Angry Demonstrators Gather at Brooklyn College to Protest BDS Event - The Jewish Voice
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Angry Demonstrators Gather at Brooklyn College to Protest BDS Event

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Pro-Israel supporter expresses his views at demonstration against BDS forum at Brooklyn CollegeChants of “Am Yisrael Chai” could be heard outside the Student Union building at Brooklyn College on Thursday evening, February 7, as pro-Israel students from the campus’ Hillel chapter defied the sub-freezing temperatures to stage a demonstration against the controversial BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)of Israel forum taking place inside the building. The polemical forum has dominated the local headlines in the last few weeks, as both Brooklyn College and its political science department had sponsored the event; giving the impression that the views expressed by the speakers had the college’s tacit approval.

The organizers of the forum; a group known as “Students for Justice in Palestine” arranged for both Omar Barghouti, (a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and Professor of Philosophy Judith Butler of the University of California, (who holds a prominent position in the Western academy as an anti-Israel agitator) to be the featured speakers.

In the last few weeks, the event has prompted rigorous debates on the subject first amendment rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom and the amorphous line between protected speech and hate speech.

“Hillel seeks to promote a positive and constructive environment on campus,” said Nadya Drukker, executive director of Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College, who was joined by over 80 members of the BC Hillel chapter at the demonstration. “We believe in dialogue and have demonstrated numerous times that fostering a civil environment on campus is a constructive way to achieve our goals,” she added, but noted that students on campus view the sponsorship of the political science department as inimical to academic integrity. “This makes us ponder the question; is the perspective that Israel should be boycotted, sanctioned and divested from, the prevailing attitude amongst professors of the political science department and is this view being taught to students in their curriculum,” queried Andrew Greenstein, a sociology major and member of the BC Hillel who attended the demonstration.

Howard Wohl, an alumnus of Brooklyn, and a board member of the Brooklyn College Foundation said, “There’s a huge difference between supporting free speech and supporting hate speech,” He expressed his fear for the reputation of Brooklyn College by saying, “It appears that, rather than present the facts and both sides of an issue, this department has an ‘agenda’ that supports BDS. Two years ago this department hired a supposed Middle East scholar, who has applauded terrorism directed against Jews, to present a one-sided course favoring the Palestinian position. Ironically, they have invited BDS, an organization that opposes academic freedom under the guise of academic freedom. It seems this department lacks academic integrity.”

Wohl’s comments struck a chord amongst the bevy of journalists gathered to cover the event. They were told by the event’s organizers that all press were banned from entering the building and providing first-hand coverage of the proceedings. “I find this to be the height of hypocrisy. This event would not have been possible with the guidelines set for academic freedom, but they are denying the press to their first amendment rights. I just wonder what is being said inside the student union building that they don’t want the world to hear,” said independent journalist Andrea Marks.

According to letter sent to the BC Hillel by Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould, she said, “As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally… We deeply value our Israeli partners and would not endorse any action that would imperil the State of Israel or its citizens, many of whom are the family relations and friends of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and surrounding community members.”

Also on hand at the demonstration was New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who only a week earlier held a press conference at Brooklyn College condemning both the college’s and political science department’s sponsorship of the BDS forum. He then said, “This isn’t an issue of freedom of speech. This isn’t about having a dialogue. This is about the City University of New York, which uses public funds, officially sponsoring speakers who call for the annihilation of the State of Israel; speakers who praise Hamas and Hezbollah.”

“I am appalled by the college coming out in support of a vicious, hateful group, plain and simple,” declared Hikind at the demonstration. “The issue is very simple: the sponsorship is inappropriate. I would also say that the head of the political science department is a real coward for not explaining his position and running from questions about this event,” Hikind added.

Holding aloft signs saying, “Omar Barghouti Attended Tel Aviv University, Now He Calls for a Boycott”, “Hate Speech is Not Rational Speech” and “Don’t Invite Speakers Who Oppose Real Dialogue”, the pro-Israel protestors chanted, “We Support Israel” and “The people of Israel live.”

Only several feet away stood the anti-Israel contingent of demonstrators, including members of Neturei Karta, the vehemently anti-Zionist Chareidi organization, who chanted, “Down down Israel”, and Judaism is Against Zionism” while holding signs that excoriated the existence of a modern Jewish state. Joining them were a small group representing the International Socialist Workers Party who decried the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and called it a racist entity. Jeffrey McClain, a member of the Socialist group said, “We are calling for a one state solution in the Middle East and that means neither a Jewish or Muslim state but a bi-national democracy, where all people can live freely.”

As the BDS forum against Israel came to a conclusion, it was reported that four Jewish students from Brooklyn College who had attended the event with the intention of presenting challenging questions and distributing leaflets offering an opposing position were forcibly ejected.

In a statement issued to the media, Assemblyman Hikind has asked Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate the removal of the students on the grounds of possible civil rights violations.

“All four students had reserved seating for the event,” said Assemblyman Hikind in a letter to the Attorney General. “The students were sitting quietly as the first speaker addressed the audience. In their laps were leaflets that contained opposing points of view. They were approached by an event organizer who demanded their papers and when they refused to surrender their property, they were manhandled out of the room by campus security.

“This is a civil rights violation. The physical, forcible removal of these four students from this event specifically violates Brooklyn College’s non-discrimination policy, which states that students will not be excluded from participation in the programs of the college because of national or ethnic origin, or religion.”

Although Brooklyn College has said that it will investigate the matter, Assemblyman Hikind believes an independent investigation by the Attorney General’s office is necessary. “We need to ensure that all students’ freedom of speech remains unhampered at Brooklyn College, and not just the free speech of students belonging to select groups.”

23-year old Ari Ziegler, a CUNY graduate student studying experimental psychology said, “I heard probably about half of what Judith Butler said when I got kicked out. CUNY police escorted us out and when we asked them what we did wrong they said, ‘we don´t have an answer.’ It’s disappointing because they had said that it was a forum for asking tough questions and trying to understand.”

According to published reports, Brooklyn College´s Vice President Milga Morales, who was standing nearby, saw the incident, but did not intercede.

“I was escorted out for nothing more than the fact that I was holding a paper that would help me assess my decision on my feelings over BDS,” said Michael Ziegler, a senior at Brooklyn College.

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