Podcast: Brooklyn College BDS event “a victory” for free speech, academic freedom and Palestine solidarity movement

If you are experiencing problems playing this podcast from the above media player, right-click (PC) or control-click (Mac) the file link (in blue), download and play in your computer’s media player, such as iTunes.

Palestinians in Nablus lead a protest against Israeli products and goods produced in Israeli settlements, 7 February. 


Nedal Eshtayah APA images

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript: Alex Kane of Mondoweiss and Alternet, 8 February 2013

The Electronic Intifada: First off, let’s talk about the actual event that happened on Thursday night, with Omar Barghouti of PACBI and Dr. Judith Butler, a philosopher and educator and longtime advocate of human rights and civil rights. Set the scene for us inside and outside the event, talk about what the speakers said and how they were received by the audience.

Alex Kane: Well, the event really went off without any problems. I arrived on the early side, around 5:30, and there was already a pretty heavy police presence there. They were expecting some counter-protesters across the street, and there was barricades set up, and there was a pretty long line, even that early. The event didn’t start until 6:30 or 7, and there were people lining up. So obviously all the controversy really caused a lot of people to pay attention and want to come out to see what Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler had to say.

Before the event actually happened, I checked out the small counter-protest that was called by pro-Israel groups, it seemed like there were students from Hillel there, there was also Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who I spoke to briefly about his opposition to the event, but they were very small in number, there were only about 30-40 of them there. And once the event started, it was really powerful, and striking.

I think the majority of people there were already supporters of Palestinian rights and the boycott movement, but there were certainly some students there who were just going to learn about it, and I think they got a really great distillation of what the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is all about, and it was — all you had to do was listen to Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler talk about why it was important to be involved with this movement, and it was a powerful refutation of this charge that these are anti-Semitic hatemongers. They both gave very calm, reasoned presentations, emphasizing that BDS is rooted in international law.

Judith Butler did a fantastic job in refuting the anti-Semitism charge, as did Omar Barghouti. It was great, and the question and answer session was also interesting, there were a few questions that were critical of Barghouti and Butler, but in general the questioners were also friendly to Barghouti and Butler, and Barghouti got a lot of applause when he was speaking.

In general, it was a fantastic event and a real big victory for free speech, for academic freedom, and for the movement for Palestinian freedom.

EI: Alex, let’s talk about the lead-up to the event, and what Alan Dershowitz had to do with it, and how a group of so-called progressive politicians joined hands with the anti-Palestinian, anti-BDS crowd, including Dov Hikind, who was a member of the Jewish Defense League — an group that has been deemed an actual terrorist organization, as well as a violent, extremist group by the FBI?

AK: Yeah, that’s right. So it appears that it was Alan Dershowitz that at first — he fired the first shot in the campaign. He wrote a New York Daily News op-ed, and the Daily News themselves had an editorial, and they’re owned by Mort Zuckerman, who’s a real ardent right-wing Zionist. And Dershowitz … most of the politicians including Dershowitz and Hikind, and the progressives, they all said that the event should be able to go on but the real problem was the Political Science department’s decision to co-sponsor it, which they claimed connoted endorsement — which the Political Science department said that, well, that’s actually a conflation of the two terms, they’re different.

So Dershowitz fired the first shot, then there was sort of a torrent of calls to either shut down the event or rescind the Political Science department’s co-sponsorship of it, and both Dershowitz and Hilkind labeled the boycott movement “anti-Semitic” and “hateful.” The thing about Dershowitz is that his hypocrisy is exposed in this — because he himself had spoken against the University of Pennsylvania BDS conference last year, and his talk was sponsored by the UPenn Political Science department. So he really had no legs to stand on.

And Hikind was another one who had no legs to stand on. As you said, he is an avowed former member of the Jewish Defense League — former, because the group has sort of fizzled out — but he told me last night that he was proud of his time with the Jewish Defense League, although he sort of dodged my questions to him about how can he oppose say, Hamas and Hizballah, but be a follower of Meir Kahane and also a member of the Jewish Defense League which, as you said, was linked to violent attacks.

And then as for the progressives, they also, in their first letter — this was a letter organized by Jerold Nadler, he’s from New York City, a member of the House of Representatives — him and three other congressional members as well as members of the New York City council’s progressive caucus, signed onto a letter that demanded that the Political Science department withdraw their co-sponsorship. And this was yet another example of progressives — except on the issue of Palestine — weighing in on this issue. And it’s really only because, I believe, it was really all about political gain to them. And pandering to the Israel lobby groups in the City.

They know that the Israel lobby’s center of powers is in New York, and they thought that it was a good idea to demand the Political Science department withdraw. There was a whole lot of outrage directed at these progressives. And they actually came out with a second letter, two days ago, that — well, it was pretty weasley, and it was equivocal, and they backed off their demand to the Political Science department to withdraw its co-sponsorship.

So across the political spectrum, you have politicians pressuring the school either to cancel it, which was another letter from Councilman Lew Fidler, which maybe we can get to talk about that a little bit later, which also included threats of funding … Everyone from Dov Hikind, who’s on the far-right — although he’s a Democrat, he’s on the far-right end of the spectrum — to Councilman Brad Lander. He’s a progressive on most issues, he has spoken out against the New York police department’s surveillance of Muslims, but he signed his name to the letter. And it really demonstrates how our politics are so busted on this issue.

EI: As you said, Lew Fidler wrote that letter that threatened to cut funding to the college if the event was allowed to proceed. What does this say about the nature of not what’s just happening at Brooklyn College right now, but the nature of intimidation and threats and attacks, of criminalization of dissent and criticism of Israeli policy on college campuses across the US? You and I have both done extensive reporting on what’s happening at the University of California system, for example. So talk about the larger battles at hand here, and what this Brooklyn College debacle looks like in the context of the ongoing fight for free speech and student organizing for Palestine on campus.

AK: Right. Well, this was, as you said, just the latest battle in a raging war, I guess you could call it, on free speech, academic freedom, and student organizing for Palestinian rights. The Lew Fidler letter was perhaps the clearest example of how legislators are smearing student activists as “anti-Semites,” as “hatemongers,” and threatening the well-being of their schools.

And I think that this is a phenomenon that is particular to public universities. Private universities, while they may have donor pressure, legislators have no role in how they’re funded — but when it comes to public universities like Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York system, as well as the University of California, you often have these legislators who feel that because they’re responsible for the funding, that they are able to dictate what gets said and what doesn’t get said.

And that’s really dangerous to academic freedom. In the University of California, as you mentioned, there’s been a number of efforts to also suppress criticism of Israel on campus — this is largely in response to the success of the Students for Justice in Palestine organization, and their push for divestment in California. And there’s this bill, HR-35, as we’ve both reported on, that basically smears student activists as “anti-Semites,” supporters of terrorism, and so on. And it’s really one and the same battle.

The Lew Fidler letter and the California legislators weighing in on this — they’re really on the same side. And it’s all about suppressing criticism of Israel on campus. And they’re suppressing criticism of Israel on campus because they know that college students, college campuses are where these battles are taking place, and where activists are making the most inroads. With the Berkeley divestment battle, that was ultimately unsuccessful, it really brought a lot of attention to their divestment issue. We have the current UC Irvine process, to try to get their school to divest from companies complicit in Israeli apartheid.

So, it’s one and the same battle. and it’s something that is going to continue. The University of California arguably has been going on even longer than other [issues]. And you had a series of things like the Campus Climate report, and the Title VI civil rights claims filed against schools for supposedly allowing an anti-Semitic environment to flourish, although those claims are largely about Palestine solidarity organizing and not about real anti-Semitism. It’s really one and the same battle.

You can follow Alex Kane on Twitter at @alexbkane.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).