Not many minds were changed about Israel or the boycott, divestment, sanction (BDS) campaign when the Brooklyn College political science department co-sponsored a BDS advocacy event last Thursday night. Several hundred people heard two pro-BDS speakers deliver the same tired speeches about how Israel, and Israel alone, is to blame for all the ills of the Middle East, if not the world, and how the BDS movement will cure all of that, as it cured the problems of South Africa. The reason minds were not changed is that at its core, the BDS movement has little intellectual content. Instead it is an emotional litmus test: if you are against Israel, BDS is a useful tactic. If you are for Israel, BDS is hate speech.
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The BDS campaign against Israel, and Israel alone, is not about the occupation, the security barrier or any other policies of the current Israeli government. It is about Israel itself - its right to exist as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. Despite efforts by the speakers to honey coat it, BDS is a call for academic, cultural and economic boycotts - blacklists - of all Israeli, Jewish institutions. Nor would it be called off if Israel were again to offer the Palestinians what they were offered in 2000-2001 by Ehud Barak or in 2008 by Ehud Olmert. One of the speakers made it clear that the BDS movement targeted the occupation of all Arab lands, including those 'stolen' in 1948 by the partition and Israel’s declaration of statehood. She demanded a full right of return of every Palestinian who ever left Israel, without, of course, mentioning the equal number of Jews who were displaced from Arab and Muslim countries. In the end, the goal of BDS is the end - of Israel. Two confusing and muddled speeches are not going to change minds about that existential issue.
Nor were very many minds changed regarding the important and principled controversy over whether academic departments of universities should be sponsoring and endorsing one-sided propaganda advocacy events, such as the BDS event that was co-sponsored by the political science department of Brooklyn College. The reason minds were not changed about this critical issue is that the New York Times, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other “arbiters” of right and wrong deliberately distorted what was at stake. They willfully distorted the issue into one of free speech and academic freedom, ignoring the sound argument of those of us who favored the event going forward, but opposed departmental sponsorships of a one-sided, non-academic hate fest. They never addressed the issue of sponsorship, preferring to rail against the non-issue of censorship. It took a thoughtful ad in The New York Times by the Anti-Defamation League to point out the dispositive difference between trying to stop an event and trying to raise principled objections to academic departments lending their imprimatur to hate speech that advocates denial of academic freedom to Israeli professors who are Jewish.
To be sure, they were a small number of politicians who were demanding that the event be cancelled, but that was not the thrust of the serious objections, as the ADL has pointed out. And no serious consideration was ever given to cancelling the speeches. By using those censorial extremists to deflect attention away from the principled objections to departmental sponsorship of hate speech, the New York Times and Bloomberg turned a useful teaching moment into a cheap opportunity to claim the mantle of free speech and academic freedom, when those concerns were not really at stake.
The ADL put the issue well when it issued the following challenge:
“Suppose Brooklyn College had brought to campus two members of the Ku Klux Klan who were going to talk about why America must remain a white-dominated country and how non-white people were ruining the country. There would be appropriate outrage about the presence of such speakers at a diverse campus like Brooklyn’s but a recognition that even hate-filled voices have a right to be heard.
"If, however, the sociology department would have sponsored these speakers, the reaction, at least among some, would have been very different.
"I bring this hypothetical because few people would say that the KKK merely represents a different point of view on race in America. While their right to speech is constitutionally protected, their message is clearly one of hate. The Anti-Defamation League will defend freedom of speech, even if it’s hateful; but there is a huge difference between defending one’s right to give a speech in the public square as opposed to using university dollars to sponsor a hate-fest.”
I doubt that the Brooklyn College political science department would co-sponsor a talk by Naftali Bennett in the name of free speech and academic freedom. He would be allowed to speak, though some of the same professors who demanded free speech rights for BDS advocates would try to stop Bennett from expressing his views, as they have tried to stop Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Michael Oren from expressing their opinions. But no department would sponsor Bennett’s talk. I wonder whether they will even co-sponsor an anti-BDS talk by me, when the Brooklyn College Hillel invites me to give one. This is what I call “the shoe on the other foot” test of free speech and academic freedom. Let’s see if the Brooklyn College political science department passes it.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Trials of Zion.