How The Atlantic Magazine and Mainstream Media Manufactured a BDS Scandal at Syracuse University

Outrage over a film screening at Syracuse is based entirely on absurd speculation of what BDS campaigners might do, but have no intention of doing.

Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

A manufactured scandal about Palestine solidarity campaigners undermining free speech and intimidating scholars and artists is now capturing headlines around the globe, and it is not hard to understand why. The saga, which takes place at Syracuse University (SU), has all of the makings of a hot story, touching on the stifling “political correctness” of the modern university and the supposed role of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) supporters in shutting down debate.

According to the story, which was first told by libertarian Atlantic Magazine columnist Conor Friedersdorf before being picked up by other outlets, BDS supporters on campus created a climate that intimidated a faculty member into disinviting the Israeli filmmaker of the feature-length documentary “The Settlers” from a conference at the school. Freidersdorf uses that narrative to then argue that “fear of ideologically motivated retaliation” is undermining academic freedom.

But there is a serious problem with the story. The entire narrative is based solely on one professor’s baseless speculation about what Palestine solidarity campaigners might do if the film were screened. In reality, BDS supporters on campus have registered no opposition to the film and, in fact, have done nothing at all. In the current climate, however, these facts have not protected the school’s BDS supporters from right-wing attacks.

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“The accusations against BDS supporters in the [Atlantic] article are sheer speculation, and charges of intimidation are entirely backwards,” Laura Jaffee, an SU graduate student and member of the Palestine Solidarity Collective, told AlterNet. “This really feels like pre-emptive repression and fear mongering to subdue growing support for BDS at SU and on campuses throughout the US.”

The film at the center of the controversy was created by Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan, presenting a decidedly negative portrayal of the settlers who occupy Palestinian land in the West Bank and influence government policy.

William L. Blizek, a professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Nebraska, reached out this summer to the producers of the film to suggest a screening at Syracuse University’s upcoming spring conference, titled “The Place of Religion in Film.”

But then in late June, Professor M. Gail Hamner, who teaches in the Syracuse University Religion Department, wrote a letter to Dotan reversing the offer. Her rationale was as follows: "I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come."

Remarkably, the letter includes no evidence to back up Hamner’s fears of a BDS backlash, or that she would "lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues.” Hamner references warnings from unnamed faculty about what the “BDS faction” might do, while noting that she is “politically naïve” on this matter. Ultimately, Hamner’s decision appears driven by the insistence of a single colleague that she vouch for the film first before screening it.

Friedersdorf relied on the single professor's speculation to jump to the conclusion that BDS supporters are behind the intimidation. He wrote: “Hamner should not have acted as she did, but I don’t see her as the villain of this story. She didn’t create the chilling effect to which she succumbed, and she appeared to nix the screening with genuine regret, not censorious eagerness.”

“There is a chilling effect at Syracuse University,” Friedersdorf continued. “Fear of ideologically motivated retaliation is affecting the content of the academic enterprise. Were I Kent Syverud, chancellor and president of Syracuse, I would do my utmost to assess the magnitude of this clear threat to free inquiry on my campus.”

Friedersdorf, who did not reply to a request for an interview, quoted Dotan at length, who argued in an email sent to the professor who originally invited him, “All [Hamner] was concerned about is that BDS activists may not be happy with the screening of an Israeli film at Syracuse. That is really troubling.”

One day after Friedersdorf’s article was published, Hamner issued a public apology, stating: “I allowed my own fear of controversy to rule over good judgment and good teaching.”  

Michele Wheatly, vice chancellor and provost at the university, then emailed the campus to denounce Hamner’s decision and pledge to invite the filmmaker to screen the documentary at the school. “I feel it necessary to reaffirm our commitment to intellectual and respectful debate on controversial issues,” wrote Wheatly.

As the mock outrage continues to grow, Carol Fadda, an associate professor in SU’s English department, told AlterNet that a crucial detail has been entirely ignored: “BDS supporters did not oppose the screening of Mr. Dotan's documentary at SU.”

Amy Kallander, associate professor of Middle East History and supporter of BDS, backed up her assertion. “In this incident,” she told AlterNet, “it’s pretty clear that there was no real involvement of anybody speaking on behalf of BDS or any organized campaign against this filmmaker or the film. It was really a decision made by a faculty member who later said she regretted it. It also happened during the summer, and most people aren’t on campus during the summer.”

In fact, 45 faculty members, students and activists on campus who support BDS even took the step of signing on to a statement which declares, “Counter to media reports, there has been no BDS driven opposition to Mr. Shimon Dotan’s screening of his documentary The Settlers at Syracuse University.”

BDS is an international movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until it abides by international legal conventions. Sparked by Palestinian civil society organizations’ call in 2005 for global tactics similar to those levied to topple apartheid in South Africa, BDS has attracted international support from artists, scholars, students, and human rights campaigners.

The statement by BDS supporters at SU, which was emailed to AlterNet, points out:

As supporters of academic freedom, we endorse open discussions of difficult but necessary topics, including those relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We support the free exchange of ideas on our campus, an important tradition at Syracuse University and a basic tenet of academic principles, ideals, and practices.

We therefore welcome speakers, scholars, and artists whose work relates to Palestinians and Israelis in adherence with the Palestinian civil society’s BDS guidelines. Importantly, these guidelines do not call for the boycott of individuals for being Israeli or for expressing certain views.

Consistent with the principles of academic freedom, we call for a respectful campus environment in which BDS and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be openly debated and discussed.

Yet, this public statement appears to have had little impact on the media narrative. After Friedersdorf first reported the story, it was quickly picked up by national and global outlets, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and Haaretz. Andrew Pessin, Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, wrote an article in The Huffington Post titled, “Syracuse, and the Death of the University.” He argued, “To disinvite an Israeli because BDS will ‘make matters very unpleasant’ is to allow the thugs to determine what gets discussed on campus.”

The far-right blog Legal Insurrection also covered the story, with William A. Jacobson writing: “Given the widespread shout-downs, disruptions and other acts of physical intimidation that are directed at Israeli and pro-Israel speakers on campuses across the country, this intimidation cannot be written off.”

Contrary to this spin, Jaffee argues that “an environment of intimidation is created by the people who work to silence the students, faculty, and staff who support BDS and justice for Palestinians. U.S. universities foreclose conversations about BDS, and students who support BDS and Palestinian rights are often intimidated, harassed, and vilified. Meanwhile Zionist organizations and events are very visible on campuses, and SU in particular has strong institutional ties to Israel.”

This assertion is backed up by research. According to a report released in September 2015 by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, it is Palestine solidarity campaigners who face a chilled free speech environment. According to the report, "Between January 2014 and June 2015 alone, “Palestine Legal responded to nearly 300 incidents of suppression; 85% of those incidents targeted students and professors, on a total of more than 65 US college campuses.” The report states, “The tactics used to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights frequently follow recognizable patterns. Activists and their protected speech are routinely maligned as uncivil, divisive, antisemitic, or supportive of terrorism.”

Fadda argued that these trends disproportionately impact students and faculty who already face other forms of discrimination. “In regards to the broader environment pertaining to academic freedom and free speech on US university campuses, it is supporters of BDS and members of justice for Palestine groups who often experience fear, intimidation, and harassment,” she said. “Such pressures are especially felt/experienced by non-tenured faculty, adjuncts, and students. Moreover, the fact that a lot of these faculty members and students are racialized minorities is noteworthy.”

Kallander said that the impact continues to be felt across the campus community, noting: “People engaged in Palestine solidarity work are even more under scrutiny, especially untenured faculty, women and faculty of color who have to guarantee again and again their support for free speech on campus, their support for open dialogues.”

Editor's note: The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf informed Alternet that he had missed our interview request and volunteered for a subsequent interview regarding his framing of the situation at Syracuse University. Below is the full exchange between the author and Friedersdorf:

AlterNet: You mention ideologically-motivated retaliation or reprisal, as well as a chilling effect, numerous times throughout your piece, and the title is "How Political Correctness Chills Speech on Campus." Yet, no evidence of actual retaliation from BDS organizers is presented. The headline and central narrative of the piece relies on one professor's speculation about an issue she admits she has little familiarity with. Given the U.S. climate of repression targeting Palestine solidarity organizing on campuses across the country, your article reads like a hit piece on activists who have done nothing at all. What's more, you don't examine the nuances of academic boycott, leaving the reader with a false understanding of what BDS supporters are demanding. Are you willing to concede that your your article may have been unfair to Palestine solidarity organizers and BDS supporters at Syracuse University?

Conor Friedersdorf: Sarah, thanks for the opportunity to address my article, your response to it, the inaccuracies in your piece, and why I felt it was unfair. In your article and the paragraph above you mischaracterize my article. As you noted, the headline was "How Political Correctness Chills Speech on Campus." The subhead was, "A documentary film-maker was disinvited from an academic conference because an organizer feared she would be subject to ideologically motivated reprisals for hosting him." And that is exactly what happened. Professor M. Gail Hamner feared that if she allowed filmmaker Shimon Dotan to screen his film at an academic conference she would be subject to ideologically motivated reprisals. Here is how she herself put it in an email to the filmmaker: 

I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come. In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues. Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews.

Clearly I am politically naive. I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation.

Professor Hamner added, "I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations."

Was this an illustration of political correctness? I believe so, despite my misgivings about the term, and I laid out my reasoning in the article by citing a very specific definition of political correctness:

I tend to avoid the term “political correctness” in my coverage of college campuses, but this incident fits the Merriam-Webster definition almost exactly: “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities should be eliminated.”

Professor Hamner conformed to a belief among the colleagues who approached her that a film that could offend political sensibilities should be eliminated from an academic conference. Indeed, she wrote the filmmaker, and the film was in fact excluded from the conference. So my headline about political correctness chilling speech on campus is well substantiated and captures the core matter of concern. And note that while Professor Hamner did speculate in her email about the BDS movement, her observation that colleagues had already approached to warn her about screening the film was not a speculation. 

Of course, that doesn't mean the BDS movement would actually have made trouble for her. Her email makes it crystal clear that she is speculating on that point, and you observed. Even so, I wanted to make it explicitly clear to readers, in my own words, that she was speculating. 

Hence this passage:

If the email was truthful, the decision was made in a strikingly anti-intellectual manner, with Syracuse colleagues speculating that other members of their community would persecute them merely for inviting a filmmaker to show his work. As an outsider,I don’t know whether that judgment reflects an accurate assessment of BDS protesters and a faction in the film and Women/Gender studies departments, or does them a disservice by underestimating their tolerance.

My article could not be more clear that the BDS movement didn't threaten Professor Hamner, that her colleagues speculated that they might, and that the speculation might well underestimate their tolerance. The words could not be more plain. And yet, despite that clarity, here is the egregiously misleading headline on your article: "How The Atlantic Magazine and Mainstream Media Manufactured a BDS Scandal at Syracuse University."

Here is a paragraph in your article:

According to the story, which was first told by libertarian Atlantic Magazine columnist Conor Friedersdorf before being picked up by other outlets, BDS supporters on campus created a climate that intimidated a faculty member into disinviting the Israeli filmmaker of the feature-length documentary “The Settlers” from a conference at the school. Freidersdorf uses that narrative to then argue that “fear of ideologically motivated retaliation” is undermining academic freedom.

That is factually incorrect. The story that I first told does not assert that "BDS supporters on campus created a climate that intimidated a faculty member." Indeed, it talks of "Syracuse colleagues speculating that other members of their community would persecute them..." That is to say, my piece criticizes the speculating colleagues for triggering Hamner's actions, not BDS.

AlterNet: If this unfairness was unintentional, would you like to correct the record?

Conor Friedersdorf: You are the one who needs to issue corrections. In addition to the inaccuracy that I flagged above, there is another passage in your article where you write:

Friedersdorf relied on the single professor's speculation to jump to the conclusion that BDS supporters are behind the intimidation. He wrote: “Hamner should not have acted as she did, but I don’t see her as the villain of this story. She didn’t create the chilling effect to which she succumbed, and she appeared to nix the screening with genuine regret, not censorious eagerness.”

In fact, I did not conclude, did not write, and do not believe that "BDS supporters are behind the intimidation. The quote you marshal as if it reaches that conclusion does no such thing. The fact that I do not think Hamner was the villain in no way implies that I do think BDS was the villain. Your error in reasoning would be more forgivable if my article didn't literally declare that Professor Hamner's fear of a political backlash, were she to screen the film, may do a disservice to BDS and underestimate their political tolerance. 

Later in your article you speak of "mock outrage" over free speech without presenting any evidence that anyone raising speech concerns is doing so disingenuously. 

I assume your inaccuracies were unintentional. Regardless, you should correct your article. 

AlterNet: The legal advocacy group Palestine Legal documented over 60 incidents where criticism of Israeli policy resulted in false allegations of anti-Semitism, often directed against Palestine solidarity activists on campus by powerful pro-Israel forces. Students were even prosecuted at the cost of over a million dollars by the state of California for a brief protest of the Israeli ambassador the US, Michael Oren, who was a participant in the assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. Do you believe that repression of Palestine solidarity organizing is a real problem on U.S. campuses?

Conor Friedersdorf: This reminds me of the question that your colleague Max Blumenthal, a senior editor at Alternet, posed to me on Twitter while criticizing me based on your inaccurate story. "And when," he asked, "have you ever said a word about the real, concrete pro-Israel campaign to crush free speech?" You're both evidently ignorant of my article on the UC system's attempt to suppress anti-Zionism. 

To quote the subhead, "The officials who govern California’s public universities should abandon language that declares critics of Israel outside the bounds of legitimate discourse."

A separate article, where I rounded up a bunch of different threats to speech on campus, included this passage:

...look to another example of left-leaning speech that is threatened. As Glenn Greenwald wrote at The Intercept, “One of the most dangerous threats to campus free speech has been emerging at the highest levels of the University of California system, the sprawling collection of 10 campuses that includes UCLA and UC Berkeley. The university’s governing Board of Regents, with the support of University President Janet Napolitano and egged on by the state’s legislature, has been attempting to adopt new speech codes that—in the name of combating ‘anti-Semitism’—would formally ban various forms of Israel criticism.”

He continued:

Under the most stringent such regulations, students found to be in violation of these codes would face suspension or expulsion. In July, it appeared that the Regents were poised to enact the most extreme version, but decided instead to push the decision off until September, when they instead would adopt non-binding guidelines to define “hate speech” and “intolerance.”

One of the Regents most vocally advocating for the most stringent version of the speech code is Richard Blum, the multi-millionaire defense contractor who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. At a Regents meeting last week, reported the Los Angeles Times, Blum expressly threatened that Feinstein would publicly denounce the university if it failed to adopt far more stringent standards than the ones it appeared to be considering, and specifically demanded they be binding and contain punishments for students found to be in violation.

The San Francisco Chronicle put itthis way: “Regent Dick Blum said his wife, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ‘is prepared to be critical of this university’ unless UC not only tackles anti-Jewish bigotry but also makes clear that perpetrators will be punished.” The lawyer Ken White wrote that “Blum threatened that his wife … would interfere and make trouble if the Regents didn’t commit to punish people for prohibited speech.” As campus First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn put it the following day, “Feinstein and her husband think college students should be expelled for protected free speech.”

My overall impression is that repression of Palestine solidarity organizing is a real problem on some U.S. campuses.

AlterNet: Have you ever written critically of the state legislation that aims to force companies to prove under penalty of perjury that they are not boycotting the state of Israel?

Conor Friedersdorf: No, this question is the first I have ever heard of such legislation. Assuming that you're characterizing it correctly and it has a chance of passage somewhere I would definitely be concerned by it.

AlterNet: Have you ever publicly challenged pro-Israel writers, including colleagues at the Atlantic, who portray anti-Zionist opposition to Israeli policy as a form of anti-Semitism?

Conor Friedersdorf: The article that you link by my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg is mostly block quotes from another writer. In his own voice, Jeff says, "Doran, who is himself a product of the left, is careful to note that many stridently anti-Israel European leftists are not anti-Semitic per se, but do make common cause with people who just don't like Jews." As best I can tell from that article as a whole, both Goldberg and the writer that he quotes are saying that anti-Zionist opposition to Israeli policy is sometimes a form of anti-Semitism and sometimes not. You should be more careful when you characterize the arguments that others are making.

More generally, I do not write very much about Israel or Palestine, save when it touches on subjects I do cover, like free speech on campus.

AlterNet: While Palestine solidarity activists parried false accusations of anti-Semitism at Syracuse—an atmosphere cultivated by your article, which was widely disseminated by pro-Israel forces—an investigation cleared several students at CUNY of false anti-Semitism charges leveled by powerful pro-Israel organizations. Do you have any plans to correct the record at Syracuse, or to highlight the use of false anti-Semitism charges to silence criticism of Israel and chill speech on campus?

Conor Friedersdorf: Your question has two premises that are incorrect: 1) nothing about my Syracuse article was incorrect, it was, in fact, your characterizations of it that were factually wrong; 2) I have already written in the past about objectionable attempts to chill the speech of Israel critics, whether by conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism or through other means. I intend to defend free speech and expression on campus for the foreseeable future, and that certainly includes the free speech rights of Israel critics and human rights activists focused on Palestine. In turn, I hope your work will encompass pro-Israel students if and when their free speech is threatened.

Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.