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Rules of Engagement: How to Discuss the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The student center at Brooklyn College will be abuzz Thursday evening at 6:30 when two speakers propose boycotting, divesting and applying sanctions on Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. The run-up to the panel discussion has ignited a huge flap between supporters and opponents of Israel and between commentators with rival perspectives on what counts as academic freedom. Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg weighed in:

Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, 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.

The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.

You know, the freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system, and take that away and higher education in this country would certainly die.

The mayor was colorful and brash, as usual (an implicit comparison between Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and Brooklyn New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, really?). But as I argue this afternoon at the Economist, Bloomberg hit the nail on the head. The premises and goals of the anti-Israel BDS movement are fundamentally mistaken, but attempts to pressure the college to withdraw its sponsorship of the discussion are equally indefensible.

While I find no merit in the argument from Alan Dershowitz that pro-Israel students are somehow “silenced” when the political science department sponsors an event that challenges their views, I would not have voted to sponsor such an event myself. There are better and worse ways to debate hot-button political questions, and a BDS-only presentation is bound to be a one-sided event with little opportunity for real discussion or a consideration of the complexities of this seemingly intractable conflict.

At the Los Angeles Times today, Todd Gitlin falls into the trap of assuming that all debates are created equal:

When two students expressed their concern at Brooklyn College, the political science chairman, Paisley Currah, wrote back: “You and like-minded colleagues should attend the event, voice your views and use this event as an opportunity to generate more dialogue and discussion among students. Perhaps you and your colleagues could even organize a panel discussion of your own.”

With these words, Currah was channeling John Stuart Mill, to the effect that education and enlightenment benefit when minority views are heard, partly because these views may, in the end, turn out to be right to some degree, and partly because the majority, when forced to confront objections, may well find its understanding sharpened and its previously stale views refreshed.

Mill is evidently not so much in vogue now, as Israel-right-or-wrong advocates seem to believe that their case is a delicate hothouse flower that will wither under any adverse exposure.

But Mill would not be jazzed by tonight’s BDS event at Brooklyn College. He would want to see multiple points of view represented on the panel, not an ideological position that is presented and rehashed, with another intellectually sealed, monochrome pro-Israel panel presentation to be held on a different date. A better forum would be a moderated affair with a representative from BDS, a Palestinian moderate, a liberal Zionist and a greater-Israel Zionist so that the spectrum of views could be aired, tested, compared and debated. The idea is to talk to each other, not to preach to the converted and provoke the screams of the other side. If there is to be a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, it will be through negotiation, not entrenched extremist views shouted from a stage.

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