With the brouhaha over last week’s BDS event hosted at Brooklyn College, my alma mater (class of 2004), we can walk away learning a few things on what not to do as advocates of Israel, as well as deeper issues involving that campus. The BDS event received way too much publicity, often favorable, partially due to the ineptness of the pro-Israel community around Brooklyn College, not to mention most of our media’s lack of knowledge on the nuance of issues in the Middle East.
As a former Israel advocate leader at BC, and as an Israel advocacy “professional” for 5+ years working for StandWithUs assisting students across the country deal with similar events in years past, it is clear to me that we as a pro-Israel community need to get our act together.
Perhaps the first lesson is understanding what to fight for and when. This event is surely not the first time BDS came to a campus, but likely one of the most public and visible ones, largely in thanks to the pro-Israel camp off campus – i.e. not the students. The issue of the political science department sponsoring this event is disconcerting, especially given their track record of not sponsoring events with the opposing view. However, the issue quickly turned into a free speech issue, instead of focusing on the one-sidedness the school was promoting and how radical that side was.
Once calls for canceling the event (from off campus) became loud enough, the pro-Israel camp lost. Once calls for silencing another voice are espoused, no matter how nasty that voice is, you’ve overstepped the First Amendment. This may not apply in countries where hate speech is barred, but we’ve all seen the types of lectures allowed on campuses in Canada (where hate speech is technically barred). NYC Councilman, and staunch Israel supporter, Lew Fidler, should know this. His threats to hold back funding from the school should the event take place made him and the entire camp of Israel supporters look like fools. It changed the debate and made it about free speech.
Sponsorship of the event by the school, assuming their refusal to sponsor the other side, is abhorrent, but it is not illegal. Preventing the event from happening might be. That is why Mayor Bloomberg was forced to side with the campus in hosting the event, despite his love for Israel. He supported the school’s right to free speech. It should never have been about whether to have the event or not.
The taking over of the debate by off-campus forces, in this case two pro-Israel politicians, Fidler and Dov Hikind, brings to light two other issues.
One, the Israel-is-always-right mantra can backfire. I’m not suggesting lessening your love or support of Israel, but I’m suggesting to cool down your speech and think about the repercussions of your activism. I do not believe either politician in this case assisted Israel’s cause because it didn’t come off as sounding rational. That’s right, your arguments may have been rational, but it’s about perception. If you’re seen as blindly supporting one position, at all costs, your credibility on the subject is diminished. In this case, my advice is to acknowledge the other side’s rights to speech, argue with the merits of their speech, but not with the content of the speech itself. Fidler and Hikind may be savvy politicians, and staunch supporters of Israel, but when combined, that seems to have backfired.
Two, the politicians and other off-campus citizens largely did not act in conjunction with the students on campus. At the end of the day, it is the students on that campus that are most affected by the actions of the community. If they are to be taken seriously by fellow students, faculty, or administration in the near future to run peace & democracy promoting events, it is something they alone will have to deal with. It is the duty of those activists off campus, especially politicians and others in the public eye, to work with students on the ground to ensure that their activism is invited and that they’re in unison regarding messaging to the public and media. According to the president of the pro-Israel club on campus, neither politician was in touch with her, or the student groups.
As a BC alum and Israel advocate, I got involved personally, but only in assisting the students on the ground with ideas, tips, advice, and support. The students had a coherent game plan, assistance from outside sources like StandWithUs and other groups, and were prepared to deal with the event. All of that outside activism gave the BDS event plenty of its own support and visibility, which they likely would not have seen otherwise.
Now, the issues with the event and Brooklyn College.
As per their usual M.O., organizers of such events make it difficult for opposing viewpoints to gain access to the event. This is something I have personally witnessed on multiple campuses across the US & Canada since 2001. Pre-registrations are required, allowing organizers to weed out Jewish names as well as unfriendly media. Media was also barred from the event, or so it seemed. A NYTimes journalist was granted entry, but not a Jewish writer for the NY Daily News. Coincidence or silencing free speech? Jewish students who had received confirmations of their seats at the event were turned away at the door. I do not buy claims by the organizers that there were technical difficulties with the reservation process. That is too easy a claim when the vast majority in attendance at the event were clearly supporters of the speakers, and the event wasn’t filled to capacity.
How can the political science department and university allow such blatant discrimination and violations of the First Amendment that they are claiming to uphold?
Will the university or poli sci deptartment sponsor a moderate opposing speaker if approached by pro-Israel students?
Unfortunately, this school has had events like this, sometimes even more offensive in the past (not necessarily sponsored by a department) where hate speech was espoused. In 2003, in an event in SUBO (student union building on the Brooklyn College campus) a “balanced panel” of two Jews and two Arabs were to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not to mention that all four agreed with their points blasting Israel, but they brought posters and imagery equating Israel / Judaism with Nazism, literally, by placing a drawing that showed “Swastika = Star of David”. After the event I discussed the event with Dean of Students Milga Morales, the same Dean of Students who watched 4 Jewish students getting kicked out of last week’s event and was silent. She did not understand what was offensive about the swastika / Star of David comparison. While their speech was protected, their hate speech was ignored, brushed off. Not much has changed in the near decade since that event.
It’s obvious that she and many Brooklyn College staffers are only interested in protecting the speech of some voices on campus.