Controversy Heats Up at Brooklyn College over planned “BDS” event - The Jewish Voice
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Controversy Heats Up at Brooklyn College over planned “BDS” event

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Brooklyn College Campus
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Angered at Brooklyn College’s refusal to cancel an upcoming event known as the “BDS Movement Against Israel” forum, that is scheduled to take place on February 7, New York State Assembly members Dov Hikind, Steve Cymbrowitz along with former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson addressed a gathering of students, faculty and press on Thursday morning, January 31, at the Brooklyn College campus. BDS is an acronym for “boycott, divest and sanctions” and is specifically used against Israel for its purported violations of the rights of Palestinians.

Castigating Brooklyn College in the strongest of terms for assuming the role of official co-sponsors of this vehemently anti-Israel lecture along with its political science department, Assemblyman Hikind 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.”

As was reported last week in The Jewish Voice by correspondent Shalom Schreiber, the forum also has the support of a variety of student and community organizations and attendees are encouraged to wage a economic campaign of isolation against Israel.

Featured speakers for the BDS forum include Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Judith Butler, a University of California professor who has expressed her support for campaigns to boycott Israel.

Hikind said that in previous statements Barghouti compared Israelis to Nazis and added that he won’t take a lecture from a “white person”. He added that Judith Butler is an apologist for Hamas and Hezbollah.

According to Brooklyn College spokesman Jeremy Thompson, the event was started by a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. “We have not had any calls for the event to be canceled,” he said. “We have people asking whether it’s appropriate for the political science department to be sponsoring this event.”

The sponsorship “does not signal an endorsement,” he added.”As a university, we are committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We don’t tell student groups or academic departments what topics they can or cannot discuss.”

“I’m not in favor of banning the event, but I’m not in favor of the political science department sponsoring, endorsing the event,” said Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who attended Brooklyn College doing his undergraduate days.

“We remain concerned that co-sponsorship of the event by a department of the College is not consistent with President Gould’s statement of non-endorsement and, in fact, the department’s participation directly contradicts that message,” said Ron Meier, New York Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. “While we are strongly committed to the principles of academic freedom and free speech, and fully understand and respect the right of individual faculty members to associate themselves with and to participate in this scheduled program, we remain troubled by its one sided, anti-Israel nature.”

Many Brooklyn College students are especially upset over the fact that their university’s Political Science Department is sponsoring an event which espouses hatred of the Jewish state and its supporters. “We believe that the department’s sponsorship serves to condone and legitimize anti-Jewish bigotry, and that it will contribute significantly to a hostile environment for Jewish students on our campus,” added a student.

According to media reports, Brooklyn College president Karen Gould has taken heat from staunch opponents of the BDS movement because of her unwillingness to rescind the college’s sponsorship of the event. Assemblyman Hikind said, “I asked President Gould to just withdraw the official support of the political science department because that support is the City University giving its endorsement. Do that and we have no issue. They can go on and have their hateful forum. But President Gould doesn’t get it.”

It was noted by Assemblyman Hikind’s office that he made repeated attempts to contact Paisley Currah, the chairman of the Brooklyn College Political Science Department. Hikind’s staff said that Currah would not accept his calls, nor would he accept calls from other elected officials, prompting Hikind to call Currah “a coward.”

Adding his voice to the growing communal concern, Brooklyn Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz sent a letter to Brooklyn College president Karen Gould and CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein urging them to cancel the forum. “This event is absolutely unacceptable,” Cymbrowitz stated. “It would accomplish nothing more than promote and incite anti-Semitism throughout the campus and beyond.”

On Thursday, January 31, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said in a statement, “I personally abhor and am appalled by the aims of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement”, but rallying behind the call for “free speech” in the name of academic discourse, Mr. Goldstein quoted the words of the late Supreme Court Justice, Louis D. Brandeis, who said, “if there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

The CUNY Chancellor also defended the position taken by BC President Karen Gould by saying that he “strongly supports” her. “Her outstanding leadership of Brooklyn College continues to advance this important institution, and I commend her principled and respectful approach in working with all of the college’s diverse constituencies,” he added.

President Gould has said that a university is a place where “a college community may consider complex issues and points of view across the political and cultural spectrum,” even when “the issues discussed may be challenging and the points of view expressed may be controversial.”

Echoing Gould’s sentiments, Goldstein encouraged participation in the BDS event by declaring, “In order to ensure rigorous and thoughtful discussion and better understanding of issues of social and political justice, it is imperative that many reasoned voices participate in debate. Like all of us in higher education, I support the expression of the full complement of perspectives on critical issues.”

Taking issue with CUNY officials on the matter, Assemblyman Hikind said, “No department or club in Brooklyn College, which boasts a richly diverse student body, has any business sponsoring events on the college campus that serve no useful purpose but to promulgate anti-Semitism.”

In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice, Helen Freedman, Executive Director of Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI), expressed her feelings about the emotionally charged event that is now steeped in polemics. “As a Brooklyn College graduate myself, I was offended to learn that not only was a part of the student body promoting such a hate-filled event,” she stated, “but the college’s Political Science department is co-sponsoring it. This means that taxpayer funds – which support Brooklyn College – are being used to pay for this anti-Israel forum.”

Freedman informed the Jewish Voice that she called Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and explained to him how the February 7 gathering will be filled with lies about Israel and will only serve to pollute the Brooklyn College students’ minds. “His main response to me was that he really could not do anything to prevent the forum from taking place, because ‘academic freedom’ gives them the right to present it,” she said.

Noting that she also contacted Karen Gould and the vice-president of the school’s alumni association, Freedman said that she has e-mailed the members of AFSI; exhorting them to deluge Brooklyn College officials with letters of protest. “We’re hoping to create enough noise to convince the university leadership to cancel the forum,” she emphasized.

Remarking that this is the first time she can recall that Brooklyn College actually co-sponsored an event of such an offensive nature, Freedman asked, “How can President Gould accept such a situation?” The feisty pro-Israel activist also voiced her concern about the intensity of emotion that tends to epitomize these types of gatherings. “When AFSI demonstrated a while ago against a similar anti-Israel ‘hatefest’ at Columbia University,” she recalled, “the event’s participants had a vicious response to us when they came outside – they came right up to our faces and tried to provoke us into physically pushing them away. It was quite an ugly confrontation.”

Others attending the Thursday morning press conference condemning Brooklyn College’s sponsorship of the BDS event were NYS Senator Eric Adams, NYS Senator John Sampson, NYS Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs, NYS Assemblyman Alan Maisel, NYS Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, NYS Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, NYC Councilman David Greenfield and NYC Councilman Mike Nelson.

Also in attendance were Helen Freedman, Executive Director, Americans For a Safe Israel, as well as Ari Kagan (a leader in the Russian Jewish community) and Wolf Sender, District Manager, Brooklyn Community Board 12.

Dr. Rina Yarmish (Chairperson, Mathematics & Computer Science, Kingsborough Community College) addressed those gathered and delivered comments from CUNY Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld who has gone on record as boldly opposing the event and thus, parting ways with the positions of other CUNY trustees and administrators. Joey Saban, a Brooklyn College sophomore, also addressed the crowd.

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