Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The New McCarthyism

A controversy currently threatened academic freedom and free speech at CUNY Brooklyn College. The background of this controversy is that two student groups, some community groups, and the Political Science department of BC joined together to sponsor an event scheduled to be held on February 7. The speakers, Omar Barghouti (a Palesinian human rights activist) and Judith Butler (a Jewish American philosopher and professor), are advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a non-violent, international movement. The goals are: To educate and raise public awareness; to pressure Israel to comply with international law; to stop Israeli oppression of, and control over, the Palestinians; and to advocate for Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territories.

In response to the proposed event, pro-Israel advocates joined forces with local NYC politicians; they claimed they are “concerned that an academic department has decided to endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue.” Interestingly, this group never raised such a concern when Brooklyn College sponsored Alan Dershowitz, a pro-Israel speaker. Not one of these people insisted that Dershowitz’s event include alternate positions and that both sides be presented. It appears that this group wants colleges (as well as other institutions and venues) to create a rule that will apply only to those who criticize the policies of the Israeli government. The New Rule: You may only allow those critical of Israel to speak when others are there to disagree with them and/or to attack them, and, in so doing, to change the terms of the debate.

Furthermore, these advocates erroneously conflate anti-Semitism with the support of equal rights and freedoms for Palestinians, criticism of Israeli governmental policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, and support of BDS (as a non-violent strategy that successfully helped to end apartheid in South Africa). Their goals—to silence and/or deligitimize anyone who is critical of the Israeli government. What better way to destroy people’s reputations and/or careers than by labeling them bigots, “self-hating Jews,” and/or “anti-Semites.”

Thankfully, colleges frequently sponsor controversial speakers to challenge and question the status quo. In fact, each speaker appears alone on stage to present his/her viewpoint(s). Likewise, colleges host panels of like-minded panelists—the purpose, to discuss topics (without having to explain or defend each sentence uttered) and, perhaps more importantly, to delve into the nuances within topics.

If one holds academic freedom and freedom of speech as core values, regardless of one’s position on BDS, or any other issue for that matter, one should be alarmed by what is happening at Brooklyn College and, unfortunately, at many other colleges.

Helaine Meisler

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