When I was a student at Brooklyn College, eons ago, the subjects of free speech and academic freedom were tied into the country’s mortal fear of Communism. One of the most heated issues on campus centered on the firing of Harry Slochower, a well-known professor of German and comparative literature.
Slochower had invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked by a Senate subcommittee investigating subversive activities whether he had been a member of the Communist Party back in the 1930s. Because he refused to answer and relied on the amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, the college administration assumed he had been a Communist and dismissed him. The Supreme Court later ruled that his dismissal was unconstitutional, but various legal issues barred his reinstatement.
Professor Slochower’s case came to mind as I followed the ruckus surrounding the invitation to advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel to speak at Brooklyn College, in a program co-sponsored by the political science department. These days we seem to have moved to the opposite extreme of that restrictive era of long ago when college administrators thought nothing of running roughshod over the rights of one of their professors. Now, Israel supporters have been accused of running roughshod over academic rights when they opposed having a publicly funded college department sponsor hate talk against the Jewish state. This extreme is no better than the first one.
This newspaper gave extensive and fair coverage to the event, but other media, including The New York Times, huffed and puffed about the First Amendment with its guarantee of free speech. The noise about that amendment has come, interestingly, at the same time that we are having a nationwide discussion about controlling the sale of guns. The gun lobby keeps harping on Second Amendment rights, as if anybody had advocated eliminating them. By the same token, nobody has contested the First Amendment rights of the BDS proponents to say their piece.
The protests have been largely directed against the co-sponsorship by the political science department. And it has not been a free-speech matter. Even if the department and the university had the legal right to invite the BDS people, as Mayor Bloomberg argued, where was their common sense? Along with its constitutional freedom, a university has the responsibility to guide and protect its students as well as challenge them. By co-sponsoring the event the department implied its endorsement of the organization’s hate-filled agenda, or at least a degree of sympathy with it, and that is a dreadful message to convey to students. The fact that no other department in the college would join in the sponsorship certainly suggests that the political science faculty was not totally neutral in its participation.
Critics of the response to the event have pointed out that the media and political attention the incident generated put the BDS movement on the map, making it known to people who may never even have heard of it before and in that sense giving it credibility. That may be true to an extent. But the attention also exposed the real nature of the movement, and validated the students who passionately opposed it. It has become clear to anyone paying attention that these people are not your run-of-the-mill critics of Israeli policies. This group insists, among other things, on the “right of return” of all Arab refugees and their descendants to Israel, a clear appeal for the state’s demographic demolition. The organization’s relatively moderate official language of advocating “nonviolent” measures against Israel reminds me of the Holocaust denial movement, which uses dry statistics and intellectual-sounding arguments that seem almost innocuous at first glance. When you look a second time, you see, of course, the anti-Jewish viciousness behind them. The BDS movement’s call for boycotts and the rest is actually a call to cripple the Jewish state, which in its view is illegitimate. So even if some politicians over-responded to the program at Brooklyn College, the commotion helped reveal the true colors of the BDS movement.
As an alumnus of the college I received a form letter from its president, Karen Gould, promising future programs representing alternative views in the Israel debate, with one by Elliott Abrams forthcoming. That’s OK, although I find the moral equivalency here troubling. Students need to understand that the BDS agenda is not simply one side of a coin, as valid as the other side. (Similarly, would anybody consider Holocaust denial merely an alternative view to that of its opponents?) BDS seeks Israel’s destruction, and that needs to be brought home time and again. I’m not looking to return to the repressive days of the Communist scare. Nor will I withdraw my support from the college. But I will keep a more careful eye on its approach to Israel than I ever have before.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.