Anti-Israel Rhetoric Raises Alarms At Brooklyn College

Growing aggressiveness of new Palestinian Club startles Jewish students on a relatively quiet campus.

12/14/10
Special To The Jewish Week
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In a discomforting scene last month, three young Palestinians found themselves detained at an Israeli “checkpoint,” where an unsympathetic soldier ordered them to kneel on the pavement, hands behind their backs, and blindfolded them. As shouting began, both by the soldier and by the three detained Palestinians, the possibility of violence seemed to become a real possibility.

The scene took place not on the West Bank, but at Brooklyn College, where the school’s year-old Palestinian Club created a mock Israeli checkpoint only days before Thanksgiving. Students affiliated with the club portrayed the soldier and detainees, hoping it would draw attention from peers, as other students engaged bypassers in conversations about Israeli policies in the West Bank.

How much attention it captured is debatable on a campus of more than 16,000 students, all of whom commute to school and most of whom hold down part-time or full-time jobs in addition to their studies. Neither of the college’s two student newspapers carried news of the event, either before it took place or afterward. Moreover, if leaders of the Palestinian Club and the campus Hillel foundation agree on anything, it’s that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is below the radar of most students at Brooklyn College, including most Muslims.

But it certainly captured the attention of students and staff members at Hillel, none of whom encountered any organized anti-Israel activity on campus in previous years. Indeed, the checkpoint surprised a large portion of the Hillel community, prompting many to wonder if the type of aggressive behavior associated with anti-Israel activists at other schools might be coming to their own campus. It also prompted a debate on the part of many at Hillel over how they should respond.

“The environment on campus has shifted drastically since last January,” when the Palestinian Club first became active, said Nadya Drukker, executive director of Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College.

Drukker acknowledged that none of Hillel’s events have been disrupted and that none of its speakers have been shouted down, a common event on other campuses. At the University of California Irvine, for instance, Islamic extremists repeatedly heckled a speech earlier this year by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. What’s new, though, is that an official student club is now promoting the international campaign to demonize or delegitimize Israel — a major shift on a campus where Mideast politics were rarely discussed, Drukker said.

One sign that things were beginning to change took place last April, when the Palestinian Club sponsored a talk by Norman Finkelstein, the author and academic known for his fierce and vitriolic criticism of Israel.

“[Members of the club] see the Jewish people as the oppressor, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Israel or here,” at Brooklyn College, said Marcos Askenazi, Hillel’s director of community affairs. Askenazi said Hillel has reached out to the Palestinian Club through emails, phone calls and personal interactions, suggesting a weekly dialogue or joint activities, only to be rebuffed each time.

Noting that Hillel has always enjoyed a close relationship with the school’s administration, Drukker doesn’t blame the college for the current atmosphere. But others do.

Howard Wohl, president of Tanger Hillel and a 1964 graduate of Brooklyn College, attributes much of the atmosphere to an episode that took place this summer, when the college instructed all its incoming students to read a controversial book edited by Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at the school. The book — “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America” — is a collection of personal stories by and about seven Arabs from Brooklyn. Critics objected to the assignment, saying that Bayoumi takes up the Palestinian cause in his final chapter and provides a decidedly slanted view.

Recalling the episode earlier this month, Wohl said his greatest concern is that Brooklyn College doesn’t start to resemble “too many other campuses in North America,” where, in his view, anti-Israel rhetoric has morphed into anti-Semitism, and hate speech has blossomed under the guise of academic freedom.

In the meantime, Wohl is convinced that academics at Brooklyn College “tend to be disproportionately left wing” or “politically correct,” as they are on “most campuses,” and such positions often translate into being anti-Israel. And while his view is popular on the right, it is not a view that’s universally shared at Hillel. He also believes that many professors use their classrooms “to advocate rather than educate,” hindering open inquiry and leaving some students feeling intimidated.

Another perspective came from Robert Cherry, a board member of Tanger Hillel and an economics professor at Brooklyn College.

Cherry, who wrote an essay earlier this year criticizing the college’s “common reading” assignment, shares Wohl’s belief in the need for vigilance. But he believes that left-of-center faculty members at the college are more energized by the idea of pervasive Islamaphobia in American society than they are by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither does he believe that their attitude carries over into being anti-Israel.

“I have a more hopeful view of Brooklyn College,” Cherry said. “I’d say we’re not at the point yet of widespread animus toward Israel. … We’re not at the point where we should be fearful that this school will become like other schools where there are widespread condemnations [of the Jewish state] and constant confrontations.”

Discussing the issue recently at Tanger Hillel, a three-story, brick and glass building within yards of the Flatbush campus, two of the organization’s student leaders said they, too, have had no problem with the college’s faculty. Yosef Sobel, 22, an intern at Hillel for the Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition, said one or two of his professors have made comments that “weren’t necessarily friendly” to Israel, but they may have been “playing devil’s advocate” simply to spark a discussion. Avigayil Talerman, 21, president of Hillel’s Israel Club, said she’s never heard anti-Israel rhetoric in any of her classes.

A spokesman for the college also said, “The notion that there is an anti-Israel atmosphere at Brooklyn College is without merit.”

Talerman also spoke of Hillel’s cordial relations with the college’s Islamic Society, and how members of that group have attended many of Hillel’s events — an achievement that makes her even more disappointed by the chilly reception from the Palestinian Club.

“We hold an anti-normalization stance on dialogue,” said Eeman Abuasi, 21, a co-founder of the Palestinian Club who grew up in Brooklyn, east Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. “We don’t favor a dialogue with them because [we’re] not on the same political, social and economic level as them. You have one that’s an occupier and one that’s occupied.”

An opponent of a two-state solution, Abuasi also had a ready answer when a reporter noted that her club is in Brooklyn, not the West Bank, and that her fellow students are Jews belonging to Hillel, not occupiers.

“These are people who are Zionist or pro-Zionist, and any dialogue we have is bound to be political,” Abuasi said. She added that she has “no problem talking to [individual] Jewish students. We see them on campus all the time; they’re in my classes, and we do talk.”

Discussing her organization’s mock checkpoint, a guerrilla-theater tactic used at Columbia University last month and at other campuses around the nation, Abuasi dismissed suggestions from Hillel students that her club was distorting reality.

“I don’t want to sound mean or anything, but how would they know what the norm is” on the West Bank, she said. A scenes of Palestinians detained at checkpoints and forced to kneel “is not something I’ve seen once in a blue moon. It’s something I’ve seen frequently.”

As charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become, especially on college campuses, Jews and Palestinians at other schools have come together to sponsor joint events and engage in dialogue, sometimes through Hillel and sometimes through organizations like J Street.

“You’ve got both models out there — confrontation and cooperation,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington-based organization that favors two states for two peoples. “It’s crucial for pro-Palestinian activists to be pro-Palestinian rather than anti-Israel,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Club’s activities led to a heated debate at Tanger Hillel, where about 40 students decided that the proper response wasn’t to adopt the same guerilla-theater tactics, mock blood and all, but to educate their peers about Israeli democracy and its desire for peace. One fruit of that decision came last week, when the Israel Club staffed a table on campus with the college’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Alliance, handing out flyers that noted the rights of gays and lesbians in Israel. The event is the first of many that the Israel Club hopes to organize with other groups on campus, Talerman said.

Wohl sees the current situation on campus as an opportunity for Hillel to educate its own students, as well as others, rather than respond to hard-core rhetoric with more of the same. The response also has to be tailored toward a changing student body, which is much more globally diverse than in the past, he said.

Cherry agrees, but said the education needs to be thoughtful and reflective. Otherwise, he believes, the situation could become so confrontational that both sides would fall back on “talking points,” with the Jewish students quoting Alan Dershowitz and the Palestinian students citing Norman Finkelstein. Neither side would examine its own failings, Cherry said, “and you’d have a proxy debate between Dershowitz and Finkelstein.”

Last Update:

02/28/2012 - 11:50

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The fnmadneutal stumbling block of course is this ideal The 22 countries of the Arab World must participate in this process and be willing to absorb some of the Palestinians and contribute to resettlement costs.It's amazing that there's money for everything but this. Outside of USA and parts of Europe, humans and human rights are sublimated. The Arab World cares less for the Palestinians than the recognized citizens of each Arab country. And they don't give much a damn for their citizens. So what is their benefit to pay for the Palestinians when it's really considered Israel's problem. And Israel is that one country that's preventing the Arab empire from stretching out further.The Arab World would rather relocate Israel to some other part of the globe. That's worth a considerable investment. And, for over 50 years, the AW has been doing just that. After all, in an Islamic reality, who cares about Jewish sovereignty?So the only fourth way is for people to live together in peace and harmony despite different religions, cultures, perspectives, and goals. There's no evidence in human history that supports this. It's a revolutionary idea that sort of derived from Thomas Jefferson (and even then frought with compromises for dissenters). So, unfortunately, a 4th way that predicates mutually supportive initiatives from the Arab World is basically what we've had before infinite breaths of hot air.Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza and West Bank is the only plausible solution. Disunity among Palestinians will eventually erode their society to near extinction for there are no valuable resources for them there. It'll take a few generations, perhaps and lots of patience. Israel must remain strong and vigilant throughout that time. And that's more credible than constantly dealing with Palestinian conflict within Israel's borders. Let the Palestinians fight among themselves in their own home.

Fight theater with theater. Yes, Palestinians, from whose ranks many terrorists have come, have to go through checkpoints when entering Israel and at other locations in Judea and Samaria. The Jewish associations on campus should re-enact a checkpoint of a different type. They should show what everyone, including Jews, has to go through in Israel in the name of security. At bus stations, supermarkets, and even colleges, everybody passes through a checkpoint, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Observant and secular Jews, tourists and Arabs, regardless of their attire, are subject to questioning and search. Israeli security forces know that a terrorist acting on behalf of the Palestinians, or any other anti-Israel entity, can be of any ethnicity or dress in any fashion.
Hmm...an anti-Zionist Palestinian Club at Brooklyn College is cause for near hysteria, while the Zionist Hillel is just fabulous. Hypocritical much?
i hope the fbi was taking names and pictures there is no such thing as a moderate muslim
Its about time that there were a Palestinian Club on campus, considering there are so many Palestinian exiles and refugees around the world especially here in Brooklyn. Moreover, the issue of Palestine is an issue that is dear to many people of conscience that can't stand to see such a grave injustice being committed right before there very eyes. The Jews of Europe were promised Arab land by the British imperialists that was not theres to give. The images from Israel's latest attacks last winter are hard to erase. No matter how much Hilell preaches Israeli democracy all I can see are the bodies of three baby girls wrapped in white sheets and white phospherous raining down on a basketball court of a UN school. The crimes are just too loud to silence or in this case erase with so called Israeli democracy. I can't believe the students at Hillel can be that deranged that they are willing to actively deny those crimes and the long suffering of Palestinians. We live in an age where one can't simply cry ignorance. The images are there and the first hand footage is there, unless Israel's propaganda machine hasn't pulled them off of Youtube.
Its about time that there were a Palestinian Club on campus, considering there are so many Palestinian exiles and refugees around the world especially here in Brooklyn. Moreover, the issue of Palestine is an issue that is dear to many people of conscience that can't stand to see such a grave injustice being committed right before there very eyes. The Jews of Europe were promised Arab land by the British imperialists that was not theres to give. The images from Israel's latest attacks last winter are hard to erase. No matter how much Hilell preaches Israeli democracy all I can see are the bodies of three baby girls wrapped in white sheets and white phospherous raining down on a basketball court of a UN school. The crimes are just too loud to silence or in this case erase with so called Israeli democracy. I can't believe the students at Hillel can be that deranged that they are willing to actively deny those crimes and the long suffering of Palestinians. We live in an age where one can't simply cry ignorance. The images are there and the first hand footage is there, unless Israel's propaganda machine hasn't pulled them off of Youtube.
This is such a pathetic attempt to make yourselves the victims once again. Im glad that you pointed out that more and more people are realizing Israel's lies; it means people are opening up their eyes to the truth and that the zionists don't have all the control as they used to. And PLEASE stop associating anti-zionism with anti-semitism; Islam preaches love and respect for all religions. No one in the Palestinian club is anti-semetic and we're actually very much against that. Zionist terrorists on the other hand don't deserve that courtesy.
your coverage gives this event wide publicity and success. The Palestinian club should thank you for spreading the message. Without coverage probably very few human beings on Brooklyn College, let alone the world, would have noticed the event or even if they had, might not have connected it with Israel. Well done . and whose side are you on???
I really wish that people who are Jewish-American or Arab-American would act like Americans and leave the other part back where they come from. Keeping traditions and harboring feelings for one's ancestral or spritual homeland is understandable, but if you want to be an ultra-Zionist, you belong in Tel Aviv, not Brooklyn; and if you still consider yourself a "Palestinian" and not an American, you belong in Ramallah, not Brooklyn. I am Jewish. I am not particularly Zionist in my belief structure, but love the Land of Israel, and I see no reason why even there, people should not live in peace. As an American, I am sick of your mutual hatred and mistrust for each other and I wish you would leave it out of my country. A little truth on both sides would be of tremendous benefit. Israeli demonization of Arabs must stop, and so must Islamic attempts to de-legitimize the Jewish people's history and religious attachment to the Holy Land. My sole Palestinian-American friend (who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn) recently returned from a family visit (they live on the West Bank) and told me that while the checkpoints and other Israeli security measures are certainly an inconvenience, they nowhere resemble the "brutality" that the left-wing media, especially in Europe, describes. I asked him if he would ever say that out loud to his Arab buddies in Bensonhurst, and he said "Are you crazy? They'd beat the daylights out of me." I work for a Jewish institution where I am somewhat unpopular because I frequently get into discussions in which I state my view that while the Jewish people may have a Divine right to the Land of Israel according to our religious tradition once the Messiah will have arrived, taking over already-inhabited spaces was and continues to be wrong, and that the Arabs who were displaced need to be compensated. The State of Israel does indeed exist, and its citizens need to be protected, but all human beings need to be shown respect and sensitivity. Security is a major concern, but it can be handled in a respectful manner.
When you say: '...but if you want to be an ultra-Zionist, you belong in Tel Aviv, not Brooklyn' are you recommending the Hasidic population all abandon the Brooklyn ship? When you criticize 'Y' for claiming that he was a "Palestinian", do you not find it odd that in the next sentence you define yourself as 'Jewish'? And what does 'not particularly Zionist' amount to, kind of like being 'moderately lethal'? Do you see any reason why the people in Brooklyn should not live in peace? That's rhetorical. We are all sick of neurotic half-baked thoughts! I too was born a New York Jew, and let's face it...it isn't easy to evolve out of. I would recommend a few years living in Cambodia so that you can see beyond the eternal box, i.e., they really couldn't care less what religion you are over there. As for: 'As an American, I am sick of your mutual hatred and mistrust for each other and I wish you would leave it out of my country,' who could argue with that. But if you live in Brooklyn, you can't tell me that you trust more than half the people you pass on the street on any given day. So, what exactly is the point? And then there's: 'A little truth on both sides would be of tremendous benefit. Israeli demonization of Arabs must stop, and so must Islamic attempts to de-legitimize the Jewish people's history and religious attachment to the Holy Land.' Brilliant. That leaves the Israeli power structure intact and provides the standard American 'brainless' confirmation. Palestinians don't want merely an end to demonization...and you say nothing about the legitimacy of Palestinian history. Get real, friend. As for your "sole Palestinian-American friend," one suspects that a US resident -- i.e., a Palestinian -- who seemingly is allowed to pass through Israeli barriers and airport counters at will would hardly qualify as common. Perhaps this individual even has relationships with the Israelis and his job is to talk to New York Jews! Israel is a client of 'your country'...and 'your country' is about to start another war with North Korea, even as we speak. That's more than just hyperbole, folks. It's nice that you argue with your co-workers, at least. We Jews just love to argue with each other, don't we? Don't be a 'shanda fur der goyim', whatever you do.

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