There is something particularly poisonous about the kind of political opportunism on display at Brooklyn College right now. Unfortunately, it’s all déjà vu for me and my former colleagues in the political science department. The Brooklyn College chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) recently organized a panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) featuring noted Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti and internationally renowned philosopher Judith Butler. It promises to be an exciting evening, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Harvard law professor (and Brooklyn College alumnus) Alan Dershowitz and New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind successfully canvassed support from a number of politicians, and managed to transform a standard panel discussion on a controversial issue into a cause for pious outrage. The discussion is scheduled to take place tomorrow and, thanks to a massive backlash against such unwarranted political pressure, it will take place tomorrow. Yet, the rapid manufacture of a national controversy in this case reveals, once again, the tenuous state of academic freedom on our campuses and the ease with which extra-academic influence stifles free debate.
BDS has made enormous strides in the last few years as a nonviolent form of resistance to Israel’s occupation, so it shouldn’t be surprising that student activists at Brooklyn College would seek to host a discussion on the tactic. Of course, BDS is not without controversy and the issue is rightly being debated across the country and around the world. But this is Brooklyn College, where a number of earlier controversies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have snowballed into minor national scandals. One does not simply… criticize Israel at Brooklyn College. I know this better than I’d like to.
Continue reading Not About BDS
Good research is often controversial. In the social sciences, the exchange of new ideas, new interpretations of history, and the excavation of counter-hegemonic or what Michel Foucault would call “subjugated” knowledge unsettles and upsets received wisdom. For those of us fortunate enough to study a region as eternally fascinating and intellectually demanding as the Middle East, I think this point is especially salient. And for those of us who both research and teach these subjects in a post-9/11 United States it is more relevant still. In the decade since that terrible tragedy, we have witnessed the emergence of a resurgent anti-intellectualism both in the halls of government and on our campuses. As the Bush administration pursued policies of reckless destruction abroad, self-appointed guardians of the academy swiftly appeared on the domestic front, contributing to the jingoistic fervor of the time by encouraging students to report on the alleged anti-American and anti-Israeli biases of their professors. Couching a narrowly authoritarian vision of the University in an Orwellian discourse of “tolerance” and even “academic freedom,” outspoken ideologues like David Horowitz insist that the academy suffers from insufficient “balance.” Of course, such attacks have little to do with a genuine concern for pedagogical practice; rather, they are the culmination of the Right’s long-standing attempt at eliminating the last vestiges of progressivism and critical intellectual inquiry from the American political landscape. Continue reading Academic Freedom & Palestine: A Personal Account
While labor lags behind other social movements in Internet organizing, some inspiring models are emerging. At the beginning of the year, Kristofer Petersen-Overton—an adjunct—was fired from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, just after a right-wing Zionist politician criticized his course on the Middle East for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. In an opinion piece for the CUNY Graduate Center’s newspaper, Petersen-Overton wrote:
In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remission, access to subsidized health care for my family, and financial compensation for the spring semester in a time of serious economic uncertainty. If the college’s decision stands, it should send a chill throughout the entire adjunct community.
CUNY graduate students—led by political science Ph.D. candidate, Michael Busch—mobilized, using what they had: eloquence, access to other scholars, and Internet savvy. They started a blog on the issue and solicited letters from a wide swath of intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani. The administrators were bombarded with letters urging them to reconsider their decision, and there was some press about the matter. (Full disclosure: I also wrote a letter.) All the letters went up on the blog, which only inspired more people to write. After just a few days of this epistolary assault, Petersen-Overton was rehired.
* Excerpt from Liza Featherstone, “Caught in the Web: The Teacher Union Counterattack,” New Labor Forum 20, no. 2 (2011): 92-95.
The year began with threats of violence against Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center, following Glenn Beck’s repeated denunciations of Piven on his Fox network show and the posting of her home address on his blog. At the same time, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a PhD student in political science hired to teach a course on Middle Eastern politics at Brooklyn College, was fired just days before his first class following a complaint to the Chancellor by Assemblymember Dov Hikind. Continue reading Stephen Leberstein: Open Season on Academics
Now that the City University of New York board of trustees has reversed course and approved an honorary degree for Tony Kushner, it is time for the Jewish establishment to reflect upon its failure to speak out. Jewish history tells us that silence is complicity. While individual Jews and progressive Jewish organizations, such as Jews Say No!, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against Islamophobia, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Shalom Center, and J Street joined those protesting CUNY’s earlier decision to withdraw its initial offer of an honorary degree to Kushner, not one of the mainstream Jewish organizations seemed to think the trustees did anything wrong in punishing someone for his dissenting views on Israel. Neither the American Jewish Committee nor Congress, not the Anti-Defamation League, not the Jewish Community Relations Council, not Hillel. Continue reading Alan Levine: Jews Are Dishonored by a Blind Defense of Israel
The taboo surrounding critical discussion of Israel in the United States never ceases to amaze me. But when the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) recently decided not to grant an honorary degree to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner because of his views on Israel, it felt personal.
Three months ago, I found myself at the center of a similar controversy over my appointment to teach a course in Middle East Politics at Brooklyn College, a CUNY school. Lacking any evidence to support the charge, a local politician described me as “pro-suicide bomber” and pressed for my dismissal. Within 48 hours and before I had held a single session of the course, the college administration intervened to cancel my appointment. My case set off a groundswell of support from academics and activists around the world and Brooklyn College eventually reinstated me just in time for classes to begin. Continue reading Tony Kushner and the Corporatisation of CUNY
Dear members of the board:
I am writing to protest your vote to overturn John Jay College’s decision to grant an honorary degree to the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. I’m sure you’ve been inundated with messages of support for Mr. Kushner, but I would like to add my drop to the flood and urge you to reconsider this ill-conceived decision.
I recently experienced the same kind of vicious, irrational attacks that have been leveled against Mr. Kushner as the target of controversy surrounding my firing and rehiring at Brooklyn College. At the time, your colleague and fellow trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld made disparaging comments about me and my scholarship to the press. Apparently he’s back at work enforcing ideological conformity on Israel by snubbing a world-renowned playwright. Continue reading Letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees, Re: Tony Kushner
Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 6.30 PM
Light Refreshments 5:30-6
PSC-CUNY Union Hall
61 Broadway, 16th floor
(photo ID required)
Frances Fox Piven : Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center, author of Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America
Anita Levy , Associate Secretary, Academic Freedom Dept., AAUP on the national context
Blanche Wiesen Cook (invited) on political implications
Clarence Taylor on the historical context
Kristofer Petersen-Overton on the vulnerability of contingent faculty
Stephen Leberstein, moderator
Refreshments at 6 PM, program at 6:30 in the union hall.
Friday April 8th, 2011 @ 7:30 PM
The Brecht Forum
451 West Street (that’s the West Side Highway) between Bank & Bethune Streets
Join us for a conversation on the fightback against academic repression and its connection to Palestine, Islamophobia and academic freedom on US campuses. The story this past semester of Kristofer Petersen-Overton at Brooklyn College will be a focus as we connect that story to the bigger issues.
Kristofer Petersen-Overton is a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has a Masters of Social Science in Development Studies from Aalborg University in Denmark. He worked for five months for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza in 2007-2008 and was back in Palestine in 2009. Currently he is teaching a masters-level course in Middle East Politics at Brooklyn College.
Joel Kovel is an activist, a widely read author, and a former professor at Bard College. He was the Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senator from New York in 1998 and sought the Green Party’s nomination for U.S. President in 2000. His numerous books include The Enemy of Nature (2002; 2nd ed., 2007) and Overcoming Zionism (2007).
Ellen Schrecker is a professor of American History at Yeshiva University. She is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on McCarthyism in the academy. Professor Schrecker is the author of numerous books including No Ivory Tower (1986) and, most recently, The Lost Soul of Higher Education (2010).
More information @ brechtforum.org
Friday, March 25, 2011, 6-8 PM
Light Refreshments 5:30-6
PSC-CUNY Union Hall
61 Broadway, 16th floor
(photo ID required)
Ervand Abrahamian : Professor of Iranian and Middle East History, Baruch College, CUNY
Yoav Peled : Professor of Political Science, Israeli politics, Tel Aviv University, currently visiting New School
Kristofer Petersen-Overton : Adjunct Lecturer of Political Science, Palestinian politics, Brooklyn College
Barbara Bowen : President, PSC-CUNY, recently returned from Wisconsin’s political struggles