NEW YORK // The Palestinian-Israeli conflict inspires political activism on college campuses across the United States, but rarely has the issue so regularly affected academic life as at Brooklyn College, which has large numbers of Orthodox Jews and Arabs in its student body.
It has been less than a year since a book by a Brooklyn College professor, Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, was made required reading for first-year undergraduates in the college’s writing programme. The decision sparked a national controversy after a conservative blogger, Bruce Kesler, a graduate of the college, labelled Mr Bayoumi a “radical pro-Palestinian” and the country’s conservative media seized on the issue as an example of political correctness allegedly run amok.
In November, tensions between pro-Palestinian and Jewish student organisations spiked after a mock Israeli checkpoint was constructed on campus.
The latest incident occurred before the current term began, when the college at first revoked the hiring of an adjunct professor after a local state assemblyman accused the teacher of supporting Palestinian suicide bombings.
The decision not to hire Kristofer Petersen-Overton set off a storm of accusations, with many members of the Brooklyn College’s faculty claiming the school had trampled on the principle of academic freedom because of political pressure.
The controversy began on January 25 when a student in the course, Dina Kupfer, received a copy of the course reading list and approached the chair of the political science graduate programme, Mark Ungar, and complained of pro-Palestinian bias.
In a column published in Monday’s edition of the college’s campus newspaper, The Excelsior, Ms Kupfer wrote that the course reading list featured many “discredited” critics of Israel that ignore the Israeli narrative of the conflict. She did not respond to requests for an interview.
Afterwards, a state assemblyman, Dov Hikind, wrote letters to the college’s president and the chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), to which Brooklyn College belongs, claiming that the syllabus was biased and that Mr Petersen-Overton supported Palestinian suicide bombings, which he denies.
“There’s a huge difference between studying suicide bombings and supporting them,” Mr Ungar said.
The college first informed Mr Petersen-Overton, who is working on his doctorate at the CUNY Graduate Centre, that he would not be hired to teach because he lacked sufficient academic credentials to teach a graduate-level course.
Mr Petersen-Overton said this explanation was disingenuous because CUNY regularly hires adjuncts with lesser qualifications. “They were scared because a rich alumnus took Brooklyn College out of his will because they stood by [Mr Bayoumi and his book],” Mr Petersen-Overton said, referring to Mr Kesler, who said he had cut out a “significant bequest” to the college from his will. “But in doing so they’ve turned this into a much bigger controversy.”
Mr Ungar said: “I appoint adjuncts and I thought Kris would be a good fit for the class.”
After meeting with the political science faculty who, at the end of January, had voted unanimously to hire Mr Petersen-Overton to teach the course, Brooklyn College’s president, Karen Gould, reversed the school’s decision. She said in a statement: “Based on information that has come to light, they [the faculty] are confident he has sufficient depth of knowledge and the intellectual capacity to successfully lead a graduate seminar. The provost now supports their recommendation, and I am in full agreement.”
Mr Petersen-Overton said the “extra information” referred to was “the deluge of dozens of letters from some of the most important academics in the world”.
The school continues to deny that Mr Hikind’s intervention led the provost to revoke the hire initially, and maintains that administrators were concerned about Mr Petersen-Overton’s lack of credentials.
“The chancellor didn’t promise Hikind anything. He just took the call, nothing beyond that,” Brooklyn College spokesman Ernesto Mora said last month.
Mr Petersen-Overton said he was “happy that academic freedom prevailed in the end”.
But Mr Hikind, the Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, in an interview on February 1 with the Gothamist website, expressed his dismay. “The most bizarre thing is the change that happened … who was intimidated, who was coerced? I don’t know. I’m just surprised by the entire behaviour. We’re going to monitor this particular professor.”
Others lamented the way in which political disagreements on the college’s campus were exploited by outside forces looking to score points or further agendas. Mr Ungar said: “Brooklyn is unusual in the world in that you have an insular Jewish community and a large Muslim population side by side, and Brooklyn College is one of the few places where they come together to debate. The students were lost in all of this.”
Faria Imtiaz, 18, a history student and Brooklyn native, said she was annoyed when she first heard of Mr Petersen-Overton’s firing. “I’ve had professors who were pro-Israel, so it wasn’t about his academic integrity. It was about what side of the debate he represented. I just didn’t see the justice in that.”
Sammy Ditchek, 21, a political science student who has also attended university in Israel, disagreed. “At the end of the day, it’s a graduate class with a touchy topic and we should make sure the professor is open to both sides,” he said. “If there’s a history [and] he is leaning either way, he shouldn’t teach the course.”
But both students said that in Brooklyn College classrooms and on its campus, the debate between Muslim and pro-Palestinian students and Jewish students is healthy, and that friendship exists alongside competing political positions. “Most of my close friends at Brooklyn College are Jewish,” Ms Imtiaz said.
Mr Ditchek said: “There is definitely talking in the classroom and there’s a good feel on campus – no one is walking around with hatred.”
Before competing student rallies two weeks ago, one in support of Mr Petersen-Overton and one against his rehiring, Ms Imtiaz says she “fought with a really good friend for an hour before the rallies. First we were standing together but then he went to one rally and I went to the other.”