BDS at Brooklyn College

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.

The Last Great Strike - UC Press [Advertisement]

Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.