Category Archives: Petersen-Overton

What Goes On at Broolyn College ? — Some Observations by Abigail Rosenthal


Below is a letter from Abigail Rosenthal, Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, to the National Association of Scholars, a watchdog organization. I reproduce it here with her permission.

I’ve long felt that Brooklyn College is an important place in the academic universe. It’s a kind of Ellis Island, with students from all over the world, & a significant contingent of Talmudically trained young Jews who do wonderfully in Philosophy. And, when I was there, the student body included upwardly mobile Muslim young people who were often a pleasure to teach, too.

I was gratified when NAS took the stand it did last fall, against a one-sided “common text,” portraying Muslims in America as victims, which was assigned as “orientation” reading to incoming students. Since then, as you may know, the latest FBI statistics have come out, showing that Jews are eight times likelier than Muslims to be victims of hate crimes — the likelihood particularly high in the borough of Brooklyn. It’s obvious that we wouldn’t want a common orientation text devoted to interviews with Jewish victims of hate crimes in Brooklyn — not because they aren’t victims — but because we don’t want incoming students treated as part of a group with a grievance. Students are individuals seeking their own higher education.

The Petersen-Overton case, where the Provost reversed the hire and then reversed the reversal, was somewhat different. Due process was not followed in the hire. (A second-year student in the PhD program is under-credentialed to teach a graduate course, & his course syllabus, which included a history component, wasn’t cleared with the History Dept.) Due process was also not followed in his firing. I think due process, rather than academic freedom, was the main issue here. (Political considerations should not have determined the hire either. Yet it’s probable that the Political Science Dept.’s rush to hire Petersen-Overton was connected to his views. When a faculty unit acts that way, I don’t think it should be considered the only stakeholder. One can claim, with the AAUP, that advocacy is okay in the classroom. But who in Brooklyn College’s Political Science Dept advocates on the other side? One-sided advocacy is not okay, by any standards.)

Anyway, what’s done is done. My question is, where are we now, on the Brooklyn campus? Well, the “Palestinian Club” (a group that — unlike other Muslim groups on campus — refuses to talk to Jewish students), immediately staged a noisy rally, under the slogan, “We won!” — rally attended by Petersen-Overton, who addressed his jubilant followers. (I don’t think the “We” stands here for academic freedom.) I am told by the Executive Director of campus Hillel that last year’s “Israel Apartheid Week” is to be extended to two weeks this year. Which will add up to two weeks of defamation & bigotry on the time & space of a public college.

Meanwhile, thinking it was time for me to get better informed about Petersen-Overton, I read through his posted piece, “Inventing the Martyr: Martyrdom as Palestinian National Signifier.” To reporters, he had claimed that it was preposterous to say he endorsed suicide killers; the piece was merely a scholarly study — in no sense an endorsement of what he now calls “heinous acts”. However, now that I’ve read it, I can say that his denial is not true. The piece is an extraordinary propaganda sheet for Palestinian suicide killers. It is, however, wrapped in postmodern jargon, so that national identity is said to be forged in “imagination” & key terms are in (now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t) scare quotes. One example: the al Dura hoax is first presented as fact, then admitted to have been controverted (though without mention of the relevant evidence) & finally celebrated as a substantive contribution to the process of imagining/creating national identity, with truth or falsity deemed irrelevant. Jews who were physically attacked on the pretext of the al Dura footage could not have agreed that its falsity was irrelevant. One could spend a lot of blood, sweat & tears countering every slanted & misleading claim about Israel. He is counting on that not being done.

It seems to me that by now the campus has generated a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students & has conveyed the message (via the orientation text, via political theatre on campus, via this now-underscored hire, via the expanded “Israel Apartheid Week”), to students & faculty, that only one political view has official sanction, from the effective faculty & administration.

I’m not sure whether anything can be done about it, but it needs watching, & what we don’t have is a victory for academic freedom tout court. The College is not a better place, after all this has happened. At any rate, I wanted to let you know of my view of this troubling situation.