Members of New York’s City Council sent a letter to the president of Brooklyn College last week, denouncing the college’s political science department for co-sponsoring a speaking event with supporters of the BDS movement, which stands for ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ against Israel. The council members’ criticisms were backed by a threat to withdraw funding to the college (which it has the power to do, as Brooklyn College is part of the state City University of New York, or CUNY, system).
The officials’ letter caused an uproar, and various individuals proceeded to speak out for and against Brooklyn College’s decision to host two BDS speakers - Omar Barghouti, a BDS leader, and Judith Butler, an academic who supports BDS. A slanging match broke out, with each side ratching up the rhetoric: Alan Maisel, a state assemblyman, said the event would represent a ‘second Holocaust’ if the college endorsed it, while the supporters of the poli-sci department referred to opponents’ ‘smear tactics and campaign of intimidation’.
In response, the college’s president, Karen Gould, asserted its right to hold the event on the grounds of academic freedom. A New York Times editorial came out against the council members, and then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a robust attack on government interference in the academy:
‘Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS, as they call it… As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kinds of topics are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.’
One by one, council members started to withdraw their opposition, and the storm subsided. The BDS debate went ahead on Thursday night, without any major hitches.
The calls from government officials to pressure Brooklyn College to cancel the event were clearly wrong, and a violation of free speech. The BDS group’s specific views do not matter in this respect: even though some people may find the views offensive, BDS should be free to air them, and a college should be free to invite it to do so. As Bloomberg noted, the freedom to discuss issues - including controversial opinions held by a minority of people - is at the heart of academic life. CUNY should not have been put under pressure, and there should be complete academic freedom in this regard.
The opposition to the BDS speaking event amounted to a very heavy-handed and clumsy attempt by a relatively small number of politicians to interfere with a college campus event. It was widely recognised as such, and the would-be pro-Israel censors never gained much wider public support. In the event, their hyped-up opposition backfired on them, as the furore ended up giving BDS more publicity than it would have otherwise received.
However, amid all of the poses struck in defence of academic freedom last week, what was less recognised and commented on was the fact that BDS itself is thoroughly censorious. There was an irony that went right over the heads of the supporters of the event: they were fighting a free-speech campaign in favour of a group that is completely against free speech.
As part of its ‘boycott’ campaign, BDS seeks to prevent Israeli academics from speaking and collaborating with other academics outside Israel. Similarly, it opposes Israeli artists from performing in the US and other places outside Israel, and calls on Western artists to not perform in Israel. In other words, if they had their way, BDS and its supporters would prevent Israeli academics and artists from engaging with us.
There are many cases where Israeli politicians, military figures and other representatives have been shouted down at speaking events across the US (as well as in other countries, especially the UK) in recent years. In a well-publicised case, students at the University of California, Irvine orchestrated disruptions of a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, in 2010. This disruption was supported by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), a group that has received endorsements from over 800 academics across the US. In his authoritative book on censorship on American campuses, Unlearning Liberty, Greg Lukianoff describes the scene in Irvine that day:
‘UC Irvine officials repeatedly came up and explained that this behaviour was against the university’s policies, that it was an attempt to disrupt a speech, and that students who continued would be punished. The students did continue, however, culminating in the ambassador having to stop the speech and return later, once again to be met with repeated attempts to shout him down. The group, somewhat ironically, finally staged a mass exit before the question-and-answer period – the time when students could have challenged Oren directly.’
This act of disruption was indicative of how supporters of BDS operate today. First, they do not wish to listen to or engage in debate – as evidenced by the unwillingness to ask questions. USACBI called on its supporters to send a message to the university’s administrators: ‘It is not the mission of the UC (University of California) system to provide an uncritical venue for the ambassador of Israel to spread his political message.’ But it was not an uncritical venue – even though the disruptive students were trying to make it so.
Next, BDS often claims that it is a victim, that its free-speech rights have somehow been infringed, as it did following the Irvine incident. But as Lukianoff notes: ‘This was an orchestrated act of civil disobedience that was hostile to the value of free and open discourse, not supportive of it… Too many students seem to believe they have a free-speech right to take over or in some cases completely shut down speech they dislike.’
BDS would make the academic world a complete no-speech zone when it comes to Israelis. Omar Barghouti is co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and one of the leading campaigners to deny free speech for Israeli academics, who, in his words, are ‘complicit’ with ‘a system of oppression’ in Israel. Along with his co-author, Lisa Taraki, he has written dismissively about academic freedom for Israeli academics:
‘We think that the freedom that Israeli academics appear keen to preserve is the freedom to continue being scholars - that is, to have an uninterrupted flow of research funds, to continue to get grants to be released from teaching, to take sabbaticals, to continue to be able to write, engage in scholarly debate, and to do all the things respectable academics are supposed to do. But can they or should they be able to enjoy these freedoms (which sound more like privileges to us) without any regard to what is going on outside of the walls of the academy, to the role of their institutions in the perpetuation of colonial rule?’
In fact, Barghouti has been explicit in stating that Israeli academics should be denied the normal rights that other academics enjoy. When the American Association of University Professors adopted a stance against academic boycotts, Barghouti responded by writing: ‘When scholars neglect or otherwise abandon said obligations, they thereby forfeit their right to exercise academic freedom.’
The American arm of BDS, USACBI, is equally explicit about denying academics the right to collaborate with Israeli academics. Historically, the exchange of ideas has led to intellectual progress and social benefits – but USACBI is having none of that when it comes to Israel: ‘Ultimately, the exchange of ideas does not necessarily make a difference that results in a more humane world or more humane outlooks.’ It adds: ‘All academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalising Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.’ The BDS campaign would prefer to delegitimise those who support Israel and its policies, because then it wouldn’t have to marshal arguments and persuade people.
As in academia, BDS also tries to shut down cultural expressions in other venues. Performances by Israeli groups are regularly targeted by BDS protesters. Batsheva, the Israeli dance troupe, encountered such protests last year in the US. A sympathetic report painted the picture: ‘Calling on attendees to boycott Batsheva due to its complicity with Israeli human rights violations, activists sang, chanted, played music, and danced. Parodying a piece of Batsheva’s newest show, Hora, Adalah-NY was joined by the Columbia University Palestinian Dabke Brigades and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra in a costumed Star Wars-themed dance representing the struggle between good and evil…’ Noise from the protesters delayed the performance.
Some might think that dancers have little to do with Israeli government policy, or politics generally. But according to BDS protesters, this dance troupe needs to adopt political positions and ‘take a stand against the human rights violations being perpetuated by its government’. Barghouti justifies the targeting of Batsheva on the basis that the troupe operates at ‘an even deeper level of complicity. Those same dancers are part-time occupation soldiers… killing children and letting pregnant women die at checkpoints.’
The claim that Israeli academics and artists are ‘complicit’ is bogus. Academia and culture should be arenas to discuss issues, not shut them down due to disagreement. Israeli academics and artists are not responsible for their government’s policies. There is a double standard at work here. Would you require American institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health and the New York Philharmonic, to produce political statements, say to denounce American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course not.
Indeed, the identification of Israel as uniquely wicked is deeply problematic. Why not boycott other countries - the US, perhaps, which is a far bigger power player in the Middle East than Israel? ‘The situation is different’ in the US, says USACBI, because ‘millions of US citizens vigorously protested US militarism in the Middle East’, which ‘contributed to the election of Obama’. Oh, I see; you mean the same Obama who continued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who engaged in new warfare in Libya, and whose regime has massively increased drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing thousands, including civilians?
‘We’re witnessing the rise of a new McCarthyism in this country led by Israel, its lobby groups and defenders of the denial of basic Palestinian rights’, said Barghouti last week. Certainly, the New York City Council played right into that view when it sought to have the BDS event cancelled. But BDS shouldn’t be allowed to get away with crying ‘McCarthyism’ when it faces opposition, given that it pursues its own blacklisting of an entire country’s academics and artists. (And the claim made by some BDS representatives that the academic boycott is aimed at institutions not individuals is pure semantics – institutions are made up of individuals, and opposing the ‘institutions’ means individuals become blacklisted.)
The true academic freedom lesson that arises from last week’s dispute over BDS is not just ‘defend CUNY’ but also ‘no to BDS-style censorship’. The latter task is arguably more important today, because far fewer people recognise the boycott campaign as problematic. Boycotting Israel is seen as radical and progressive, rather than being seen as censorious and anti-free speech as it thoroughly is.
Those who are serious about academic and artistic freedom should oppose both formal threats of censure from government bodies and informal campaigns that are waged against academics and artists.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.