All of New York City’s Democratic mayoral candidates and a handful of congressmen have asked a public college in Brooklyn to withdraw its political science department’s co-sponsorship of a panel discussion on the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
In a January 31 letter, the congress members and mayoral candidates decried the department’s co-sponsorship of the February 7 event and urged its withdrawal “rather than send the message to [Brooklyn College] students and to the world that the divisive perspective offered by the organizing groups is Brooklyn College’s official view. “
Corey Robin, a prominent Brooklyn College political science professor, pronounced himself “shocked” at what he and other critics of the politicians’ letter see as a case of political interference in the academy.
Noting that the letter writers were pressing the president of Brooklyn College and the chairman of the political science department to withdraw the department’s co-sponsorship, Robin said, “It doesn’t really get much more concerning than that.”
Brooklyn College has so far stood by its professors. “We as an institution are not going to tell members of our faculty what they can and cannot choose to support,” Jeremy Thompson, Brooklyn College spokesman, told Channel 7, New York’s local ABC affiliate.
A spokesman for Rep. Jerry Nadler, the Upper West Side Jewish politician who initiated the letter, said that it wasn’t an attempt to limit speech, but rather an objection to the political science department’s co-sponsorship of the event.
“Any professor who would want to speak on an issue, we’d never limit that. Any student who wanted to, we wouldn’t limit that,” said Ilan Kayatsky, a Nadler spokesman. “The appearance was that they have given the college’s imprimatur to this event…on a very controversial, sensitive issue to many.”
In their letter, Nadler and his co-signers argued that by cosponsoring an event on the hot button issue featuring only speakers who support the BDS movement, “the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate.”
This isn’t the first time that New York City officials have attempted to involve themselves in the workings of the City University of New York, the publicly funded institution of which Brooklyn College is a part
In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo asked CUNY to discipline Leonard Jeffries, a tenured CUNY professor who had made inflammatory remarks about Jews. And in 2011, former New York City mayor Ed Koch called on CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld to resign after Wiesenfeld attempted to block the university’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice from awarding an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner. Wiesenfeld objected to Kushner’s criticism of Israel in some of his work.
“He’s obsessed. He’s obsessed with the state of Israel,” Koch said of Wiesenfeld in an interview with the Forward at the time.
Nineteen New York City politicians signed the January 31 letter, including mayoral candidates Christine Quinn, John Liu, Bill de Blasio, and Bill Thompson. Public Advocate candidates Tish James and Dan Squadron also signed, as did U.S. Representatives Hakeem Jeffries, Nydia Velazquez, and Yvette Clarke.
The press release from Nadler’s office announcing the letter called the signatories “progressive Brooklyn and citywide elected officials.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.