Discussing Free Speech at Brooklyn College

Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Sarah Aly (l. to r.) listen to a question at an event on the silencing of critics of Israel within academia, at Brooklyn College, on November 20, 2014. (Photo by Matt Surrusco for Voices of NY)

Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Sarah Aly (l. to r.) listen to a question at an event on the silencing of critics of Israel within academia, at Brooklyn College, on Nov. 20, 2014. (Photo by Matt Surrusco for Voices of NY)

Professor Steven Salaita’s scathing tweets last summer criticizing Israel for its actions in Gaza were read aloud by both his supporters and critics at Brooklyn College Nov. 20, during a student-organized event on silencing dissent in academic discourse related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor whose job offer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) was revoked before he was to start teaching classes this fall, after he tweeted denunciations of Israel, spoke at Brooklyn College about academic freedom and attempts on U.S. campuses to stifle political and scholarly views that are critical of the State of Israel.

“I believe it’s becoming increasingly difficult to defend Israel,” Salaita said, which is why, he added, it becomes necessary for Israel’s supporters to censor criticisms before they are made publicly.

Formerly a professor of English at Virginia Tech, Salaita was joined in the discussion at Brooklyn College’s Student Center by Katherine Franke, a Columbia University law professor, and Corey Robin, chair of the political science department at Brooklyn College.

The event was attended by approximately 125 people, many of them professors and activists, and a few dozen Brooklyn College students. Some sported black-and-white checkered scarves, the kaffiyeh, known as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

“I think it’s just absolutely a fundamental principle that people should not be penalized at work for what they say politically,” said Robin, who moderated the discussion.

As Robin read aloud some of Salaita’s most controversial tweets, giving Salaita an opportunity to explain his 140-character diatribes, some elicited applause from a few people in the audience.

Regarding one tweet, which critics interpreted as Salaita claiming “anti-Semitism” was something “honorable,” Salaita said his views were the opposite, and that equating criticisms of Israel’s actions with anti-Semitism is “not only a stupid thing to do, but it, at least tacitly, alters the meaning of anti-Semitism.” It “devalues the word,” he said.

Salaita’s main message to the audience: You can’t punish people for their political views, or because of how you interpret what they say on Twitter. Salaita is now suing UIUC to force the release of administration officials’ emails related to his firing.

This week, student organizers, academic departments and the administration of Brooklyn College faced criticism over the event, which was co-sponsored by five academic departments, five outside organizations and Brooklyn College’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter.

New York State Assembly members Dov Hikind and Steven Cymbrowitz, both Brooklyn Democrats, called for the event to be cancelled, claiming the speaker, Salaita, is a hater of Israel and the event will only serve to incite anti-Semitism on Brooklyn College’s campus.

In a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, referencing the controversy surrounding previous student-hosted speakers critical of Israel, Cymbrowitz wrote that, “Brooklyn College should not make a habit of turning a deaf ear either to the community it serves, which includes a large Jewish population, or to its major funding source.”

Salaita, who has been on a national speaking tour, and made recent stops on college campuses in New York City and New Jersey, later said the officials trying to get cancelled a discussion on the topic of silencing dissent “need to hone their sense of irony.”

In recent years, on-campus events hosted by SJP groups have faced public criticism, with detractors citing one-sided, anti-Israel bias by invited guest speakers or organizations. An event featuring speakers who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, held at Brooklyn College in February 2013, was criticized by Hikind, 10 New York City Council members, and the well-known attorney and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

During the Q&A session on Thursday, some students spoke out against politicians’ attempts to suppress campus events, past and present.

“This campus belongs to us, more than any City Council member,” said Thomas DeAngelis, a SJP member and senior at Brooklyn College.

Another Brooklyn College student, Michelle Terebelo, who identified herself as Israeli, quoted a Salaita tweet she found offensive.

Terebelo criticized Robin for hosting Salaita in spite of his speech on social media; Robin told her people should not be punished for their political opinions.

“I think you want to see this as a form of hate speech,” he said. “I don’t see it.”

After the event, Salaita said his priority now is to have UIUC’s offer of a tenured position reinstated. “I’m still holding out hope because I think it’s the best solution for all parties involved,” he said.

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