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Reading about it online, you would think that the controversy over this year’s assigned reading for students new to Brooklyn College would have led to fevered student and faculty protests by now, making the campus the latest to be roiled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But so far at least, the furor over the book — “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” by Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate English professor at Brooklyn College – is unfolding a bit like the debate over the planned Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan: much of the intensity seems far afield, while the response in the neighborhood itself is more muted.
The seeds were planted last winter, when professors in the English Department, with Donna Wilson, the dean of undergraduate studies, chose this year’s “common reader”: a book given to all freshmen and transfer students in an effort to provide a common experience at the outset of the school year. The books are generally set in New York City, have a biographical element and are written by authors available to speak on campus.
In past years, the committee has selected Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” This year it picked Dr. Bayoumi’s 2008 book, which profiles seven Arab-Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
After learning of the choice, Bruce Kesler, an alumnus living in California, wrote a blog post last Friday, entitled “I Just Disinherited My Alma Mater.”
“I just updated my will and trust and, with heavy heart, cut out what was a significant bequest to my alma mater, Brooklyn College,” he wrote.
In his post, Mr. Kesler described Dr. Bayoumi as a “radical pro-Palestinian professor.”
“Most recently, Bayoumi edited a book, ‘Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict,’ defending it and calling it Israel’s Selma, Alabama, the focal point for US civil rights struggles in the 1960s,” Mr. Kesler wrote.
On his blog post, he quoted Dr. Bayoumi’s earlier book, the one being read at Brooklyn College, as saying that the American government “limits the speech of Arab-Americans in order to cement United States policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Preposterous,” Mr. Kesler wrote. “When I attended in the 1960s, Brooklyn College – then rated one of the tops in the country — was, like most campuses, quite liberal. But, there was no official policy to inculcate students with a political viewpoint. Now there is. That is unacceptable.”
On Tuesday, The Daily News published an interview with Mr. Kesler. On Wednesday, The New York Post published an op-ed by Ronald Radosh, a professor emeritus of history at City University of New York, who wrote that the decision to bequeath this one book to all new students was an effort to “force-feed them one point of view, without even a pretense of providing a conflicting assessment.”
Jonathan Helfand, a professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College, said he had voiced similar concerns to the college’s president, and in a letter that he circulated to friends and colleagues.
“In the name of diversity, which we pride ourselves on at Brooklyn College, was it right to offer this large number of students exposure to just one point of view on a very hot-button issue?” Dr. Helfand asked. “I think it sets a bad precedent to only allow one voice to be heard and not to really allow students to be part of the dialogue.”
A statement from Brooklyn College Hillel, a campus Jewish center, said it was “in agreement with the objectives of the common reading assignment,” and that while Hillel officials had “requested assurance” from the college president that Dr. Bayoumi would not offer his political views during discussions with students, he had so far been “respectful and stayed on the subject matter.”
“We appreciate that,” the statement continued.
Dr. Bayoumi said in a telephone interview that he did not consider the book anti-American. It begins, he said, with “a love song to Brooklyn” and ends with a passage describing a block party in Brooklyn as a metaphor for the United States. “Hardly anti-American sentiments,” he said.
By telling of the difficulties that young Arab-Americans have faced post-9/11, he says, the book “reaffirms the bedrock values of the nation.”
At a session on Tuesday at which he discussed the book with some 65 students, he said, he received plenty of questions about how he found the people he wrote about, and whether he ever felt like “a problem” himself. The most critical comment, he said, came from a student who first praised his writing style.
“She did not like the title,” he said.
Dr. Wilson, the undergraduate dean, said the book was chosen in January or February, before the intense national debate over the planned Islamic center near ground zero.“The context has changed, and that may have some effect on the degree to which the responses have been maybe more emotional than they would have been,” she said. “We knew that it could create some difficult conversation, but we are used to handling difficult conversation.”