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What was at Stake at Brooklyn College?

[Image of Michael Bloomberg. by MTAPhotos.] [Image of Michael Bloomberg. by MTAPhotos.]

It was an odd spectacle: Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor responsible for a quite a bit of repression against New York activists, was also the one chiding New York politicos for their threats to cut funding for the city’s public colleges. As he quipped, “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

Brooklyn College’s hosting of activist Omar Barghouti from the Boycott National Council and Berkeley professor Judith Butler was the cause of the ruckus. The two are regulars on the pro-Palestine lecture circuit. But Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department’s co-sponsorship of the lecture and an unusually rabid response from the Israel lobby’s right-wing briefly turned the panel into a national controversy. At the peak of the attack, the college received a letter stating: “We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.” The signatories included a number of elected officials with a hand in determining budgets. It was an open assault on academic freedom and the first amendment.

There was a time when such a letter would have chilled academic departments into silence and sent understandably scared students into retreat. But this time, the reaction was quite different, with strong defenses of the rights to freedom of expression and academic freedom from attorney Glenn Greenwald, Brooklyn College president Karen Gould, and, to top it off, the New York Times.

So are times changing? They are.

But not too much.

As the Times was quick to clarify, its editors strongly oppose the boycott, and although they signal their disapproval of Israel’s continued settlement building project, they continue to approve no meaningful action against it. So how should one read such an editorial – one lamenting that “supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests,” and defending “vibrant debate” as healthy for Israel? Or, for that matter, Bloomberg’s “defense” of freedom of speech? What cracks are opening up in the discourse? What pressures are contributing to them? And what are the limits of such cracks?

Popular Mobilization

One thing is clear: The message is inseparable from the moment.

Neither Greenwald, nor Gould, nor Bloomberg’s statements emerge from a vacuum. Greenwald and Gould’s brave defenses of free speech are in part the result of the unmistakable growth of the grassroots movement to defend Palestinian rights. That movement builds on decades of earlier, literally life-imperiling, work done in the past by organizations like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. In their wake, hundreds of chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, city organizations like Brooklyn for Peace and Al Awda NY, and other groups, working constantly over the last seven or eight years, have provided the political space to defend basic rights within the American context.

Their organizing has been central. And so one should laud the courage of a Gould or a Greenwald, while making sure to note that it is the efforts of scores of thousands of unsung activists that have pried open the space not just for a Butler or a Barghouti to speak, but for a Gould or a Greenwald to defend their right to do so.

This organizing and speaking out, buttressed by alternative media organizations, as well as other groups like the Institute for Middle East Understanding that support this work, is beginning to have an effect. Some voices can no longer be ignored, and increasing dissidence within US grassroots movements may be starting to affect elites’ strategic calculus.

But bottom-up dissent is not the only thing affecting the way they talk and, perhaps, they way they think about the conflict. Another factor – probably a more important one – is that the contradictions of Israeli policies are themselves making it harder and harder to control the narrative.

Elite Discomfiture with the Occupation, Historical and Current

To be sure, top-level dispute about Israel is nothing new. Elite dissensus on both the occupation and the Special Relationship goes back at least to the late 1960s. At that time, those arguing for a frontal confrontation with Arab nationalism won out over those pushing a program of “authoritarian developmentalism.” Within such a strategy, the needs of the “moderate” proponents of Arab nationalism – which included popular pressures to control both the development and proceeds from natural resources, particularly petroleum – could be reconciled with the needs of American power. Support for Israel was part-and-parcel of the program of the hardliners, who correctly dismissed as romantic fantasy the notion that the needs of American capital could smoothly co-exist with the needs of the peoples of the Arab world. As Walt Rostow put it, US interests depended on “leaders…who oppose the revolutionary methods of Nasser and Communism.” When Israel slammed the Arab nationalist front-line states in 1967, it settled the debate on its usefulness for US power in the region, marginalizing the so-called “Arabists.”

In turn, decades of support for Israel strengthened a cultural and economic power bloc in Washington that contributes to US imperialism, disciplining dissent but also turning reflexive support for Israel from a settled strategy into an orthodoxy – one which is now proving slightly problematic for state managers. That bloc is what is commonly known as “the Israel Lobby,” a mix of astro-turf cultural institutions harnessing identitarian support for Israeli policies and transnational investors who have a very-vested material interest in making sure Israel continues on its current trajectory.

But by now the hard-liners’ support for Israel and their crushing of even slight strategic dissent has turned into a bit of a freak-show, with the Hagel hearings the butt of jokes on comedy shows. What can be said in satire is often enough what cannot quite be said – but what is often thought – in mainstream Beltway forums. The message is that the dogma of literally unquestioning support for Israel is becoming a small annoyance. As the Times editorial points out, “enforcing that kind of orthodoxy… [is not] in either America’s or Israel’s interest.” But questions of “interest” are a notorious Rorschach test for peoples’ dreams. To whose interests is the Times referring?

The ever-hopeful may interpret this editorial as the Times beginning to slide into actual opposition to the occupation. For the more wishful proponents of one state, the Special Relationship is about to break up, held together only by the dissolving glue of the Lobby.

Such interpretations are a stretch. The “interests” the Times imagines do not encompass the actual end of Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab lands, much less the return of the refugees, or the civil and political equality of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Never mind an aid cut-off. What they indicate is most likely something along the lines of the J Street plan, and its fossilized demands for two states with mutual land swaps, most of the settlement blocs intact, “security” arrangements, and return of the refugees only to the occupied territories. The “orthodoxy” of unblinking American support for Israeli policies muffles those voices noting that 550,000-plus settlers in the West Bank are making it increasingly difficult to sustain the fiction of a two-state settlement.

The present escalating and public furor over settlements and the failure of the “peace process” reflects the difficulty of arriving at a compromise between American “interests” and the “interests” of Israel. Stopping, never mind reversing, the settlement project could act in dangerous ways along caste- and class-based fault lines within Israel. The consequence is that even the more enlightened technocrats cannot consider a meaningful settler withdrawal precisely because to do so would inflict a blow on the Israeli economy and Israeli nationalism from which it would have trouble recovering.

Furthermore, the Times discussion of “American and Israeli interests” intertwines with larger discussions about the future of American imperialism, which are occurring along the axis of the Special Relationship. The underlying question is if militarized accumulation and the destruction of independent nationalism ought to define the American system in the region. Some continue to insist that some other sort of accommodation is possible – a rehearsal of the arguments of the 1960s, with the same general arguments weighing so heavily on one side of the scale. The Gulf States are scared of an “Arab public perception of Iranian power and achievement that in turn empowers segments of the public against the rulers.” A Saudi Nasser, never mind a Khomeini, is the outcome to be avoided at all costs.

As those debates continue, and the Times and others ineffectually posture about the settlements, colonization continues apace and Israel’s colonial counter-insurgency wars continue. The trouble is that those wars and the colonization process within the West Bank they accompany have effects that American planners know they cannot control – within the Arab world, but also within American moderate popular opinion. For those wars reveal that the Palestinian struggle is a classic struggle for national liberation. And they reveal that serial and illegitimate wars against the dispossessed Palestinians and the states rimming Israel’s Levantine frontiers are the only way to suppress that classic struggle.

Further Threats from Below

In the Arab world, these tensions are most dangerous in Egypt. As Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood attempts to carry out a passive revolution, bottling up Mubarak-era political discontent within the political container of the Freedom and Justice Party, many argue that the question of Palestine must be “settled,” even if on imperial terms. Such a settlement would allow for the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty to remain in place, thereby securing Egypt’s “post-revolutionary” place within an American-dominated Middle East. If this does not happen, Palestine threatens to become an accelerant to Egyptian social struggle, by contributing to the sentiment that Arab governments do not represent their people. Nevertheless, the costs, for both Israel and the United States, of an imposed settlement are still high enough that for the moment their governments would rather bank on the Brotherhood being able to control the Egyptian masses and the Palestinian Authority to keep the West Bank in its autocratic grip.

Meanwhile, within American popular opinion, some sectors are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as subversive American support for Israel at the expense of US “interests.” But a much more important sector, at least for the moment, is the Democratic electorate, which needs the illusion of a flawed-but-democratic Israel to maintain its electoral support for the Democratic Party. The ultimate fear is that disillusioned Democratic voters could turn elsewhere as they realize that the party which speaks in their name seldom represents their interests. The turn could be to popular activism: the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign which the Times editors are aware is capable of turning into a strategic threat if it continues to grow. And from BDS, perhaps people will engage in additional popular activism. In turn, that kind of organizing always threatens to slide into a destabilization of the tidy arrangement through which liberal voters electorally sanctify the coronation of the Democrat’s candidate. In the American context, as in the Arab world, support for Palestine is a gateway into more sustained political awareness and action.

So the Times threw such voters a bone too, by acknowledging their rising disquiet but subtly warning off any involvement in actual action that could alleviate that disquiet.

The Limits of Liberalism

Enter the liberal intelligentsia.

Here, we have a solid wall of rejection of the boycott, and as its corollary, rejection of meaningful solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for national liberation. Some writers have responded to this rejection by seeking to call them out on their contradictory commitments.

This is fine, but is also mostly beside the point.

By-and-large, liberal intellectuals’ social role is not to support liberalism, but to support power. Amongst the careerists, the rallying call is to cry about Israel’s shooting but verbally shoot down anyone who wants to do anything about it. Eric Alterman, the crown prince of opportunist rascals, gives us the clearest and most straightforward message of disdain. He groups BDS activists with the Black Panther Party and the American Communist Party as “naïve, idealistic types.” That Alterman thinks it is a slur to be “idealistic” says more about him than about his targets. In any event, it is no insult to be grouped with the Black Panthers, an anti-Zionist organization that engaged in “naïve” activities like setting up breakfast programs for hungry schoolchildren. As for the CPUSA, that it was a deeply flawed organization is not in question. It also organized in the Deep South during the Depression, fighting for civil rights and working with sharecroppers, at a time of white terror against Afro-Americans, a time when those engaging in such organizing were apt to be murdered. Those who put their lives on the line fighting for civil rights need no defense against sixth-rate litterateurs who take checks to support racism.

Of course, those rejecting the boycott may object that, in fact, they do not support Israeli policies. And not all boycott rejecters support settler-colonialism with as much unabashed enthusiasm as Alterman. But none of this changes the fact that rejection of the boycott, no matter what it is accompanied by, is exactly the political posture of Bloomberg.

Those who do not wish to share ground with him ought to rethink their opposition.

The Limits of Free Speech Under Bloomberg

There is also the question of “celebrating” Bloomberg’s so-called “defense” of freedom of speech. It is crucial to recognize that he has no such commitment.

This “defense” was within the fairly narrow purview of academic freedom – something Bloomberg’s voters and the Times’s readership may indeed cherish on a procedural level. Whether or not their commitment is real, they must have recognized that those advocating a total censorship of discussion about BDS were in fact publicizing the boycott. This backfiring is something Israelis, who can indulge fewer fantasies about defending their colonialism, have reminded us of. Furthermore, too easily forgotten is that academic freedom and freedom of expression are freedoms interlocked with larger freedoms associated with political liberty and the right to assemble. Bloomberg’s administration has trampled on those rights for the past decade. Anyway, an administration that makes a habit of spying on Muslims knows that there are far subtler ways to close the space within which political agitation can occur. And of course there is the question of the “freedom” of politics itself in world within which the flood of economic power perennially overruns institutional democratic dikes. Bloomberg does not merely represent that economic power. He personifies it. 

A closer look reveals that Bloomberg’s brand of “freedom” is narrow and restricted. On its flanks are cracked heads and fierce repression of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and a qualitative decline in city support for the CUNY system. Indeed, the systemic underfunding and increased reliance on adjuncts within the CUNY system makes questions of “academic freedom” moot, since academic freedom in the absence of opportunities for tenure is not very much freedom at all.

There is also the question of the origin of these freedoms. Some try to sell a narrative in which rights to freedom of expression and assembly are given. But the reality is that they are won. These rights existed only on paper until popular movements forced an unwilling judiciary to respect them. To forget this fact is to forget that setting the bounds of what it is possible is at the core of the constant struggle between popular movements and the state. For power works in nominally democratic societies not by ordering people what to do, but by narrowing the parameters of the possible.

What Bloomberg gives in one sphere he more than takes away in others. In this, he is just a stand-in for class society more broadly. In America, this method of weakening dissent rests on sustaining the illusion of inclusion in a society that is built on exclusion. And Palestine is not immune from that temptation. The same analysis that concludes that the Times actually cares about the occupation is the same analysis that suggests that Bloomberg actually cares about freedom of speech. It is the same analysis that leads some to support “progressive” Democrats who support colonialism in Palestine – that is, nearly all of them. Indeed, it is the same analysis that suggests that Obama might do something good for Palestinians were he not to have a hand out to certain donors with a special interest in Israel.

All of the analyses, in turn, rest on the foundational assumption that freedom and justice are divisible. The easy declaration is that they are not. But that is not quite the case. It is more accurate to say that when they are divided, the pieces tend to be very small. And the offer from social elites is not to simply give people a small piece of what they wish and leave them be. The offer comes with a threat: that of no social gains at all if people refuse the reduction. In America, that threat goes under the moniker of “conservatism.” And the pressure to take a little bit in lieu of the fear of getting nothing at all is overwhelming. That is how power binds.

And when power’s grip starts to loosen, in come the liberals to taunt activists for their “naiveté,” for daring to think that the way to change things is autonomous action. They urge moderation and mock self-directed activity. They say people ought to wait, and that solutions are being considered if only everyone will be patient. That is called being realistic. If those who reject inaction on settler-colonialism in Palestine in favor of boycotts and sanctions, and who work to change the US policies and popular attitudes that sustain the American outpost’s belligerency are “naïve, idealistic types,” then we should all be so naïve.

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