Business As Usual

02.07.13

Brooklyn College And The BDS Debate

Given the hysteria recently engendered in the mainstream media, one might have expected the students and faculty of Brooklyn College to be a bit on edge this week. But when I taught my classes Wednesday, I could find no evidence of any controversy at all. As I entered the gates of the school on the way to my office, I passed a lonely table advertising the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) manned by three (presumably freezing) women in traditional Islamic head-coverings, standing alone. When I inquired of my students in two separate classes if anyone had any thoughts or feelings they might wish to share, I got no takers. Everything was business-as-usual.

The argument inspired by the college’s political science department to sponsor a talk organized by the SJP featuring Omar Barghouti, a leader of the movement of “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” against Israel together with its prominent supporter, the left-wing literary theorist, Judith Butler, is really two arguments, and it behooves us to separate the two in order to understand what is at stake. The first and easiest one is debate about free speech. The second, far more complicated one, involves the relationship one takes to BDS and whether to join in the college’s political science department’s decision to sponsor their talk. Naturally, I supported the former. But I no less vociferously opposed the latter.

First question one: “Should the politicians who are partially responsible for funding the college be allowed to censor the speech of its faculty and invited speakers?” Outside of a small, anti-democratic minority, this is not a difficult question. I’m unaware of anyone in a responsible position at the college or the faculty who has questioned the right of the students to invite the BDS speakers, nor the political science department’s right to sponsor the talk. College President Karen Gould endorsed it unequivocally. The CUNY University Faculty Senate did so unanimously. I participated in a spirited email debate in my department (English) in which everyone prefaced their remarks with, at minimum, support for the president’s position. Almost all of us signed a statement re-affirming it. Literally the only remotely academic-associated organization or individual to support the politicians who wish to censor speech at the college—even in the face of threatened budget cuts—anywhere is the tiny right-wing group calling itself “Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.” In the future, they may wish to consider changing their name to “Scholars for Censorship of Views of Which We Do Not Approve.”

The second, far more difficult question raised by the controversy was what should one’s position be with regard to BDS itself, and by extension, the political science department’s decision to lend legitimacy to a talk at which its arguments would be presented without opposition or clarification from its opponents. Because of the base threats made by the likes of a Brooklyn-based politicians like the demagogue state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler, and the semi-supportive position taken of them by the famously argumentative BC alumnus, Alan Dershowitz, many people felt that the content of the BDS platform and the arguments that Barghouti and Butler were less important than the fact of the threats itself. Feeling a degree of heat that it perhaps did not anticipate when the department jumped into the BDS kitchen, political science chair Paisley Currah, sent out an email to all other department chairs asked them to support its decision by joining it as a cosponsor of the evening. That’s when the real debate amongst us began.

History may not repeat itself, but human behavior sure does. Ironically, given the central role that City University (and indeed, Brooklyn College) played in the debates over Communism and in the middle of the previous century, this debate—for BDS opponents—raised many of the same kinds of issues faced by liberal and democratic socialist opponents of the Communist Party and its allies during the McCarthy period. As Daniel Bell explained of their predicament, “What the Communists could have done was say, ‘Yes, I’m a communist, and I will go to jail for my opinions.’ In effect, justify themselves as people having beliefs. But they didn’t. And they were trying to manipulate the situation by scaring the liberals, by saying, ‘You see? We’re under attack, and then you’ll be under attack!’” And the liberals did not know what to do. Issue after issue arose during this period for which liberals had no ready response, given their confusion about principle versus political palatability, coupled with their understandable refusal to appear to be on the side of people who were arguing deceptively on behalf of a cause they found abhorrent, or the naïve idealists they had snookered into embracing their cause. Bell’s friend and ally Nathan Glazer admitted decades later, "we never managed to figure out a good position. By good I mean not one that was politically defensible but that was respectable and moral and responsive to all the complicated issues raised. And I still don’t think we have one.”

As with liberals and leftists of almost all stripes in the McCarthy era, there is no question that supporters of the cause justice for the Palestinians frequently find themselves under attack in America’s political debate. Employing tactics directly analogous to those of McCarthy and his allies, neoconservatives in the media and the leaders of conservative Jewish organizations—which is most of them, alas—routinely accuse honest critics of Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians under occupation and (contemporary) refusal to engage in genuine peace talks with its leaders as akin to anti-Semitism, thereby hoping to delegitimize their views. And while this tactic grows less effective with each indefensible application of it, it remains an unavoidable fact of life for anyone in America who publicly criticizes Israel. Being Jewish, and calling oneself “pro-Zionist” offers some protection in such matters, but only some. Proponents of Arabic descent or the Muslim religion face a double bind in being heard, as racism is often combined with ideological intolerance as a means of avoiding their arguments. It’s a cliché, but a useful one, to note that comments that are routinely made by Israeli politicians, academics and journalists would get one branded as an anti-Semite if spoken by American of any religion or nationality. (To be fair, the anti-Zionist side is no stranger to personal, poisonous invective either, as the reaction to this essay will no doubt demonstrate.)

As with Communists and liberals in the Bad Old Days, supporters of BDS can sound somewhat like supporters of Israeli peace movement and a two state solution. Again, similarly, they are its opposite. The purpose of the BDS movement, plain and simple, is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. One need not take my word for it. Barghouti, its originator and primary spokesman, is not shy about pointing this out. In a debate in The Nation with yours truly (and Bernard Avishai and Lizzy Ratner), he noted that equal rights for Palestinians must include “at minimum, 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 during the 1948 Nakba.” Tablet Magazine’s Yair Rosenberg quoted him explaining that Israel “was Palestine, and there is no reason why it should not be renamed Palestine.” But as I tried to explain in the Nation’s debate:

…a majority of Israelis consistently tell pollsters that they would prefer a two-state solution to the current occupation and would welcome the opportunity to work out a compromise that would end the occupation and allow Palestinians to fulfill their national aspirations in the context of security guarantees for Israel and a genuine willingness to end hostilities. But they feel themselves to be without a credible partner in the peace process and hence don’t have sufficient confidence in the concept of political and territorial compromise to challenge the scare tactics of their internal political adversaries.

For this pro-peace majority to become politically empowered, Israel’s citizens must be able to trust that the Palestinians with whom they negotiate are able to enforce the agreements they reach. This is, literally, the only path to genuine Palestinian self-determination. No American president, much less Congress, will ever attempt to force Israel into a peace agreement against its will. Neither would the Europeans, who are actually irrelevant since they lack both the power and the means to do so. Terrorism aside, Palestinians have no credible military option vis-à-vis Israel. Their only hope can come by convincing Jewish Israelis that the risks and benefits of peace outweigh the risks and benefits of continued conflict.

It is true, of course, that Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinian people breeds hatred rather than a desire for cooperation with their oppressors. Even so, it cannot possibly serve the cause of peace and self-determination for the Palestinians for their spokespeople and supporters to demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide. They may think it just. They may think it right. They may think it fair or even ordained by God. But so long as they insist, as Omar Barghouti does, on the achievement of a set of goals that would mean the end of the Zionist project, then they will only strengthen those who seek to keep them in a permanent state of oppression and immiseration as they simultaneously undermine those who would champion their cause.

Barghouti claims that equal rights for Palestinians must include “at minimum, 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 during the 1948 Nakba.” If so, there is really nothing to talk about. Six or seven million Palestinians cannot be reintegrated into Israeli society based merely on arithmetic, much less all of the obvious problems that would arise from the fact that the two populations happen to hate one another. Barghouti’s conditions demand that Israelis voluntarily forfeit their commitment to their history, their national identity and their understanding of Jewish history. He might as well insist that they convert to Scientology in the bargain…. Were Barghouti to ask American Jews to join him in pressuring Israel to come to its senses and negotiate a secure settlement based on the 1967 lines, with necessary adjustments on both sides and some sort symbolic (and perhaps financial) redress for Palestinians without the “right of return,” he might stand a chance of attracting significant support even among American Jews and within the Israeli peace camp. As his plan now stands, it is of a piece with the programs of Hamas and Hezbollah and with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent call for “the destruction of the Zionist regime” by peaceful means.

Now add to all of the above that while BDS enjoys the support of the entire Brooklyn College—indeed, pretty much the entire academic community engaged with the issue—for its right to free speech and free expression in the context of academic freedom, the organization’s position on granting that same right to others is confused at best. To be honest, I cannot really make sense of the arguments as to whether BDS does or does not support the “boycott” of Jewish Israeli academics. But Judith Butler’s position is clearer, as evidenced by her essay “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom.” According to Butler (as I understand her), BDS supports free speech only for those “those who actively oppose the Occupation.” And of course, just what BDS has in mind when it uses the phrase “the Occupation” is another matter, as Barghouti and the website appear to have the entire state of Israel in mind when they use this phrase. As I wrote my colleagues on the topic of Butler’s essay, it is times like this that I find great comfort in re-reading George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." 

Given that BC President Gould’s strong statement settled the issue of academic freedom, together with supporting statements from the faculty senate, the Modern Language Association, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, etc., the only remaining issue facing those of us in the BC academic community was did we wish to heed the political science department’s plea for allies in its decision to sponsor the evening. Again, speaking personally, I wanted no part of this. Just as American democracy was sufficiently robust to resist any challenge that Communism might have posed during the Cold War, the safety and security of the state of Israel is under no threat from a movement whose primary success has been achieved among a few folk singers, food-coops and student political societies. Politicians will always demagogue issues that appeal to their constituencies in front of television cameras. So will the occasional Harvard Law professor. But to allow these loudmouths to influence our judgment as independent intellectuals in either direction is a betrayal of who we are and what we do. Anti-Communist intellectuals in the 1950s had a more difficult decision to face than we do because many of them were forced to risk their careers in support of their principles and to do so on behalf of people whom they knew to be liars—and sometimes even spies. No doubt many if not most of the supporters of BDS are the naïve, idealistic types of people who were attracted to Communism in the thirties, the Black Panthers in the sixtiess, the Nader campaign in 2000 and who knows what will comes next. In certain respects, once upon a time, I was this kind of person myself. But their innocence—and the abuse that results from opposing them—does not excuse our responsibility to condemn the intellectual masquerade in which BDS engages and the destructive consequences it supports.

All of us at Brooklyn College supported BDS’s right to free speech. No departments agreed to join political science in co-sponsoring the talk. Never have I been prouder to be a member of any community, academic or otherwise.