What began as a student event has escalated into a political and ethical firestorm as State Assemblyman Dov Hikind called for Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to step down.
The college’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter organized the event, BDS Movement Against Israel, for February 7. The ire of Jewish students and local politicians came forth when the school’s political science department officially co-sponsored the event, after an e-mail request from the Palestine student group. Hikind, an Orthodox Jew and Brooklyn College graduate, referred to BDS, which stands for “boycott, divestment, sanction,” as “racist” and “anti-Semitic,” citing its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue has never been about religion, said Carlos Guzman, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.
“We’re not attacking Jewish students. There’s a difference between Judaism and Zionism,” he said. “We’re asking for equality for all people.”
Hikind held an informal press conference Thursday morning at the main gates of the school, along with other state assembly members, state senators and city council members, to both speak out against the event and request Gould’s resignation. Hikind and supporters emphasized the right for students to organize such events, but denounced the college’s sponsorship of the event.
“The issue is that this university, my university, our university, has given its stamp of approval,” he said. “Karen Gould is a very nice person. But she is incompetent. She has no backbone.”
Gould sent an e-mail addressing the college’s stance to all students and faculty on Monday.
“As an institution of higher education, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and topics they may choose,” she wrote. “Even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree.”
Many Jewish students took issue with the description of the debate as a matter of free speech.
“Brooklyn College is a diverse place. We stand for dialogue,” said Joey Saban, a member of the school’s Hillel Club, speaking at the conference. “There is a very fine line between free speech and spreading hate.”
Guest speakers at the event include Judith Butler, a philosophy professor at the University of California, and Omar Barghouti, the founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Butler is herself Jewish, and has drawn criticism as being anti-Israel as a result of her support for boycotts of the nation. Individuals on both sides of the issue have questioned Barghouti’s hardline approach to the territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine.
Jewish groups on campus are making no calls for the event’s cancellation, said Ahuva Kohanteb, president of the Students United for Israel club at Brooklyn College. Freedom of speech allows groups like hers to exist on campus, she says, but the political science department’s sponsorship in this case sets a double standard.
“We’ve hosted events that would be controversial, and they weren’t sponsored, which is okay,” she said. However, she added that the sponsorship of the BDS event sends a negative message to Jewish students. “We feel threatened as students on campus.”
The school doesn’t normally serve as a hotbed for the clash of cultures. Jews and Muslims have long coexisted on campus. New York City has the largest Islamic population in the country, and Brooklyn leads all boroughs for Muslim residents.
“People know Brooklyn for its Jewish community,” said Ayelet Roller, a Jewish sophomore at Brooklyn College. “There’s also a Muslim crowd on campus. I’m friends with Muslims.”
Nikita Paderin, an Israeli fellow to the school’s Hillel program, has attended previous events organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and didn’t have any problems with the programming.
“They didn’t create such controversy because the speakers did not call for the destruction of Israel,” he said. “I believe in a more pragmatic approach to the issues.”
Still, despite the hubbub, some Jewish students don’t see the college’s actions as injurious. Conflicting views goes hand-in-hand with the diversity of Brooklyn, sophomore Moshe Bressler said.
“At Brooklyn College, it’s not like everyone is in love with each other,” he said. “It’s like riding on the train.”
The uproar and threats of protests won’t change how the group plans events in the future, Guzman said.
“We always expect retaliation from groups that support Israel,” he said. “It’s bound to happen. There’s always going to be two sides.”