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Anti Israel Rhetoric Raises Alarm at Brooklyn College

Growing aggressiveness of new Palestinian Club startles Jewish students on a relatively quiet campus.

Published in the Jewish Week

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Special To The Jewish Week

In a discomforting scene last month, three young Palestinians found themselves detained at an Israeli “checkpoint,” where an unsympathetic soldier ordered them to kneel on the pavement, hands behind their backs, and blindfolded them. As shouting began, both by the soldier and by the three detained Palestinians, the possibility of violence seemed to become a real possibility.

The scene took place not on the West Bank, but at Brooklyn College, where the school’s year-old Palestinian Club created a mock Israeli checkpoint only days before Thanksgiving. Students affiliated with the club portrayed the soldier and detainees, hoping it would draw attention from peers, as other students engaged bypassers in conversations about Israeli policies in the West Bank.

How much attention it captured is debatable on a campus of more than 16,000 students, all of whom commute to school and most of whom hold down part-time or full-time jobs in addition to their studies. Neither of the college’s two student newspapers carried news of the event, either before it took place or afterward. Moreover, if leaders of the Palestinian Club and the campus Hillel foundation agree on anything, it’s that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is below the radar of most students at Brooklyn College, including most Muslims.

But it certainly captured the attention of students and staff members at Hillel, none of whom encountered any organized anti-Israel activity on campus in previous years. Indeed, the checkpoint surprised a large portion of the Hillel community, prompting many to wonder if the type of aggressive behavior associated with anti-Israel activists at other schools might be coming to their own campus. It also prompted a debate on the part of many at Hillel over how they should respond.

“The environment on campus has shifted drastically since last January,” when the Palestinian Club first became active, said Nadya Drukker, executive director of Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College.

Drukker acknowledged that none of Hillel’s events have been disrupted and that none of its speakers have been shouted down, a common event on other campuses. At the University of California Irvine, for instance, Islamic extremists repeatedly heckled a speech earlier this year by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. What’s new, though, is that an official student club is now promoting the international campaign to demonize or delegitimize Israel — a major shift on a campus where Mideast politics were rarely discussed, Drukker said.

One sign that things were beginning to change took place last April, when the Palestinian Club sponsored a talk by Norman Finkelstein, the author and academic known for his fierce and vitriolic criticism of Israel.

“[Members of the club] see the Jewish people as the oppressor, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Israel or here,” at Brooklyn College, said Marcos Askenazi, Hillel’s director of community affairs. Askenazi said Hillel has reached out to the Palestinian Club through emails, phone calls and personal interactions, suggesting a weekly dialogue or joint activities, only to be rebuffed each time.

Noting that Hillel has always enjoyed a close relationship with the school’s administration, Drukker doesn’t blame the college for the current atmosphere. But others do.

Howard Wohl, president of Tanger Hillel and a 1964 graduate of Brooklyn College, attributes much of the atmosphere to an episode that took place this summer, when the college instructed all its incoming students to read a controversial book edited by Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at the school. The book — “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America” — is a collection of personal stories by and about seven Arabs from Brooklyn. Critics objected to the assignment, saying that Bayoumi takes up the Palestinian cause in his final chapter and provides a decidedly slanted view.

Recalling the episode earlier this month, Wohl said his greatest concern is that Brooklyn College doesn’t start to resemble “too many other campuses in North America,” where, in his view, anti-Israel rhetoric has morphed into anti-Semitism, and hate speech has blossomed under the guise of academic freedom.

In the meantime, Wohl is convinced that academics at Brooklyn College “tend to be disproportionately left wing” or “politically correct,” as they are on “most campuses,” and such positions often translate into being anti-Israel. And while his view is popular on the right, it is not a view that’s universally shared at Hillel. He also believes that many professors use their classrooms “to advocate rather than educate,” hindering open inquiry and leaving some students feeling intimidated.

Another perspective came from Robert Cherry, a board member of Tanger Hillel and an economics professor at Brooklyn College.

Cherry, who wrote an essay earlier this year criticizing the college’s “common reading” assignment, shares Wohl’s belief in the need for vigilance. But he believes that left-of-center faculty members at the college are more energized by the idea of pervasive Islamaphobia in American society than they are by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither does he believe that their attitude carries over into being anti-Israel.

“I have a more hopeful view of Brooklyn College,” Cherry said. “I’d say we’re not at the point yet of widespread animus toward Israel. … We’re not at the point where we should be fearful that this school will become like other schools where there are widespread condemnations [of the Jewish state] and constant confrontations.”

Discussing the issue recently at Tanger Hillel, a three-story, brick and glass building within yards of the Flatbush campus, two of the organization’s student leaders said they, too, have had no problem with the college’s faculty. Yosef Sobel, 22, an intern at Hillel for the Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition, said one or two of his professors have made comments that “weren’t necessarily friendly” to Israel, but they may have been “playing devil’s advocate” simply to spark a discussion. Avigayil Talerman, 21, president of Hillel’s Israel Club, said she’s never heard anti-Israel rhetoric in any of her classes.

A spokesman for the college also said, “The notion that there is an anti-Israel atmosphere at Brooklyn College is without merit.”

Talerman also spoke of Hillel’s cordial relations with the college’s Islamic Society, and how members of that group have attended many of Hillel’s events — an achievement that makes her even more disappointed by the chilly reception from the Palestinian Club.

“We hold an anti-normalization stance on dialogue,” said Eeman Abuasi, 21, a co-founder of the Palestinian Club who grew up in Brooklyn, east Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. “We don’t favor a dialogue with them because [we’re] not on the same political, social and economic level as them. You have one that’s an occupier and one that’s occupied.”

An opponent of a two-state solution, Abuasi also had a ready answer when a reporter noted that her club is in Brooklyn, not the West Bank, and that her fellow students are Jews belonging to Hillel, not occupiers.

“These are people who are Zionist or pro-Zionist, and any dialogue we have is bound to be political,” Abuasi said. She added that she has “no problem talking to [individual] Jewish students. We see them on campus all the time; they’re in my classes, and we do talk.”

Discussing her organization’s mock checkpoint, a guerrilla-theater tactic used at Columbia University last month and at other campuses around the nation, Abuasi dismissed suggestions from Hillel students that her club was distorting reality.

“I don’t want to sound mean or anything, but how would they know what the norm is” on the West Bank, she said. A scenes of Palestinians detained at checkpoints and forced to kneel “is not something I’ve seen once in a blue moon. It’s something I’ve seen frequently.”

As charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become, especially on college campuses, Jews and Palestinians at other schools have come together to sponsor joint events and engage in dialogue, sometimes through Hillel and sometimes through organizations like J Street.

“You’ve got both models out there — confrontation and cooperation,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a Washington-based organization that favors two states for two peoples. “It’s crucial for pro-Palestinian activists to be pro-Palestinian rather than anti-Israel,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Club’s activities led to a heated debate at Tanger Hillel, where about 40 students decided that the proper response wasn’t to adopt the same guerilla-theater tactics, mock blood and all, but to educate their peers about Israeli democracy and its desire for peace. One fruit of that decision came last week, when the Israel Club staffed a table on campus with the college’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Alliance, handing out flyers that noted the rights of gays and lesbians in Israel. The event is the first of many that the Israel Club hopes to organize with other groups on campus, Talerman said.

Wohl sees the current situation on campus as an opportunity for Hillel to educate its own students, as well as others, rather than respond to hard-core rhetoric with more of the same. The response also has to be tailored toward a changing student body, which is much more globally diverse than in the past, he said.

Cherry agrees, but said the education needs to be thoughtful and reflective. Otherwise, he believes, the situation could become so confrontational that both sides would fall back on “talking points,” with the Jewish students quoting Alan Dershowitz and the Palestinian students citing Norman Finkelstein. Neither side would examine its own failings, Cherry said, “and you’d have a proxy debate between Dershowitz and Finkelstein.”