, Kushner became the symbol of those closet anti-Semites or self-hating Jews bashing Israel -- and so a group of university trustees turned him into an Israel-hater.

But in New York -- unlike Washington, which seems ruled by a conservative media elite that is frequently intimidated, if not directed, by the Israel lobby -- there was a cultural push back against what was seen as an act of intolerance that violated freedom of thought.

Soon, the New York Times was making it a big story, with strong statements against the efforts of conservative Republican trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld to blackball plans to honor Kushner by John Jay College, one of the system's schools. Wiesenfeld did not win much sympathy when he was quoted as questioning whether Palestinians were human.

Blogger M.J. Rosenberg offered insight into Wiesenfeld's didactic views:

Here is his [Wiesenfeld's] rationale for his actions, which he offered in a telephone call with the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg:

'My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo,' he said in a telephone conversation earlier this morning. 'Kapos' were Jews who worked for the Germans in concentration camps.

Pretty amazing: likening criticizing Israel to working with the Nazis to kill Jews. But Wiesenfeld, has some strong views.

This trustee was also aligned with Pam Geller, the Muslim-hater who led the fight against the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He is an active supporter of AIPAC, the Israel lobby.

His diatribe was seen as too severe and inflammatory by many civic leaders. Prominent supporters of Israel were soon supporting Kushner, including former Mayor Ed Koch, newspaper publisher Mort Zuckerman, and a who's who of cultural figures.

Enter the top officials at the City University, who agreed to review the decision and vowed to reverse it. On May 9, they did so, voting unanimously to restore the award.

Reported The Guardian:

The chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, addressing the board on Monday night, said he had supported the original recommendation of the award and praised Kushner's 'extraordinary body of work.' He urged the board to overturn last week's decision and to support the award.

Some members of the board spoke, all of them voicing support for Kushner. One of them described the row as a 'blemish' on the university's reputation as an upholder of freedom of expression.

Tony Kushner had told the Times:

'I have been honored many times by prominent Jewish organizations, proudly identified as a Jew, and main- tained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel,' he said in an interview on Thursday. 'An apology should come from the Board of Trustees for not following the dictates of simple fairness and decency when this happened, and allowing someone who deserved better treatment to be treated shabbily.'

Since the CUNY board's action, he has received an outpouring of support from peace groups, friends, and intellectual and artistic groups. 'It's completely overwhelming,' he said.

The City University's leaders rushed to restore its honor and his, and on Monday night, May 9, reversed the trustees' decision, reinstating Kushner's award.

Here's how the Times put it:

Having embarrassed themselves more than was absolutely necessary in the eyes of many New Yorkers, trustees of the City University of New York are gathering... to undo the damage.

In an earlier statement, Kushner who has edited a collection of essays critical of Israel said:

It's been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over soundbites, spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day.

This story went from the Jewish press to the pages of the New York Times, and quickly became an international free speech issue.

But even if his status is rehabilitated, the Times asks, "Will a reversal end the affair? Not necessarily. Closing a self-inflicted wound can be tough."

The problem, of course, is that Kushner's status earned him reconsideration; other less well-known personages critical of Israel, including academic and political analysts, are often targeted in ways that generate less attention and debate. Many conclude it's just not worth it to speak up about Israeli policy lest they become targeted and smeared, and even lose their jobs.

Now in an era when right-wing and most mainstream media support Israel uncritically, this blow-up about an event at Brooklyn College has been elevated into a contest between the forces of virtue and terrorism.

Among the media outlets in Israel focusing on the issue is Israel HaYom (Israel Today), a free daily tabloid published by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Republican candidates and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His media role was just analyzed by the PBS NewsHour.

Reports PBS: Launched in 2007, the paper has become the most widely read daily in Israel, and has sparked an ideological war among the country's press. "Israel Today became an extreme supporter of Netanyahu" said Amir Teig, a business editor at the Haaretz daily newspaper. "Yedioth Ahronot (a popular liberal daily in Israel) became extreme against Netanyahu and in supporting anyone that was against him."

The NY Daily News picked up the issue with the press calling a lecture a "Hate Fest." Here's one typical piece denouncing the college's political science Department for co-sponsoring the event, "Brooklyn College is no place for an Israel-bashing lecture:"

The political science department of Brooklyn College lists 17 professors of varying ranks. Do all support welcoming to campus an event that will verge on anti-Semitism?

Note this new formulation: The event is no longer anti-semitic per se but it will allegedly "verge on anti-semitism."

The president of the college, Karen Gould, supports free speech but felt compelled to distance herself:

"As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally..."

She was more explicit about her support for free speech in progressive publications than mainstream ones.

Meanwhile some, members of the New York City Council were threatening to cut off funding for the college. A letter writing campaign is blasted the event before it occured for "spreading hate."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped into the breach and denounced the threats from members of the City Council and affirmed the university's right to hold the event.

The organizers, meanwhile, launched a petition to win support for their right to be heard.

Will the media cover the issues the Forum is hoping to raise fairly. Doubtful.

News dissector Danny Schechter edits the new Mediachannel.org.