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A free-speech controversy grows in Brooklyn

February 04, 2013|By Michael McGough

“That’s a nice college you’ve got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.” That’s not too far removed from the message being sent by some members of New York’s City Council to the president of Brooklyn College, a part of City University of New York and the scene of what the New York Post calls a “Mideast War in Brooklyn.”

On Thursday, in an event co-sponsored by the college’s political science department and various campus organizations -- including Students for Justice in Palestine -- students will hear from two spokespeople for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to punish Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. 

In a letter last week to President Karen L. Gould, 10 members of the City Council wrote: “A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the state and city of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools, and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of the city -- many of whom would feel targeted and demonized by this program -- want their tax money to be spent on.”

In muscling the college this way, the council members equate co-sponsorship with official support. Another, similarly exercised group of New York politicians expressed concern that the department “has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly charged issue.” But the college says co-sponsorship is an invitation to  participate, not an endorsement of the speakers’ positions. (Pro-Israel students are free to call the department’s bluff by asking it to cosponsor an appearance by a pro-Israel speaker.)

Ironically, Gould has taken a position on the divestment movement: She’s against it. In a statement issued Monday, she said that “our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. As the official host of the CUNY center for study abroad in Israel, our college has a proud history of engagement with Israel and Israeli universities.”

The co-sponsorship issue may be a red herring. What the politicians seem to find offensive is that the college would facilitate the expression of ideas that their constituents find offensive.

A related argument in this controversy is that Jewish students are being subjected to a hostile environment when such views are aired. A similar concern has been raised by politicians in California about anti-Israel demonstrations at this state’s universities.

Obviously no student should be subjected to ethnic or religious harassment. But it does no service to Jewish students -- in Brooklyn or Berkeley -- to try to insulate them from debate about Israeli polices, including the denunciations offered by the BDS movement. Students are made of sterner stuff than the politicians who purport to protect them.

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