But criticism over departmental cosponsorship renews debate over propaganda versus free speech at academic institutions.
When activist Ben White spoke at Brooklyn College last week on the topic of “Israel: Apartheid, not Democracy,” there were no evictions, no disruptions, no names mysteriously left off the list of RSVPs. Unlike a similarly controversial event there last year, there won’t be any investigation concluding that student’s rights were violated on the basis of their political views, or reports of an administrator who did nothing in a situation that seemed to suggest an intervention. This time around, the peace held.
Yet the underlying issues remain and threaten the integrity of the 80-year-old academic institution, according to some observers.
The author of “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginners Guide,” and “Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy,” White was invited to speak by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the same organization that brought the like-minded Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler to Brooklyn College to speak for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. Both events were co-sponsored by academic departments, bringing broad criticism of the school and opening a debate over whether colleges should support fringe, unbalanced arguments for the sake of academic freedom.
“How can cosponsoring a radical, one-sided event allow for open dialogue and unbiased ideas on campus?” asked Michelle Terebelo, a junior at Brooklyn College.
Toward the beginning of his presentation, White stated the crux of his argument: “The only reason that Israel has a Jewish majority today, a Jewish majority that it seeks to defend, is because of the historic and ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.” White, a British journalist who frequently writes for the Guardian, criticized Israel for rampant discrimination, human rights violations, brutality and widespread murder, finally questioning Israel’s right to be a Jewish state. At no point over the course of his two-hour talk did he offer a perspective sympathetic to Israel, something even White acknowledged.
“I was covering a particular aspect of the whole situation, namely, Israeli policies as they affect Palestinians since 1948 until today,” he said later in an e-mail. (White requested all correspondence be electronic to ensure he would not be misquoted.) “That is an aspect not given coverage in the mainstream media, and therefore it is important to redress that imbalance. Furthermore, the reality on the ground is one sided, in that it is Israel occupying Palestine, Israeli soldiers blockading Palestinian cities, Israel forces confiscating Palestinian land, Israelis holding Palestinians without trial etc. not the other way round.”
Though White’s talk created a firestorm on campus and in the media, it barely flickers when compared to the BDS event in February.
Melanie Goldberg, an Israeli American student at Brooklyn College, was initially prohibited from entering when her name and that of another pro-Israel student was not on the list of registrants, even after they received several confirmation e-mails. Once inside, Goldberg and three friends took out “fact sheets” they’d prepared earlier in the day to refute claims of Barghouti and Butler during the Q&A portion. They were approached by Carlos Guzman, an SJP representative — who it was learned had not ever been a student at Brooklyn College — and ordered to hand over the documents. When they refused, campus security ejected them from the building in front of Milga Morales, vice president for student affairs, who reportedly told Goldberg, “It’s their event, they’re calling the shots.”
When the dust settled, the school informed the press that the four students were ejected for creating a disturbance, an allegation that came solely from Morales, according to an investigation commissioned by CUNY. (Guzman later told the Jewish Week that he told campus security to remove the students because he believed they were “preparing” to circulate flyers). Based on an audio recording as well as interviews with more than 40 witnesses, the report found that there was “no justification” for the evictions and that although there was no evidence that they were ousted because they were Jewish, “a more plausible inference can be drawn that the removal of the four students was motivated by their political viewpoint.”
Whereas the only academic department to cosponsor the BDS event was political science, the sociology and English departments joined political science in cosponsoring White’s presentation. Carolina Bank Munoz, chair of the sociology department, defended its right to cosponsor divisive events, calling it a “free speech, academic freedom” argument.
“We think it’s good for students to be exposed to controversial ideas, to protest controversial ideas and to develop their positions,” said Munoz, who added that cosponsorship is not akin to an endorsement. “That’s an important part of the education process. If you’re only hearing stuff from people you agree with, what’s the point of college?”
Although his department was one of the cosponsors, English professor Anthony Mancini strongly disagreed with the decision, according to an e-mail — originally obtained by the New York Daily News — he sent to the entire department.
“The event would not be an open-minded quest for knowledge but an exercise in propaganda that would violate my deeply held principles about the role of the press and academic departments,” Mancini wrote, according to the Daily News.
In a statement issued by Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College, its executive director, Nadya Drukker, and president, Howard Wohl, wrote “The issue is not about ‘free speech,’ ‘academic freedom’ or about parsing the definition of ‘sponsorship’ versus ‘endorsement.’ When academic departments lend their name to one-sided events that play fast and loose with the facts, no matter how they try to spin it, they are expressing both a disregard for academic responsibility and full support of these extremist speakers’ views.”
The Anti-Defamation League was among the growing number of voices criticizing the sociology and political science departments (the English department hadn’t yet voted to cosponsor) for cosponsoring the White event, as well as one with Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, who spoke at the school the day before White.
Despite the strong words on each side before and after White’s talk, it was a relief that there were no open conflicts during the event itself. At the start, Morales read a statement urging those in attendance to be respectful to all viewpoints. White suggested that the tense but calm atmosphere might have been a result of Morales’ statement, or possibly because when people saw him in person, they saw that he “wasn’t pushing the kind of messages they had been led to believe by the hysterical smears.”
Goldberg, who has since graduated, was in attendance and, having been permitted to stay to the end this time, was able to challenge one of White’s assertions during the Q & A portion. She said that she believes the Brooklyn College administration is to blame for letting the entire situation get out of hand.
“The administration needs to stop differentiating between sponsorship and endorsement because it’s the same thing,” she said. “They need more of a balance than what they have now. They’re not supporting two sides of every story, they’re promoting a bias, and it needs to stop.”
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