USA: Union uses ‘academic freedom’ to attack academic freedom – the case of PSC CUNY

A few years back, British unions of academics debated the question of whether to show their solidarity with the Palestinians by boycotting Israeli academics.

Eventually that tactic was dropped in part because of a very effective campaign by many academics and others who argued that a boycott of Israelis constituted an infringement of academic freedom.

Even though British unions eventually backed off the academic boycott in large part due to what their lawyers were telling them (it would have been a breach of British and European anti-discrimination laws), there remains widespread support for the academic boycott of the Jewish state.  And the more general campaign in support of boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) targetting the Jewish state remains quite popular in other British unions.

In the USA, where unions have been considerably more balanced in their approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the teachers unions have been particularly supportive of a two-state solution and opposed to the academic boycott of Israel, we’ve had an unexpected — and worrying — development in recent days.

Brooklyn College, a part of the City University of New York, decided to have its Political Science Department sponsor a forum on the BDS movement.  Just in case anyone was confused about what this meant, the title of the event was to be “BDS Movement against Israel”.  According to reports, the event excluded alternative points of view (such as those who opposed BDS) and would serve as a platform for those who demonize and seek to isolate Israel.

Not surprisingly, the college came under fire — and not from pro-Likud, pro-settlements right-wing types, but from liberal and progressive politicians.  They even posted an open letter  which said in part:

“We collectively believe that the BDS movement is a wrongheaded and destructive one, and an obstacle to our collective hope for a peaceful two-state solution.  These simplistic and one-sided approaches do a disservice to the cause of peace and stability by unfairly placing blame entirely on one side, and by attempting to delegitimize one party on the world stage, and will do nothing to bring either party back to earnest negotiations or enhance a better understand of complexity of this conflict.  It is our understanding that at this event, a strategy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel will be encouraged, and there will be no counter-perspective offered.”

Yesterday, the union representing academics in the City University of New York — the Professional Staff Congress — chose to wade into the dispute.

Instead of backing the progressives who composed the open letter, their President, Barbara Bowen, chose to defend Brooklyn College and their right to host an event to promote boycotts and sanctions targetting Israel.

Bowen chose to use the argument that until now had been used primarily by opponents of BDS.  She wrote “I write to express the support of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY for your January 28, 2013 statement reaffirming that your administration will “uphold the tenets of academic freedom” at Brooklyn College. The 25,000 members of the PSC appreciate your holding firm, even when under fire, to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.”

In other words, Bowen — and presumably the union she heads — believes that the opponents of academic freedom (those who would isolate, censure and demonize Israelis and those academics who collaborate with Israelis) deserve a platform where they can espouse their views, unchallenged, and hosted by the university.

One wonders if all PSC members support their President’s decision, or if voices will be heard criticizing her.