Report: Rescinded Invite to Israeli Director Shows BDS’s “Chilling Effect” on Free Speech

The rescinding of an Israeli filmmaker’s invitation to a festival at Syracuse University demonstrates the “chilling effect” that the anti-Israel boycott campaign has had on free speech, Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic on Thursday.

Award-winning Israeli documentarian Shimon Dotan had been invited by William L. Blizek, a professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Nebraska, to present one of his films at a conference called “The Place of Religion in Film” to be hosted at Syracuse University in the spring of 2017.

A few weeks after the invitation was extended, Dotan received an email from Professor M. Gail Hamner, a member of the Syracuse University Religion Department and one of the organizers of the conference, rescinding it. “On hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation,” Hamner wrote, other professors “have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come.” She worried that by inviting Dotan, an Israeli, she would “lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues.”

Dotan wrote in a response to Blizek that it had bothered him “that Gail Hamner rejected the idea of inviting the film without seeing it! She didn’t even ask to see it. All she was concerned about is that BDS activists may not be happy with the screening of an Israeli film at Syracuse. That is really troubling. And that happens at a University, at a temple of freedom of speech, or so we want to believe.”

After an exchange with Hamner about the incident, Friedersdorf observed that “the matter of concern here is the reason that the film was excluded: to avoid the perceived risk of ideologically motivated retaliation by campus activists, as well as the risk of losing credibility with ‘a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues.'” The pressure on Hamner to uninvite Dotan was made in an “anti-intellectual manner,” he wrote, recommending that Syracuse president Kent Syverud address “this clear threat to free inquiry” at the university.

Friedersdorf attributed Hamner’s decision more to “political correctness,” or her fear of being ostracized, rather than the power of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. But Cornell University Law School Prof. William Jacobson, proprietor of the Legal Insurrection blog and a leading observer of anti-Israel activism on campus, disagreed:

The controversy over her decision has prompted Hamner to issue an apology for disinviting Dotan. “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,” she wrote, attributing it to “bad judgement and my inexperience planning conferences.”

Dotan has reportedly accepted an invitation to speak at a different upcoming event at Syracuse, which distanced itself from Hamner’s actions on Friday. The university opposes efforts to boycott Israeli academics and forbids discrimination based on any protected category, including citizenship, national origin, and political or social affiliation.

Many leaders of the BDS campaign, which was launched by Palestinian groups in 2005, have publicly affirmed that they seek Israel’s destruction. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, an opponent of the two-state solution, said in 2014 that Palestinians have a right to “resistance by any means, including armed resistance,” while leading activist As’ad Abu Khalil acknowledged in 2012 that “the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel.”

[Photo: John Marino / Flickr ]