Brooklyn College Sponsorship of Anti-Israel Event Has Left Jewish Students Feeling ‘Isolated’ and ‘Uncomfortable’
by Zach Pontz
Students at Brooklyn College say that the controversial BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) event aimed at Israel and co-sponsored by the school’s Political Science Department has left them feeling isolated, and has made many students’ academic experience uncomfortable.
“A growing number of students on campus feel isolated from the very professors whom they once looked to for guidance, and unnecessarily divided against a large portion of the student body,” said Abraham Esses, CLAS (College of Liberal Art and Sciences) president, in a public statement last week. “The department basically yelled ‘fire’ on campus, and locked the doors to their department after doing so,” he added.
“In endorsing a divisive, controversial event while failing to do so in a way that allows our students and faculty to engage in constructive dialogue, the Political Science Department has failed its students miserably,” concludes Esses’s statement.
One of the students Esses speaks for is Ahuva Kohanteb, a senior in the Political Science Department and president of Students United 4 Israel, an on campus advocacy group.
“If you’re walking around in that department and you’re like which of my professors supported this hateful event it was definitely…that was the reaction I got from some of the Jewish students in the Political Science Department. As far as students outside the department—a lot of students felt they had crossed the line. It’s not normal to sponsor such a one-sided event like this,” she told The Algemeiner.
Kohanteb said it even became a personal issue for her. “I am close with one of the professors in the department, he has even written me recommendations in the past. He told me he supports the department’s decision and to know that this is going through his mind, that he backs such an event—it certainly gives me pause.”
The Political Science Department came to co-sponsor the event when it was approached by an anti-Israel group on campus. After a vote by the 17 professors in the department a majority in favor was declared and they threw their backing behind it.
Kohanteb said she found out about the event several weeks ago, and that she wanted to give the department time to respond. When she wrote a letter to each of the faculty members in the department she received a dispassionate letter from the chairmen encouraging her to attend the event if she had an issue with the speakers.
“They said that if I show up and engage the speakers that would be enough. As a student I didn’t feel that way. You’re talking to speakers in a position of power, they have a script, they have their responses ready, they have the microphone, they set the agenda.”
“I have a friend who is Jewish and supports Israel. She says she feels uncomfortable. She doesn’t know which of her professors supports the event,” she continued.
Dina Kupfer, a former political science student at Brooklyn College, founder and former president of Students United 4 Israel, and presently an adjunct professor at Touro College had harsh words for the department when she spoke to The Algemeiner. “The university has come across as reckless and spineless – as if it’s a game of who will make them bend by applying the most pressure.”
Last year Kupfer experienced firsthand the prejudice the political science department seems to have become comfortable with expressing. She became embroiled in a small controversy when it became apparent that a professor that would be teaching one her courses on the Middle East publicly harbored an anti-Israel agenda. When she complained to the university that it might cause a stifling learning environment they first fired the teacher, then rehired him. She took the class anyway, and says she received her lowest grade of the term, adding that some students in the class that received higher grades were actually tutored in the course by her.
“They seem to take extreme approaches instead of trying to resolve the issues productively. They fired the professor and then rehired him – instead of implementing measures to ensure true academic freedom like inviting a co-professor to the course for a balanced learning experience or reviewing the syllabus to include texts that present other views of the Israel- Arab conflict.”
The students that spoke to The Algemeiner believe that at best the college has shown a perfunctory concern, and at worst has been indifferent, projecting a muddled message.
Karen Gould, the Brooklyn College president, released a statement Tuesday which read in part: “Unfortunately, some may believe that our steadfast commitment to free speech signals an institutional endorsement of a particular point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views.”
Gould also wrote a letter to representatives of Brooklyn College’s chapter of Hillel in which she wrote: “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.”
Jamille Sutton, a senior in the Political Science department who also happens to be Jewish says she feels as if the school’s statements are selective and contradictory. “They preach open-mindedness and acceptance to all views but I don’t think this is just a pro-Palestinian event, this is an anti-Israel event. The speakers have a history of speaking about the destruction of Israel. BDS is not just a pro-Palestinian group, it’s anti-Israel. So for them to sponsor this event is troubling to me because it seems as though they are taking a side. Which is something that should not be happening at a college.”
She added, “As a Jew, as someone who supports Israel, it makes me feel very uncomfortable sitting in front of these teachers.”
Past actions by the BDS movement are clearly aimed at hurting Israel. Omar Barghouti, founder of BDS and one of the main speakers at the event, rejected the Palestinian UN upgrade in November on the grounds that it set the groundwork for two states. “The only ethical solution is a (single) democratic, secular and civic state in historic Palestine,” he has said. This, supporters of Israel believe would be the death knell for Israel’s Jewish identity.
Judith Butler, another speaker at the event, who has publicly supported terror group Hezbollah, which yesterday was fingered for committing a terrorist act on European soil against Israelis, also says much the same. “The loss of demographic advantage for the Jewish population in Israel would surely improve prospects for democracy in that region,” she has been quoted as saying.
Like Alan Dershowitz and the ADL, Sutton believes that the event should be allowed to take place but that the political science department’s involvement is problematic, and makes it much more difficult for the department to claim an environment that promotes academic freedom.
“We’ve asked them to pull their sponsorship but they’ve said the sponsorship doesn’t mean they endorse the event. But what if they endorsed something ridiculous and out of whack, like something racist; what if you asked the department to endorse an anti-black event? I doubt they would,” she said.
“Open dialogue means that we have both sides presented and the fact is that at this event the point of view is not an acceptable view to begin with, let alone to have unopposed,” Kohanteb added.”These speakers have been on the record calling for the destruction of Israel. That’s not a moderate stance and that’s not a stance for a political science department to stand behind or sponsor.”