Local politicians are asking Brooklyn College to cancel a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) event scheduled for Thursday evening, while civil rights and Arab-American groups believe the event should be allowed to go forward.
SJP, a grassroots network of students and recent graduates with chapters on university campuses throughout the country, has planned a conversation between Columbia Professor Katherine Franke and academic Steven Salaita. The event will focus on "the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse on the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel," according to the event's Facebook page.
Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn) has written a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, urging her to cancel the lecture despite it being co-sponsored by several academic departments. Assemblymember Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) has also asked the university to withdraw its invitation to the speakers for the event. The requests come just a day after a terrorist attack upon worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem, which prompted the NYPD to ramp up security at Jewish houses of worship throughout the five boroughs.
"Yesterday, innocent people were attacked with axes and guns while they stood in synagogue with their heads bowed in prayer," said Hikind. "These men were not settlers —they were rabbis and teachers living in Jerusalem. The Jews attacked in France and Belgium aren't so-called settlers either. But they are targeted because hatred against the Jewish people is spreading further and further."
"With daily terror attacks raging throughout Israel and the Middle East, academic departments should be sponsoring events that promote unity and reconciliation — not hatred and division," Cymbrowitz said.
Cymbrowitz, who has twice before criticized Brooklyn College for sponsoring SJP events and has spoken out against what he fears is a growing trend of anti-Semitism under the cloak of anti-Israel fervor, added that he was incensed by what he called the college's "repeated tone-deafness."
Uproar occurred at Brooklyn College last year when SJP invited Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler to speak about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. There were pro-Israel protests outside the event and an investigation of whether the group excluded journalists and removed attendees who were unsupportive of the BDS movement. The investigation ultimately cleared SJP of any wrongdoing.
"As a publicly funded institution, Brooklyn College has no right to provide a mouthpiece either to Salaita, whose anti-Semitic diatribes on social media rightly cost him a job at the University of Illinois, or to the SJP, an inflammatory group that (according to your own investigation) intentionally silenced Israel supporters during a previous lecture at your college," Cymbrowitz wrote in his letter to Gould.
Brooklyn College and SJP (both National SJP and the Brooklyn College chapter) did not return requests for comment by press time.
But civil rights groups and Arab-Ameican associations defended the event in the interests of free speech.
"It's never okay to silence academic freedom," said Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York. "We don't have to agree on content, but we can agree on the right of students to hold events."
"Ideological expression is a core American right and central to academic freedom," said Jennifer Carnig, director of communications for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The legislators are free to express their opinions, but they may not use the government to punish those whose speech they disagree with."
However, Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer, author and political commentator who frequently weighs in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, disputes the notion that the university is truly interested in the free exchange of ideas.
"Brooklyn College refuses to invite me to speak about Israel, despite repeated requests," Dershowitz said. "Departments that sponsor anti-Israel hate speech refuse to sponsor me to advocate a two-state solution. It is those departments, especially the Political Science Department, that are stifling the free exchange of ideas."
The university's political science chair, Corey Robin, is scheduled to join the guests at the event this evening. Hikind added that Robin has hardly allowed a balanced approach to any academic considerations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his department.
"Just look at who the Political Science Department invites to speak to Brooklyn College students year after year. The pattern — and Robin's personal agenda — are very clear," Hikind said.
SJP was banned from Northeastern University in March after critics complained about a variety of intimidating and hostile tactics, including crashing an event during the school's Holocaust Awareness Week, but the decision was postponed until January and the group may have the chance to be reinstated.
Efforts by the group to divest and boycott Israeli-made goods and services have had a mixed record. Successful divestment measures have passed at UC Berkeley, Riverside, and Irvine, and most recently at UCLA, while a resolution at Loyola University in Chicago was vetoed. SJP claimed victory when Hampshire College agreed to divest from several major companies in February 2009, but the administration said the decision was made for other reasons. A divestment initiative at Cornell University failed, as did a campaign for DePaul University to boycott Sabra hummus.
Here in Brooklyn, Cymbrowitz is calling on Gould to cancel the event "immediately, as it would serve no other purpose but to further incite anti-Semitism throughout your campus."