By Alex Ellefson
In the first two weeks of the spring semester, the voices of Brooklyn College faculty and students were drowned out after the political science department’s co-sponsorship of a controversial pro-Palestine event became a mouthpiece for politicians and pundits.
In an interview with the Kingsman on Wednesday, Feb. 6, political science chair Paisley Currah defended his department’s co-sponsorship of an event that advocated for boycotting Israel, saying it was important for students to “engage in controversial ideas.”
The political science department was one of many groups to sponsor a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement– which was organized by the Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine. The BDS movement advocates for non-violent action against institutions that support the occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli government.
Many students and faculty were concerned that the political science department had chosen sides on a very divisive issue. Members of the student government sent a letter to Currah asking him to withdraw the department’s sponsorship.
The controversy exploded into a national debate about academic freedom after many politicians, including state assemblyman Dov Hikind and members of the city council, pressured the political science department to withdraw its sponsorship and even threatened to cut funding from the school.
Currah said that the attempts to halt his department’s sponsorship were a violation of the first amendment.
“The idea that both sides sides have to be presented equally is an infringement on academic freedom and it doesn’t depict how learning works,” he said.
Currah said that the best way for students to learn is to focus deeply on one idea at a time in order to fully understand an issue. He welcomed requests for sponsorship by Brooklyn College’s Israel Club and he hoped that the BDS controversy would encourage more students to seek his department’s support.
The political science department’s sponsorship, Currah said, is meant to recognize the time and effort put forth by students who organize an event.
“It would have a chilling effect for us to reject this event because it’s too controversial,” he said.
Currah said it was absurd to suggest that a pro-Israel advocate like Alan Dershowitz should have to speak at the lecture in order to present an alternative point of view, an idea floated by Hikind and others.
“There’s not just two sides to this,” Currah said. “There’s four or eight. Who decides what the two sides are?”
While Hikind and a growing list of local politicians denounced the political science department for sponsoring an event that they said promoted “hate-speech” and “anti-semitism,” artists like author Alice Walker and Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters expressed their support.
Many others, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and the president of the CUNY faculty union, condemned Hikind and the City Council for overstepping their authority and assaulting academic freedom.
Mayor Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of Israel, told reporters on Feb. 6 that people who think it’s appropriate for the government to decide what topics should be discussed on a college campus “should apply to school in North Korea.”
While the battle over academic freedom took place outside of campus, CLAS Speaker David Rosenberg said the real conversation was being overlooked.
“When Dov Hikind calls for the president’s resignation, it forces me to focus away from the real issue, which is that the political science department is sponsoring a partisan and polarizing event,” he said.
Although Currah and the administration repeatedly stated that they were not endorsing the views of the BDS movement, some students perceived the sponsorship as a show of support for ideas that they find offensive.
Koby Stern, the president of Brooklyn College’s Israel Club, said, “There’s a feeling that a section of Brooklyn College has taken a side against what we believe and that worries many students.”
Melanie Goldberg, a journalism major who is also the Israel campus coalition intern at Tanger Hillel, said that she felt threatened. “If I’m in a political science class, I’d feel afraid to open up and that impacts my freedom of speech.”
Sarah Aly, the outreach coordinator for the Students for Justice in Palestine, felt encouraged by the political science department’s sponsorship.
“We have a dissenting opinion as far as what’s expressed in American politics,” she said. “They [Poli Sci] are endorsing an academic environment with a point of view that is opposite of what is usually out there and that’s good academic ethics.”
Brooklyn College student Matthew Boschen said, “I see no harm in getting the other side’s story. I want to listen and learn something.”
Currah said that the purpose of the sponsorship was to signal to Brooklyn College students that the BDS event was worth going to.
“We want students to engage with controversial ideas and not shy away,” he said. “Don’t say ‘I don’t like to think about it.’”