Protest, Engage and Discuss: Brooklyn College, the Occupation and Academic Freedom

February 9, 2013, 12:38 pm

Bloomberg to City Council critics: Brooklyn is not Pyongyang!  Photo credit.

As of this writing, despite saber-rattling of various kinds by donors and politicians, the Brooklyn College event featuring speakers from Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) seems to have gone off without a hitch. The Israeli state still exists; the Palestinian people do not yet have a state of their own; and the Mayor of New York has affirmed the principle of free speech in our public university system. Read about it here.

I realize that it is conventional to begin a post like this one be declaring that one is not an anti-semite, that one is a supporter of Israel — or not an anti-semite and not a supporter of Israel, and hence a supporter of Palestinian freedom (whatever that means at this moment in history.) I cannot tell you how much I resent this current state of play, or the political conditions that allow a college event to become a political football rather than an opportunity for civil debate.

Instead, I want to begin this piece by stating categorically that, despite loud arguments on both sides that the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israeli settlers protected by the military is the great moral issue of our time, I am unconvinced of that.  Perhaps this is because I have lived through a great many moral crises, and am currently enmeshed in others: the abandonment of poor people in the United States, for example; the collapse of  funding for public and private education; and half a dozen others connected to the triumph of a corporate vision for the world. Perhaps it is because I don’t fully understand why I would privilege one horrendous humanitarian crisis over another; for example, the continued colonization and immiseration of the Haitian people; genocide in the Sudan; or ongoing French interventions in West Africa.

I do recognize that the Occupation is a moral problem, and one that has an impact (albeit unequal) on Israelis and Palestinians. Every time I read another account of a centuries-old Palestinian olive grove being destroyed to make way for so-called “settlers;” or non-combatants huddling in bomb shelters as rockets fired by Hamas and the Israeli Army whiz around them, I am reminded that the idea of violence covers up hundreds of thousands of small tragedies that few of us who live in the United States ever have to encounter.

Hence, I am neither pro-Israel nor am I anti-Israel; and I am neither pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian.   All four of these positions seem pointless to me. They are ideological positions, not informed ones, and tend to occlude any more nuanced discussion of the political crisis in Gaza, the West Bank and the Middle East as a whole. According to Corey Robin, however other media want to spin it, that nuanced discussion happened at Brooklyn College on February 8: read his account of the event here. Judith Butler’s excellent remarks on anti-Semitism and the polarization of the debate over the Israeli occupation, delivered that evening, are here.

Three cheers to the Political Science Department; to the chair, Paisley Currah; and to Brooklyn College’s president, Karen L. Gould, for hanging tough on the co-sponsorship of this event.

That the department had the right to co-sponsor such an event seems to me indisputable.  That they should have co-sponsored the event also seems indisputable: how else are we to talk about these things at all?

The fact that a private donor threatened to withdraw a sizable donation because of this event is unsurprising, but it should put us all on notice about another moral crisis. The more dependent public institutions become on private money, and the less embedded they are on secular government funds, the more likely the silencing of intellectuals becomes. Religion is, of course, a feature of politics as well. However, as members of City Council floated the idea of punishing Brooklyn College financially if it went ahead with the event, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the following statement:

Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.

Yep. What he said.  Read the mayor’s full statement here; and Eric Alterman’s account of the Brooklyn College faculty’s solidarity on behalf of academic freedom here.

Interestingly, the mayor also inadvertently identifies my chief problem with BDS, which is its call for “a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.” Read the whole BDS statement on this matter here.

This receives too little attention in my view, and Butler’s wise remarks about academic freedom raise new questions about a political strategy that violates longstanding principles of scholarly exchange across national and political lines. I have never understood why I should embrace an undemocratic response to the Israeli state’s horrendous failure of democracy; or why an ideologically rigid, if secular, strategy is a morally appropriate counterweight to enforcing a conservative theocratic interpretation of history on the Palestinian people. I also don’t think that there is any good historical evidence that silencing intellectual, academic and cultural workers on a comprehensive basis, and preventing any exchange of ideas between the Israel and the United States, will have any effect on Israeli politics whatsoever beyond isolating progressive intellectuals in Israel. I cannot imagine it would do anything but promote further ignorance and polarization, giving the political organizations on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Territories the upper hand in fashioning information and arguments to promote their own positions.

Question: am I supposed to boycott the Israeli colleagues and friends I already have too? Or just the ones I don’t know yet? Enquiring minds want to know.

I also do not think that BDS, despite its commitment to nonviolence, adequately addresses the question of existing and past violence in the anti-colonial struggle. US intellectuals give the movement to end the occupation a pass on this too easily, in my view, betraying a romance with revolutionary politics that has a long and troubling intellectual history among American intellectuals. For example, on this page I see calls for a military embargo of Israel, but not a military embargo of the region or an embargo of arms to all militant groups in the Occupied Territories. This might lead to a discussion about why Israel and its many antagonists mutually refuse to renounce violence and negotiate; about the international arms trade that flourishes in the Middle East; and about whether BDS supports ongoing paramilitary and terrorist attacks in the region by non-Israeli forces despite its own commitment to nonviolent action.

Puzzlingly, while I find numerous calls for peoples around the world to sever their ties with Israeli universities, there is little specific information or conversation on the BDS page about facts that suggest that such a strategy is irrelevant to ending the Occupation. For example:

  • That the Occupation is funded by the United States government as a proxy war. Israel is the top recipient of US foreign aid, at $3.075 billion and rising. Next in line for foreign aid is Afghanistan ($2.327), where the United States is actually fighting a war; then come Pakistan ($2.102 billion), where the US is kinda sorta fighting a war; and Iraq ($1.683 billion), which the US tore to bits fighting a pointless war.  So how is it the United States is not fighting a war in Israel? And why would that not be a more pointed conversation to have than how to end the occupation by shunning Tel Aviv University and everyone who works for them?
  • BDS is very free with the comparisons to South Africa, characterizing Israel as an apartheid state, and making its endorsements from Archbishop Desmond Tutu visible on its website. While there are similarities between the Palestinian people and black South Africa (and the long history of Israeli arms sales to repressive African regimes, including apartheid South Africa, suggests that a closer analysis is called for), it is a comparison that depends for its success on American intellectuals’ more general ignorance of South Africa’s history and its post-apartheid present.
  • Why should US-based intellectuals act to protest the militarization of Israeli universities (and do so in a way that is guaranteed to isolate their progressive colleagues there) in the absence of similar critiques of their own institutions? Does not intensified exchange and conversation between progressives in the United States, Israel and the vast non-Israeli Middle East make a great deal more sense?

Israel is currently a highly repressive state characterized by civil inequalities and violence. This situation is getting worse, not better, as Bibi Netanyahu tacks even further right (if you can imagine that.)  This is a crucial piece of the conversation, and BDS’s arguments are very powerful in addressing the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories.

And yet, the selective application of skepticism about BDS strategies by intellectuals in the United States, many of great stature, is as urgent a question. Protesting events strikes me as reasonable, as does discussing the reasons why one might have a speaker on campus who is noxious to some stakeholders. But Boycott,  Divestment, Sanction? No.

How about Protest, Engage and Discuss?

Post script: Since the post that inadvertently drew me into the Duke Lacrosse case, nothing has appeared on this blog that has caused me to be so strongly and personally criticized.  The comments section is heavily weighted towards the views those who find this post (and me) noxious, ignorant and dishonest. Readers should wade through it to see what BDS supporters thought.  Margaret Soltan reacts to questions of censorship and the views expressed in the comments section here. (2/12/2013) For others who share my reservations about BDS, or who have their own, see Katha Pollitt (2/5/13), Brad DeLong (2/7/13), Eric Alterman, and Todd Gitlin (2/7/13). For a post on this blog that disagrees with my position on BDS, go here; for Joanne Barker’s view (2/10/2013) that I write ” political dribble for the nation’s top rated journal on the academy and call it being radically engaged,” and lack accountability to the history of colonialism in this country, go here. For the Twitter exchange with NYU’s Lisa Duggan, which supplements her comments below, go here.


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