There’s been a great deal of controversy over the Brooklyn College Political Science Department’s sponsorship of a panel about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) — it’s now been largely resolved as progressive politicians have backpeddled their criticism. BDS is aimed at placing pressure on Israel on behalf of Palestinian rights through tactics modeled on those used against the South African apartheid regime, and the panel will feature two academics and supporters of the movement, Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. A number of elected officials with influence over Brooklyn College’s budget—Speaker of the City Council and mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn, for example—demanded that the panel be cancelled or “balanced” with opposing viewpoints. Both sides made claims about academic freedom.
I really see only one side here, that of the students at Brooklyn College. The elected officials state, “While students and professors must remain free to express their views, and engage in open and vigorous debate, we believe that when the institution decides to take sides and refuses to permit all voices to be heard, that is the antithesis of academic freedom.” By all accounts, there is a vigorous debate being had, and there will certainly be one at any such panel. There is no indication whatsoever that it would be difficult for students at Brooklyn College to set up an anti-BDS panel. It is inconceivable that were such a panel being held, the college’s budget would come under threat. Politicians have seized an obvious opportunity to grandstand politically in such a way that brings further difficulty to discussing Israel on campus. This is an ugly site of controversy at every New York campus, made uglier by the insertion of politicians into campus life to quash a student discussion.
As anyone who has ever tried to hold an event as a student should know, arranging such a thing without the sponsorship of a department can be quite difficult. Academic freedom will not be threatened by the political science department’s willingness to sponsor a panel that holds a political position and brings it up for discussion.
I would recommend reading this recent blog post by Samir Chopra, philosophy professor at Brooklyn College. His concerns about the chilling effects of this controversy must be taken seriously. It should be further noted that when universities like Columbia come under attack for sponsoring controversial events, say Ahmadinejad’s appearance in 2007, they remain relatively insulated from political retribution. Not so at a public college, making it all the more important to protect institutions like Brooklyn College from this sort of interference. Should the free speech of students at a public college be any less secure than those at a private one?
When issues related to Israel come up for debate, everyone sighs that dialogue is so difficult. Every one of these politicians just made it harder.
Sarah Leonard is associate editor of Dissent.