New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has lambasted city politicians who threatened to cut off funding to Brooklyn College for sponsoring an event featuring the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, saying “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”
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Describing himself as a strong supporter of Israel and a “violent” critic of BDS, Bloomberg nonetheless blasted the vocal public campaign that has been waged in recent days against the Thursday night BDS forum which is slated to feature Palestinian activist – and Tel Aviv University graduate – Omar Bargouti and University of California philosophy professor Judith Butler.
“If you want to promote views that you find abhorrent, this is exactly the way to do it. What the protesters have done is given a lot of attention to the very idea they keep saying they don’t want people to talk about” he explained. “They just don’t think before they open their mouths. If they just shut up, it would have gone away.
It would be a bunch of kids on a campus. Nobody would have gone to listen to them and nobody [would have] seen it. Now they’ve created the very monster that they say they’re opposed to.”
Bloomberg’s feisty upbraiding is the latest twist in a escalating controversy that has given the BDS movement, which most Americans have never heard of, more free publicity that it ever could have dreamed of.
Although the student-organized “BDS Movement against Israel” event had raised protests among Jewish students and local Brooklyn politicians, it catapulted into the national media spotlight in the wake of a sharply worded article in the New York Daily News by noted Harvard professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz – a graduate of Brooklyn College himself – who described the planned meeting as a “hate orgy”.
The scandal deteriorated from there, turning into a media slugfest which, depending on who you were reading or listening to, was either about free speech and academic freedom or about hate speech and academic bias. Tempers flared, barbs were exchanged and hyperbole became the weapon of choice: Brooklyn Assemblyman Alan Maisel equated the BDS forum with “the potential for a second Holocaust”.
The case against the school’s Political Science Department’s decision to co-sponsor a presentation of a group - which, in effect, calls for the dismantling of Israel - was then undermined by overkill. After 19 “progressive” politicians – including four members of the US Congress – wrote a letter to the College against the sponsorship, things took a turn for the worse when ten New York City Council members threatened to cut funding to the College – a widely respected academic institution sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Harvard” - if it did not reverse its sponsorship.
“We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong” the council members’ letter said.
This unveiled threat galvanized support for the College and for its right to hold and sponsor the BDS event. The New York Times, in an editorial, linked the attempts to shut down the BDS forum with the tough, Israel-centered grilling of Secretary of Defense designate Chuck Hagel by Republican senators.
“All they cared about was bullying him into a rigid position on Israel policy. Enforcing that kind of orthodoxy is not in either America’s or Israel’s interest.”
Lambasting the threats against the college as “intimidation” that “chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom,” the Times, like Bloomberg, defended Brooklyn College President Karen Gould’s decision to proceed with the event despite the pressures.
“The sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country”, the editorial noted.