Dystopia on Bedford Avenue

Brooklyn College

Every transfer student to Brooklyn College must read one and only one book: “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem,” by BC’s own Associate Professor of English, Moustafa Bayoumi. I suppose that there is no penalty for reading more than this one book, but only one book is required. And all freshmen at BC are also required to read this book. Moreover, the students are then to hear Prof. Bayoumi, and only Professor Bayoumi, at a presentation of his views.

The book is all about Arab immigrants to Brooklyn. There are five or so case studies, with no indication of how typical these may be for Arab Americans in general. The case studies are then distilled in the author’s thesis in an “afterword” as follows: Arab immigrants suffer here because of American imperialism. (For a moment the author hesitates between blaming American “hegemony” or American “imperialism,” but he quickly decides for the latter, without explanation.) In any case, it is this U.S. imperialism that deprives the Palestinian people of their right to self-determination, since, he says, the US takes the side of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And it is this pro-Israel US imperialism, if I understand Professor Bayoumi at all correctly, which makes the life of Brooklyn Arabs so difficult. That is the thesis, that is the book that every student at BC must read, and that is the only book that every incoming transfer student to BC must read.

So far so good. Surely Professor Bayoumi (known also as a regular writer for The Nation, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, and as a tireless polemicist against Israel) has a right to his opinions, this being a free country. And of course BC has every right to require its students to study him. But does he have a right to have his book used as the only source in a discussion of a public issue, at an institution of higher learning ? And does BC have a moral right to give him a monopoly in the presentation of his views ?

I asked these very questions of Dean Donna Wilson of BC, and this is what she replied:

Each year professors in the English Department and I select a common reading for our entering students. We choose memoirs (a genre familiar to students) set in New York City, often reflecting an immigrant experience, and written by authors who are available to visit campus. Students in freshman composition respond to the common reading by writing about their own experiences, many of them published in ‘Telling Our Stories; Sharing our Lives’. This year we selected How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by one of our own faculty members, Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, because it is a well-written collection of stories by and about young Arab Brooklynites whose experiences may be familiar to our students, their neighbors, or the students with whom they will study and work at Brooklyn College. We appreciate your concerns. Rest assured that Brooklyn College values tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view in all that we do.

Naturally I was happy to learn of Dean Wilson’s commitment to tolerance, to diversity, and, most of all, to respect for differing points of view. So I wrote to her again, and again, and then again once more, suggesting that she provide some balance to Bayoumi’s book, that she provide additional authors and additional speakers. I even suggested another author, Paul Berman, also resident in Brooklyn, also writing on Arab themes, also willing (I would assume) to speak to her students. And what did Dean Wilson reply to these repeated suggestions of mine ? You guessed it, she did not deign to reply at all.

As the saying goes in dystopia: Big Brother (or here, Big Sister) knows best.

Update, Aug. 30:

The Jewish Week in its online edition has additional material on Professor Bayoumi:

But Bayoumi , an associate professor at the school, also recently published “Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: the Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict.”
A publisher’s blurb describes the book this way:

“In these pages, a range of activists, journalists, and analysts piece together the events that occurred that May night…Midnight on the Mavi Marmara reveals why the attack on Gaza Freedom Flotilla may just turn out to be Israel’s Selma, Alabama: the beginning of the end for an apartheid Palestine.”

The book includes contributions by prominent Israel critics – including Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Walt and Philip Weiss.

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