By Hannah Grossman
Published: November 8th, 2017
Posters with the headline “Terrorist Supporters” listed names of Brooklyn College faculty and student supporters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a pro-Palestine group that advocates for international economic pressure through sanctioning and boycotts on Israel, known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions).
The posters were part of a nationwide campaign initiated by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative think-tank labelled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The campaign was launched to combat a “propaganda campaign designed by Hamas.” Horowitz believes this is disseminated by SJP on American college campuses.
“This is a hate group,” Horowitz said in a phone interview about SJP. “You can criticize any government, including Israel, but when it is confined to easily disputable lies then you’re a propagandist.”
Those listed on the posters, which include Brooklyn College administration, felt that the campaign’s political intimidation tactics were inconsistent with academic values, such as promoting diverse opinion, and were unethical, citing safety concerns like doxing.
“People at Brooklyn College have to be free from this kind of hate speech,” BC President Michelle Anderson stated in a school-wide email about the posters.
“Who is she to decide that?” remarked David Seidemann, a professor in the BC Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences who has had free speech issues of his own. An institution that markets itself to foster ideas must allow students to become critical thinkers, according to Seidemann. “An authority figure, labeling something hate and therefore dissuading anyone from examining the argument on the other side. Because if you were to examine the argument, God forbid you come to accept it, you wouldn’t self-identify accepting it, because you would be labeled a hater.”
Seidemann is a long-time proponent of absolute speech; he helped sponsor anti-Islamic political commentator Pamela Geller at Brooklyn College in 2015 as a litmus test of freedom, though he disliked “the flavor” of the narrative she promoted.
“I will do this campaign every year until [Brooklyn College] stops supporting BDS groups; 3,000 Jews [at Brooklyn College] are subject to hate and intimidations,” Horowitz said. Pro-Palestine political displays such as “die ins” and “mock checkpoints” were considered intimidating in the past to some Jewish students at Brooklyn College, but were ruled to be protected speech.
Horowitz also accuses SJP of “terrorist support” because of funds they allegedly received from national organizations with connections to terrorist entities. Hamas, for example, which is the elected governing power in Gaza and an internationally-classified terrorist organization by European courts, the UAE and the United States, has been accused of indirectly supporting SJP through an intricate vine of affiliations and transactions.
There isn’t any known direct money trail that links Brooklyn College SJP with Hamas. The Horowitz campaign has also never provided any evidence to suggest malicious intent that activists have an agenda connected to outside interests, other than their political views.
Those who appeared on The Freedom Center’s posters were selected either because they were affiliated with City University of New York (CUNY) investigations of anti-Semitism or because they were listed by the Canary Mission, a watchdog group of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity.
Former students who are listed on the poster, Sarah Aly and Thomas DeAngelis, were tried by BC in disciplinary hearings after allegedly chanting, “Zionism out of CUNY,” in an open meeting about tuition hikes. Anderson’s predecessor, Karen Gould, remarked, “[they] directed hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community.”
Their disruption culminated in NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $485 million cut to CUNY, which cited anti-Semitism. An investigation followed in many of the CUNY schools, and the report detailed an event hosted by SJP which featured Steven Salaita, a BDS advocate, after he was fired from his tenured position after a slew of rant-like tweets that some interpreted as anti-Semitic.
Samir Chopra’s and Corey Robin’s departments sponsored the event with Salaita following his dismissal from academia from the University of Illinois. “I was speaking up on behalf of other people…in Salaita’s case, I was protecting a professor’s academic freedom rights,” Chopra said in an interview.
“I think I would not get a job now based on that kind of publicity,” Chopra said. Many fear that campaigns like Horowitz and the Canary Mission try to intimidate people from speaking out. “You know I have a wife and kids,” said Chopra.
Chopra posted on his blog that Brooklyn College should file a libel suit on his behalf against Horowitz.
“Calling someone a terrorist supporter is an allegation of criminal activity,” Chopra said. “This is not about warning students on campus that there are terrorist professors on campus; none of my students are scared of me. It’s about tagging people in such a way that they feel apprehensive; they feel nervous that this is a topic they shouldn’t speak up on.”
Ayah Aly, the current President of SJP, recently published an op-ed in The Kingsman calling the Horowitz center libelous and defamatory.
“On behalf of Brooklyn College’s Students for Justice in Palestine, I fully condemn the false allegations made by Horowitz, his accomplices and Professor Cherry against our organization and those who’ve made advances in organizing within CUNY, and embody the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement on the Brooklyn College campus,” she wrote. Aly did not respond to a request for comment after her publication in The Kingsman.
Professors from different backgrounds have strong opinions about the Horowitz Center. “Everything that David Horowitz says is a lie, and even if David Horowitz says something that’s true, when it comes out of his mouth it’s still a lie,” said distinguished professor and renowned media critic Eric Alterman of the English department.
Whether or not Brooklyn College administration, Chopra, Aly, or any of the individuals named on the posters move forward and continue the battle over the ethical principles of these posters, the poster’s ability to stir controversy and create dialogue about the subject is undeniable. Whether or not the posters are indeed “anti-Muslim” is a much larger, abstract, and existential issue.
*An earlier version of this story stated that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has funded SJP in the past. No concrete evidence of CAIR funding SJP has been found, and the statement has since been removed from this story.*