Portraying incident as poor judgment, ignoring climate of fear and intimidation by “BDS faction on campus” who threatened to “make matters very unpleasant”
Shimon Dotan, a prominent Israeli filmmaker who also is on the faculty of New York University, was disinvited from a conference on “The Place of Religion in Film” to be held at Syracuse University next year. The conference is co-sponsored by the University of Nebraska, which extended an invitation to Dotan to show his film, “The Settlers,” at the conference.
The invitation was nixed in an email from Syracuse University Professor Gail Hamner. You can read the full email in our prior post, Israeli filmmaker disinvited at Syracuse U: “BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant”. Here is the key wording for the email (emphasis added):
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….
Obviously, my decision here has nothing to do with you or your work, and nothing to do with Bill [at U. Nebraska], who contacted you in good faith. I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations.
The disinvitation, by the plain terms of the disinvitation, had nothing to do with the content of the film.
In fact, the content of the film portrays Israeli “settlers” in a negative light, and is consistent with anti-Israel BDS sentiment among the “BDS faction on campus,” the term used by Hamner in the email. This is not, contrary to the narrative presented by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, about political correctness. The Dotan film is as politically correct as it comes.
Neither Dotan nor the film could be viewed as politically incorrect on campuses, unless the objection was to the fact that Dotan is Israeli.
Rather, by the plain language of the disinvitation, the complaint by Hamner’s “SU colleagues” was specific to Dotan, and Hamner was “warned [by her colleagues] … that the BDS faction on campus would make matters very unpleasant” for Dotan and Hamner. Those colleagues who issued this warning have not been identified. There are several Syracuse University professors who have formally endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, though it’s not known if any of them were among the “colleagues” warning against the invitation to Dotan.
This conduct, which appears to constitute a boycott of someone in whole or in part because he is Israeli, arguably violates Syracuse University’s non-discrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, among other protected categories. That policy provides a mechanism for University investigation of any complaint of discrimination. The actions also potentially violates NY State Human Rights Law section 296(13) which prohibits boycotts based on national origin, among other protected categories. It was based on the Human Rights Law provision that the GreenStar Food Coop in Ithaca, on advice of two separate law firms, refused to allow a boycott of Israeli products.
The action also potentially implicates NY Governor Cuomo’s recent anti-BDS Executive Order, which would prohibit state agencies from contracting with entities that engage in the boycott of Israel. Whether actions by one or a handful of faculty would bring Syracuse University within the prohibitions of the Executive Order is an open question, but failure of the University to take action might be a factor.
Earlier today Syracuse University Vice Chancellor and Provost Michelle Wheatly issued a mass email statement, the complete version of which is available as an update to our prior post. The statement reads in part:
In light of a recent media report regarding an upcoming Syracuse-hosted conference focused on religion and film, I feel it necessary to reaffirm our commitment to intellectual and respectful debate on controversial issues. It has been reported that a Syracuse professor was reluctant to invite to campus a faculty member from another school to screen his documentary at the conference because it might provoke anti-Israeli criticism.
Whether or not such criticism would have actually been expressed, the decision in this matter is inconsistent with our policies, ideals, and practices. In fact, more than 2½ years ago, the University made clear its position that we support and encourage discussion and debate around important and complex issues concerning peace, security, and justice for all individuals in the Middle East and that we do not support any boycott of Israeli academic institutions or faculty as it runs counter to the open exchange of knowledge, ideas, and perspectives.
The Syracuse professor who made the initial decision has since publicly stated that she regrets having done so. Chancellor Syverud and I will be working with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to extend an invitation to the professor/filmmaker to visit and screen his film at Syracuse University at a future date.
That statement does not address the specifics of the disinvitation, which were explicitly based on warnings from faculty “colleagues” that “the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come.” There is no promised investigation, even though the university arguably has a legal obligation now that it aware of complaints regarding the conduct to investigate in order to comply with federal law, as stated in the university’s non-discrimination policy:
Any complaint of discrimination or harassment related to any of these protected bases should be reported to Sheila Johnson-Willis, the University’s Interim Chief Equal Opportunity & Title IX Officer. She is responsible for coordinating compliance efforts under the various laws including Titles VI, VII, IX and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Professor Hamner also issued a statement on the University’s website and published by the University’s news staff. It appears to have been coordinated with Provost
Statement from M. Gail Hamner, Professor of Religion
I deeply regret the embarrassment the decision I made and my poor choice of words have caused my department, my colleagues and my fellow faculty.
Overly concerned about how others would react, my email to Shimon Dotan stressed my fears of sparking activism on campus over a highly complex and emotional Middle East issue, settlements on the West Bank. That email triggered media coverage that questioned my own and my university’s commitment to academic freedom, and also led me to overstate concerns expressed by some of my colleagues. I was equally concerned at the time that I had not viewed Professor Dotan’s film yet, which I realize now is standard protocol. These mistakes were the result of bad judgement and my inexperience planning conferences.
I allowed my own fear of controversy to rule over good judgment and good teaching. This was a valuable learning moment for me – both professionally and personally.
That statement also attempt to portray this as some sort of misunderstanding, and ignores the specific language of the disinvitation email referencing warnings by colleagues and that threat to “make life difficult” if Dotan appeared on campus.
To date, however, it appears that this incident is being written off as a misunderstanding, a lack of judgment by an individual, and an issue of “discussion and debate” of issues. Not addressed so far is the climate of fear and intimidation caused by pro-BDS faculty, which included warnings that should this Israeli filmmaker appear on campus, “the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant” for the speaker and the faculty member who invited him.
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.
I sent an email to Provost Wheatly this morning seeking clarification of whether the University would investigate, make the findings public, and take any action, but have not yet received a response.DONATE
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