A heavily publicized Brooklyn College lecture on boycotting Israeli goods didn’t differ much from the run-of-the-mill discussions commonplace at universities around the world — and the borough politicians who turned it into international news wound up looking as impressionable as first-semester freshmen when it was all said and done on Thursday night.
The school’s talk with gender theorist Judith Butler and Palestinian rights advocate Omar Barghouti went off without a hitch after college president Karen Gould refused to budge to demands that the political science department withdraw its co-sponsorship of the event.
The huge build-up before the forum drew dozens of opponents and supporters who rallied outside behind police barricades, while students and lecturers inside pondered why, exactly, this discussion became the biggest story in Brooklyn.
“At the time I thought it would be very much like other events I have attended, a conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center,” said Butler in prepared remarks that vigorously defended academic freedom — and the merits of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which pushes for Palestinian rights. “[Y]our being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear.”
Debate over the forum had as much to do with free speech as it did with the content of the lecture itself — and local politicians turned out proving that in America you can argue any point you want, and even take both sides of an issue if you like.
Lawmakers such as Councilman Brad Lander (D–Park Slope), four top mayoral candidates, Borough President Markowitz, and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D–Fort Greene), Jerrold Nadler (D–Pard Slope), and Yvette Clarke (D–Flatbush) all called for the school to withdraw sponsorship in the days before the event, then flip-flopped and cheered Brooklyn College’s leadership.
And it sounded like a couple of them hadn’t quite done all their homework.
Councilmembers Letitia James (D–Fort Greene) and Steve Levin (D–Williamsburg) signed a letter sent to Gould along with eight other lawmaker hinting that the City Council could withhold funding from the school if it did not comply with the wishes of taxpayers — then announced they would symbolically remove their imprimaturs from the missive because they did not support that very idea.
“I would say that it’s a lesson in how important it is to choose your words carefully,” said Levin.
Councilman Jumaane Williams (D–Flatbush) put out a press release urging the school to open up the debate to pro-Israel groups so the issue could “be discussed with equity, preferably in the same forum.” Days later, he sent out a second release expressing his “confidence in academic freedom at Brooklyn College.”
Mayor Bloomberg, who vocally defended the college and academic freedom on Wednesday, was one of the only high-profile elected officials who did not waver in his support for the college.
Brooklyn College students understood the subject of the lecture was controversial — but were surprised it got attention from anyone off campus.
“I was shocked to see that it became such a big deal,” said linguistics major Daniel Barry as he waited in the line for the forum. “All these people were getting upset because some academic department is hosting Judith Butler. I was like, ‘Isn’t this what academia does?’ ”