Citing BDS, U.S. Campus Cancels Screening of Documentary on Settlers

Syracuse University reneges on screening of Shimon Dotan's 'The Settlers' sparking accusations of quashing free speech in name of political correctness.

A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.
A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010. Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons

Syracuse University has backed off plans to show acclaimed and criticized "The Settlers" documentary fearing possible protests by the campus Boycott  Sanctions and Divestment movement (BDS), The Atlantic and the local campus newspaper report.

Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan had been invited to speak at the upstate New York campus along with the showing of his film at an international conference on religion and film scheduled to take place in March 2017.  

A picture from 'The Settlers' documentary
Philip Blaish

His film has won accolades for its detailed illustration of the lives of Jewish settlers in occupied territory, providing a frank and critical picture, some reviewers say. It has also been criticized as presenting a one-sided picture for offering barely a mention of Palestinians, who are a majority of the West Bank population, living under Israeli military rule.

Dotan, of New York University's graduate school, had been invited by a colleague at the University of Nebraska to show his film at the Syracuse event.

But Syracuse has now about-faced, its own religion department head, Prof. M. Gail Hamner apologetically writing the filmmaker in an email quoted by The Atlantic and campus paper, The College Fix.

"I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come."

"Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews," the professor writes.

"I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations."

The disinvite has ignited controversy with some charging free speech was being quashed for political reasons by the university's caving to perceived BDS threats.

"A need to be perceived as politically correct proved decisive," writes Conor Friedersdorf, in his piece for The Atlantic, entitled "How Political Correctness Chills Speech on Campus."

"Hamner should not have acted as she did, but I don’t see her as the villain of this story. She didn’t create the chilling effect to which she succumbed, and she appeared to nix the screening with genuine regret, not censorious eagerness," Friedsdorf writes.

"The matter of concern here is the reason that the film was excluded: to avoid the perceived risk of ideologically motivated retaliation by campus activists." 

Miriam Elman, a professor at Syracuse's public affairs school, who covers BDS on the blog called Legal Insurrection, and tweeted on Saturday that Dotan "would visit Syracuse for a film-screening soon," after all.

In a separate tweet Elman said Dotan was interested in being hosted by an Israeli, Palestinian dialogue group that she mentors.