Dozens of protesters — both for and against — gathered outside a highly charged Brooklyn College event featuring two pro-Palestinian speakers Thursday night, toting signs and chanting slogans in support of Israel, a two-state solution, Palestinian rights or free speech.
The event itself — a panel discussion about the controversial BDS Movement Agaianst Israel, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and calls for a boycott of Israeli goods — drew a long line of pre-registered students, while those without reservations waited in hopes of getting in.
The turnout was lower than some expected. Nearly 30 NYPD officers were outside, and State Assemb. Dov Hikind had promised a rally of “thousands” in protest. The event, organized by the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine group, drew the ire of Jewish students and leaders when the Brooklyn College political science department signed on as a co-sponsor. It gained national attention as city politicians threatened cutting all funding to the school, and celebrities including author Alice Walker and musician Roger Waters sent letters of support to the college’s Justice in Palestine chapter. At least some of the students who showed up, did so to show their support for freedom of speech.
Judith Butler, a University of California philosophy professor and keynote speaker for the event, spent much of her speech dwelling on the drama leading up to Thursday, and the theme of freedom within academic discourse. She acknowledged her distaste for conflict during her opening remarks.
“Usually one starts by saying that one is glad to be here, but I cannot say it has been a pleasure anticipating this event,” she said. “I am, of course, glad that the event was not cancelled, and I understand it that it took a great deal of courage and a steadfast embrace of principle for this event to happen at all.”
Omar Barghouti, the other keynote speaker and founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, didn’t mince words.
“I’d like to start by asking us to celebrate our victory,” he said. “In this battle with racist, hate mongering, bullying, anti-democratic attempts to shut down this event.”
Barghouti’s words were one of the few displays of aggression. The NYPD came prepared for a standoff, assembling two pens across the street from the Brooklyn College Student Conference Center; one for demonstrators in favor of the pro-Palestinian movement and one for those against. A dozen squad cars lined Campus Road and nearly 30 officers patrolled along the entry queue.
Much of the more dramatic action happened within the pro-Palestinian pen. A group of rabbis representing Neturei Karta International, an Orthodox Jewish organization supporting the dissolution of Israel, chanted slogans like “Occupation is a crime, free, free Palestine,” attracting the curiosity of passerby and the derision of some Jewish students.
“Why don’t you just go kiss the Palestinians,” sneered one student, unaffiliated with the student groups protesting.
All the demonstrators within the pro-Palestinian enclosure avoided association with David Smith, a self-described “occupier of Wall Street, taking a break.” He held a sign urging viewers to Google “Israel sterilizes black Jews.”
Jewish students, who made up much of the group protesting the event, stuck to the strategy laid out by student organization leaders last week: protest the sponsorship of the event, not its message.
Israel Club Vice President Hillel Burstein said he wasn’t bothered by the turnout. The protest should serve as a platform for students at Brooklyn College he said; it didn’t need to be a spectacle.
“We aren’t protesting the message of the BDS and we don’t want the event cancelled,” he said. “We don’t agree with the message, but we can’t do anything about that. We’re here to protest the political science department’s sponsorship of the event.”
Several signs within the Hillel camp expressed displeasure with the message of the boycott supporters, but others tempered indications of aggression. Burstein himself carried a sign that read “Say yes to a Jewish state, Say yes to a Palestinian state.” When Mordechai Levy, an affiliate of the more hardline Jewish Defense Organization, attempted to incite chants of “Hamas must go,” he was met with silence.
As the event wrapped up, both attendees and demonstrators left, neither side showed any inclination toward confrontation.
The storm that had brewed throughout the previous week had blown over, leaving minimal damage in its wake.