Department of Excuses: BDS at Brooklyn College

By Jonathan Marks
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

BDS—the “boycott, divestment, sanctions” movement—styles itself a “global movement against Israeli apartheid.”  The group promotes economic sanctions against Israeli businesses, cultural institutions, and universities in the name of what it calls Palestinian equality.  According to BDS founding member Omar Bhargouti, such equality requires at least three things: “ending Israel’s 1967 occupation and colonization, ending Israel’s system of racial discrimination, and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed.”  As others have noted, the third goal is a veiled demand for an end to Israel. 

Last Thursday, Brooklyn College hosted a discussion of the BDS movement by a panel consisting of Bhargouti and Judith Butler, a Berkeley philosophy professor and BDS supporter.  It was co-sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine—and the Brooklyn College political science department.  New York elected officials called for the event’s cancelation or withdrawal of school or department sponsorship.  But the professors stood firm, backed by not only Brooklyn College President Karen Gould but New York City Mayor Bloomberg, who defended “an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic.” 

In fact, few of the critics questioned the “right” of Brooklyn College or its political science department to sponsor the event.  The question is not the rights but the responsibilities and judgment of the college and the department, neither of which has offered a good defense of the decision to sponsor the BDS panel. 

No one will dispute President Gould’s assertion that “providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country” or that fostering a “spirit of inquiry and critical debate” is part of the mission of an educational institution.  In sponsoring the BDS panel, goes the argument, the political science department was endorsing not BDS but discussion and debate.  The department itself has insisted that it is open to co-sponsoring similar events “representing any point of view.” 

Presumably, however, the department will not lend its name to just any panel at which a view is aired.  If the department’s policy is to sponsor events that foster discussion, what kinds of events foster these goals and, thus, merit its sponsorship?  President Gould’s comments suggest one criterion: an event’s organizers should share and be willing to work toward the goal of fostering open discussion.  This criterion does not demand that more than one view be represented on the stage.  It is enough if the speaker, however committed to a single view, present the argument in a spirit that invites further inquiry.  A presentation sponsored by scholars might also be reasonably expected to adhere to the scholarly view that getting at the truth is more important than defending a political position. 

By the same standard, an academic department should not sponsor organizers and speakers who intend merely to proselytize.  If the faculty decides an event is worth sponsoring even though its organizers and speakers do not seek open discussion, the department should act to ensure that such discussion takes place anyway—by offering students a balanced selection of readings beforehand, arranging a moderated discussion afterward, or sponsoring another speaker with a different perspective.

In applying these standards of sponsorship, there are hard cases—but the BDS event was not one of them. The way the event’s supporters described it demonstrates that it was never intended as an “open forum to discuss important topics.”  “Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine,” the group’s website announced, “presents BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement for Palestinian Rights,” a “strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice” by gathering for a lecture “on the importance of BDS in helping END Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine.”  When Judith Butler finally spoke at the event, she claimed she was not asking “anyone to join a movement.”  But the student sponsors plainly organized the event solely to boost their cause.  There is nothing wrong with that, any more than it is wrong to invite people to a camp meeting for the purpose of converting them; but it is wrong for an academic department to co-sponsor such a meeting.

Glenn Greenwald of the UK Guardian defended the event this way: “Why shouldn't advocates of a movement be able to gather at an event to debate tactics and strategies without having someone there who objects to the movement itself?”  Similarly, when Butler spoke—before she remembered that the event was supposed to be an exercise in “critical judgment” and “democratic debate”—she observed that she had expected it to be a “conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center.” There is nothing wrong with activists getting together to plot strategies for delegitimizing Israel, but it is wrong for an academic department to sponsor such a gathering.

The way the BDS panel’s organizers, defenders, and participants explained the event makes a laughingstock of those who stood up with a straight face and claimed that the decision to sponsor the panel was about fostering a “spirit of inquiry.”  At best, the decision was thoughtless—and that has been the department’s last line of defense.  “We just [expletive] co-sponsored it,” tweeted Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin amid the controversy, as if the act were meaningless—as if it made sense, when presented with a request to sponsor an anti-Zionist recruitment and strategy session, to reach for the department’s rubber stamp.

Others at Brooklyn College know better.  Before the event, as the controversy gathered steam, the school’s faculty overwhelmingly supported resisting the politicians’ attempts to tell it what to do.  But when political science chair Paisley Currah asked other departments to become additional co-sponsors of the event, BC English professor Eric Alterman reports that in an emphatic rebuke to the political science department, no other department agreed to do so.  They understood, as the political science department pretends not to, that sponsorship is a meaningful act.  Alterman goes farther, arguing that progressives have a particular “responsibility to condemn the intellectual masquerade in which BDS engages and the destructive consequences it supports.”  One need not agree with him to conclude that the political science department’s decision, far from being a service to the mission of critical inquiry, was a dereliction of its duty to students and an embarrassment to Brooklyn College.

Jonathan Marks is an Associate Professor of Politics at Ursinus College.

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