There is something particularly poisonous about the kind of political opportunism on display at Brooklyn College right now. Unfortunately, it's all déjà vu for me and my former colleagues in the political science department. The Brooklyn College chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) recently organized a panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) featuring noted Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti and internationally renowned philosopher Judith Butler. It promises to be an exciting evening, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Harvard law professor (and Brooklyn College alumnus) Alan Dershowitz and New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind successfully canvassed support from a number of politicians, and managed to transform a standard panel discussion on a controversial issue into a cause for pious outrage. The discussion is scheduled to take place tomorrow and, thanks to a massive backlash against such unwarranted political pressure, it will take place tomorrow. Yet, the rapid manufacture of a national controversy in this case reveals, once again, the tenuous state of academic freedom on our campuses and the ease with which extra-academic influence stifles free debate.
BDS has made enormous strides in the last few years as a nonviolent form of resistance to Israel's occupation, so it shouldn't be surprising that student activists at Brooklyn College would seek to host a discussion on the tactic. Of course, BDS is not without controversy and the issue is rightly being debated across the country and around the world. But this is Brooklyn College, where a number of earlier controversies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have snowballed into minor national scandals. One does not simply... criticize Israel at Brooklyn College. I know this better than I'd like to.
Exactly two years ago, after reading an unpublished paper I presented at a major political science conference on the subject of martyrdom and Palestinian nationalism, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind crudely denounced me as an "overt supporter of terrorism," launched a highly orchestrated campaign of old-fashioned character assassination, and managed to pressure the Brooklyn College administration into rescinding my appointment as an adjunct lecturer there that semester. I had been hired to teach a graduate seminar on the politics of the Middle East but my past affiliation with a human rights organization based in the Gaza Strip (not to mention my longstanding support for Palestinian self-determination) inspired Hikind and a cohort of sanctimonious witch hunters to spend their time smearing me as an anti-Semite and petitioning to block me from the classroom.
To make matters worse, Hikind invoked liberal language to justify my firing. In a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, Hikind lamented my alleged failure to fulfill the "the responsibility of a true academic," which, he argued, is "to remain objective in imparting information and to allow students to draw their own conclusions." Though I had yet to teach a single session of the course, I was apparently too dangerous to be around students.
Against all odds, academic freedom prevailed. My case received national media attention thanks to the enormous outpouring of support I received from scholars and activists. Under this pressure, the Brooklyn College administration made an embarrassing reversal just days after I was dismissed, offering as a weak explanation that further "information" regarding my qualifications had "come to light." The seminar was a success despite the unwanted controversy and, as my first time at the head of the classroom, a revelatory experience.
Now the same unpleasant characters that made my life a living hell for one long week two years ago are at it again. Dov Hikind was quoted recently making hysterical (and unfounded) claims that Barghouti and Butler "call for the destruction of the State of Israel." He has also demanded theresignation of the college president, calling her a "disaster." Alan Dershowitz, longtime scourge and chief prosecutor of insufficiently pro-Israel academics everywhere, has been particularly aggressive, focusing attention on the issue by running inflammatory opinion pieces in the Daily News and the Huffington Post in which he bluntly refers to the planned event as "propaganda hate orgy."
Above all, Dershowitz is scandalized that the political science department would have the audacity to co-sponsor such an event, a move both he and Hikind argue is tantamount to endorsement. Yet he failed to express similar concerns at a talk he gave at UPenn last year, which was co-sponsored by the political science department there. "The Brooklyn College political science department," he argues, "should get out of the business of sponsoring one-sided political propaganda and should stop trying to exercise undue influence over the free marketplace of ideas." As with my case, the unapologetically Orwellian logic is striking. Sponsoring discussion is not, for Dershowitz, the foundation of scholarly life or even a basic ideal to be preserved, but is itself "the real violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech." In an attempt to be sure the rest of Brooklyn College fell in line, Dershowitz sent messages to the chairs of every other department, asking them not to co-sponsor the panel. None have.
By far the most disturbing outcome of this fiasco has been the readiness with which irresponsible local and national politicians have lent their voices to the wave of criticism. Besides Dov Hikind's predictable histrionics, several New York City council members sent a disgraceful letter to the college administration in which they wrote, "We believe in the principle of academic freedom. We also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong." Then came a letter spearheaded by self-described "progressive" Congressman Jerry Nadler and signed by several member of the House. In it they demanded the political science department withdraw its sponsorship of the event while shamelessly appealing to the principle of academic freedom in the same paragraph! Only today, after Mayor Bloomberg joined the chorus of opposition to this kind of intimidation, the letter was finally retracted, but the pattern is obscene: too many of our politicians seem to believe the best way to preserve academic freedom is to suppress it.
In sharp contrast with their attitude towards my appointment two years ago, the Brooklyn College administration remained extremely firm throughout the ordeal. President Karen Gould delivered a strong statement reaffirming Brooklyn College's commitment to academic freedom. Yet the deeper malaise lingers. Time and again, extra-academic organizations and politically opportunistic hacks have volunteered their services as the gatekeepers of legitimate discourse on American university campuses. Worse still, these groups have demonstrated an ability to recruit irresponsible policymakers in the course of their assault, further politicizing what should be an unconditionally straightforward practice for any institution of higher learning: open debate. It has somehow become acceptable -- even admirable! -- to challenge the basic legitimacy of political speech on university campuses by offering pious reflections on "balance." This completely misses the point: the subject matter of the panel discussion is completely irrelevant. The real debate is not about BDS; it is about academic freedom and the freedom of expression.
Daniel Margolis, a recent Brooklyn College graduate, commended the political science department at Brooklyn College for "for bravely co-sponsoring a controversial forum." He also added:
I say this as someone who is part Jewish, has relatives in Israel, and does not support the BDS movement ... This disagreement with the aims of the speakers does not mean that I wish to drown out their voices. I believe, as the political science department apparently does as well, that reasonable debate without censorship will bring people to better understandings of each other and the issues at hand.
Would that more of us shared this view and were willing to defend it.
Kristofer Petersen-Overton is a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College.