Local politicians are asking Brooklyn College to cancel a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) discussion scheduled tomorrow, while civil rights and Arab-American groups believe the event should be allowed to go forward.
SJP, a grassroots network of students and recent graduates with chapters on university campuses throughout the country, has planned a conversation tomorrow between Professors Steven Salaita and Katherine Franke. The event will focus on “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse on the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel,” according to the event’s Facebook page.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn) wrote a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, urging her to cancel tomorrow’s lecture, despite it being co-sponsored by several academic departments. Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) has also asked the university to withdraw its invitation to the speakers for the event. The requests come just a day after a terrorist attack upon worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem, which prompted the NYPD to ramp up security at Jewish houses of worship throughout the five boroughs.
“Yesterday, innocent people were attacked with axes and guns while they stood in synagogue with their heads bowed in prayer,” said Assemblyman Hikind. “These men were not settlers—they were rabbis and teachers living in Jerusalem. The Jews attacked in France and Belgium aren’t so-called settlers either. But they are targeted because hatred against the Jewish people is spreading further and further.”
“With daily terror attacks raging throughout Israel and the Middle East, academic departments should be sponsoring events that promote unity and reconciliation — not hatred and division,” Assemblyman Cymbrowitz said.
Assemblyman Cymbrowitz, who has criticized Brooklyn College twice before for sponsoring SJP events and spoken out against what he fears is a growing trend of anti-Semitism under the cloak of anti-Israel fervor, added that he was incensed by what he called the college’s “repeated tone-deafness.” Similar uproar occurred last year when SJP invited Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler to speak at Brooklyn College about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, leading to denunciations of the event by politicians, pro-Israel protests outside and an investigation as to whether SJP excluded journalists and removed attendees who were unsupportive of the BDS movement. Though the investigation ultimately cleared SJP of any wrongdoing, Assembylman Cymbrowitz remains steadfast in his opposition to Brooklyn College’s holding of such events.
“As a publicly funded institution, Brooklyn College has no right to provide a mouthpiece either to Salaita, whose anti-Semitic diatribes on social media rightly cost him a job at the University of Illinois, or to the SJP, an inflammatory group that (according to your own investigation) intentionally silenced Israel supporters during a previous lecture at your college,” Cymbrowitz wrote in his letter to Gould.
But civil rights groups and Arab-Ameican associations defended the event in the interests of free speech.
@Brooklynbrief"It's never okay to silence academic freedom.We don't have to agree on content but agree on right of students to hold events."
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) November 19, 2014
“It’s never okay to silence academic freedom,” said Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab-American Association of New York. “We don’t have to agree on content, but we can agree on right of students to hold events.”
“Ideological expression is a core American right and central to academic freedom,” said Jennifer Carnig, Director of Communications for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The legislators are free to express their opinions, but they may not use the government to punish those whose speech they disagree with.”
“SJP, as well as any other student group, should be allowed to hold events and exchange ideas without worrying about lawmakers trying to censor them,” said Ashoka Jegroo, a journalist in Brooklyn who frequently writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The legislators who tried to shut down [last year’s] panel are trying to silence an event precisely about the silencing of dissent.”
However, Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer, author, and political commentator who frequently weighs in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, disputes the notion that the university is truly interested in the free exchange of ideas.
“Brooklyn College refuses to invite me to speak about Israel, despite repeated requests,” Dershowitz said. “Departments that sponsor anti-Israel hate speech refuse to sponsor me to advocate a two-state solution. It is those departments, especially the Political Science Department, that are stifling the free exchange of ideas.”
The university’s Political Science Chair, Corey Robin, is scheduled to join the guests at the event Thursday evening. Assemblyman Hikind added that Robin has hardly allowed a balanced approach to any academic considerations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his department.
“Just look at who the Political Science Department invites to speak to Brooklyn College students year after year. The pattern—and Robin’s personal agenda—are very clear,” Hikind said.
Other SJP chapters have also made the news in recent years. The Chapter at Northeastern University was banned in March after critics complained about a variety of intimidating and hostile tactics, including allegations of “crashing” an event during the school’s Holocaust Awareness Week (the local chapter disputed the claim, insisting they were only involved in “a silent walkout of an IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] event”). The ban was ultimately overturned and the group was reinstated.
Efforts by the group to divest and boycott Israeli-made goods and services have had a mixed record. Successful divestment measures have passed at UC Berkeley, Riverside, and Irvine, and most recently, UCLA, while a resolution at Loyola University in Chicago was vetoed. SJP claimed victory when Hampshire College agreed to divest from several major companies in February 2009, but the administration said the decision was made for other reasons. A divestment initiative at Cornell University failed, as did a campaign for DePaul University to boycott Sabra hummus.
Here in Brooklyn, Assembylman Cymbrowitz’s letter called on Gould to cancel the event “immediately, as it would serve no other purpose but to further incite anti-Semitism throughout your campus.”
Brooklyn College and Students for Justice in Palestine (both National SJP and the Brooklyn College chapter) did not return requests for comment by press time.
Update: we received the following statement from Political Science Chair Corey Robin:
“Contrary to the assertions of Professor Dershowitz or Assemblyman Hikind, the political science department is more than happy to co-sponsor talks and events from a variety of opposing viewpoints, from across the political spectrum. As we have made repeatedly clear, if a student group or academic unit wishes to hold a talk in support of the State of Israel, we will co-sponsor it. (That is our written policy, unanimously adopted by the department, which can be found on our department website.) In the spring of 2013, we did just that: prominent defender of Israel Elliot Abrams spoke and we co-sponsored the talk. This semester, a former member of the Israeli Knesset is teaching a course on Israeli legislative politics in our department. I think what Professor Dershowitz is most upset about is not that our department doesn’t co-sponsor talks or air views from across the spectrum — clearly, we do — but that we have not invited him to speak in recent years. Then again, in all the years that Professor Dershowitz was a professor at Harvard Law School, he and his colleagues never once invited me to speak, so I’m not exactly clear what all the fuss is about. Be that as it may, if Professor Dershowitz’s goal is to speak at Brooklyn College, he should have a student group bring him to campus — just as the SJP is now bringing Steven Salaita and Katherine Franke to campus — and we will be happy, if asked, to co-sponsor his talk. If no student group wishes to bring him to campus, I’m afraid I can’t do anything about that.”
Maria LaHood, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents Professor Salaita, and represented Brooklyn College SJP in the CUNY investigation, offered the following statement:
“Assemblyman Cymbrowitz should at least check his facts before he attempts to silence, ironically, a discussion about Academic Freedom in the context of conversations about Palestine/Israel. Professor Steven Salaita’s tweets not only condemned anti-Semitism but raised concerns that conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel undermines the struggle against true anti-Semitism, as noted in his Chicago Tribune op-ed. Cymbrowitz also misrepresents the findings of the CUNY investigation regarding last year’s Brooklyn College BDS event – that Cymbrowitz also tried to stop – which did not find that Students for Justice in Palestine intentionally silenced anyone because of their viewpoint. Cymbrowitz’s attempt to prevent students and faculty from even discussing efforts to chill speech critical of Israel is insidious, and part of a nationwide effort to silence such speech.”