Dov Hikind was in his element in front of Brooklyn College last week, the idyllic school that is now ground zero for a raging controversy over academic freedom. Brooklyn's state assemblyman, an alumnus of the school, was sputtering mad at college officials for allowing what he says is an “anti-Semitic” hate fest to take place at the school tonight. He was reveling in making Brooklyn College president Karen Gould's life “a little miserable” and called on Gould to resign because of the event. And he was proud that he had the support of a progressive candidate for New York City mayor, Bill Thompson.
The scene was a Hikind-organized press conference on January 31 to stop the coming travesty at Brooklyn College. But what was this dastardly, anti-Semitic hatefest that the conservative Democrat was so worried about? Hikind was inveighing against an event tonight at 6:30 PM that, if it's not derailed, will feature Palestinian human-rights activist Omar Barghouti and philosopher Judith Butler, discussing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting alleged Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. The controversy has also seen New York politicians threaten the funding of the college if the event goes through, while avowed progressives are pressuring the Political Science Department to rescind its cosponsorship.
Hikind, along with lawyer Alan Dershowitz, is once again one of the loudest voices in a controversy involving a speech critical of Israel at Brooklyn College. While Hikind's ire is primarily directed at the fact that the Political Science Department at the college has cosponsored the event—he says the event should be able to go on without the imprimatur of a college department—his aim is to effectively intimidate the student organizers and college administration into disavowing the event.
He’s been pulling out all the stops to intimidate those behind the student-organized discussion of the nonviolent BDS movement, which was inspired by the US Civil Rights movement and the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, and has been endorsed by Nobel Laureates like Desmond Tutu, as well as some progressive Jewish groups. One of his fellow speakers, State Assemblyman Alan Maisel, even warned that BDS could lead to a “second Holocaust.” His accusations and those of the other press-conference speakers were carried by major news outlets like the New York Times. “They call for the destruction of the state of Israel. They think Hamas and Hezbollah are good organizations. I would assume they feel the same way about al Qaeda. These are individuals who are extreme radicals,” Hikind was quoted as saying of BDS advocates Barghouti and Butler.
Totally omitted from mainstream media coverage, however, has been Hikind's own history of radical extremism. There is no evidence to substantiate his allegations that BDS leaders support or are tied to groups labeled as terrorist organizations by the West. But Hikind himself was a leader of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), an organization deemed a terrorist organization by the FBI. He was also a close follower of the late Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the JDL and the Kach (or Kahane Chai) political party in Israel, which is also banned as a terrorist organization by Israel and the US. Hikind's office did not respond to email and phone requests for comment for this story.
Hikind represents Brooklyn's Borough Park, which boasts a large Orthodox Jewish population, and is considered a power broker for that community. First elected in 1982, he has comfortably held his seat ever since, except for an episode involving corruption allegations that he was eventually acquitted of. Hikind believes in a right-wing Zionist ideology inspired by Kahane and the early Zionist thinker Vladimir Jabotinsky, which advocates the removal of Palestinian Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories. Over the years he has expended a lot of energy on issues relating to Israel. During the 2008 US presidential race, the Democrat (who endorsed Republican John McCain) told the Jerusalem Post: “As a proud Jew, I will never support a candidate who is bad on Israel, even if he or she is good on all other issues important to me.”
In 1970, Hikind joined the JDL, which was founded in New York a few years earlier by Kahane. The FBI described the JDL as “a violent extremist Jewish organization.” During the 1970s and 80s JDL members were responsible for bombing attacks, mostly against Soviet targets in protest of the Soviet Union’s refusal to let Jewish citizens emigrate from the country. According to the FBI, the JDL was tied to the 1985 murder of Alex Odeh, an Arab-American activist and a former regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Hikind’s close friend and associate, Victor Vancier, spent more than five years in a federal prison after being convicted of carrying out nearly 20 bombings. There were reports that the FBI believed Hikind was directly involved in a half dozen bombings, but he was never charged.
In the early 1970s, Kahane moved to Israel and founded a political party called Kach, which in the 1980s would be banned from running for Israel’s parliament because of its overt racism. Kahane was gunned down in New York by an Egyptian national in 1990. A few years later, in 1994, a follower of Kahane, the Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians when he opened fire in the Ibrahami Mosque in Hebron. Kahanists also carried out numerous other, less high profile, attacks involving shootings, stabbings, and the use of grenades. Although Kach is officially banned in Israel, politicians linked to Kach remain active and are part of the Knesset.
Hikind has claimed he broke with Kahane after the latter moved to Israel, but in 1990 Hikind spoke admiringly of Kahane at his funeral stating that as “events unfolded," more and more people were saying, "He's right." In 2010 Hikind attended a memorial for Kahane in New York, and again spoke highly of him. (I attended a separate Kahane memorial event in 2010 that doubled as a protest against the Park 51 Islamic center. The scene was comprised of JDL supporters spewing hate against Muslims while chanting “Kahane was right.”)
Even before the current fracas in Brooklyn, Hikind was injecting Kahane-style racism into the political debate in New York City. In 2005, Hikind urged the New York Police Department to racially profile Muslims in the subway system in the wake of terrorist attacks in London. In 2006, he supported a group of Jewish teenagers who beat up a young Pakistani man in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. He was also a leading figure in the 2007 effort to take down New York City's first dual-language public Arabic school, Khalil Gibran International Academy. Hikind was part of a successful smear campaign against the school's founding principal, Debbie Almontaser. A highly respected interfaith educator, Almontaser was hounded by the crackpot anti-Muslim right, with Hikind joining in vigorously. Almontaser was eventually forced to resign by city officials after the New York Post distorted her views on the word “intifada.” In 2010, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that Almontaser was discriminated against by the same intolerant forces the school was intended to combat.
In 2011, Hikind led a successful campaign to have a Brooklyn College adjunct professor, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, fired from his job teaching a graduate seminar on Middle Eastern politics. Hikind attempted to smear Petersen-Overton by claiming he had expressed support for Palestinian suicide bombings, a charge the professor categorically denied and for which there was no evidence. After an outcry from supporters of academic freedom and Palestinian rights, Petersen-Overton was reinstated. And now, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould has refused to back down and has affirmed that the BDS event will go forward as planned tonight.
“Dov Hikind is a virtual one-stop hate shop,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, told me. “From encouraging Islamophobia to gaybashing to supporting Israeli settlements to attempting to derail the careers of those whose political opinions he deems unworthy—he has done very serious damage.... Perhaps one of the worst aspects of what he does is how it enables a kinder, gentler racism to look reasonable—as in the most recent case of the Brooklyn College BDS debate controversy, where some politicians are now calling for defunding the college for allowing free speech to flourish.”
If things go off as scheduled tonight it will be another defeat for Hikind, coming two years after Petersen-Overton was reinstated after Hikind's smear campaign. This local Brooklyn battle is part of a larger and growing debate in the U.S. over American support for Israel and the merits of BDS, and comes in the context of increased efforts to suppress criticism of Israel on US campuses in recent years. Hikind, naturally, isn't happy about these debates. "This isn’t an issue of freedom of speech…. This isn't about having a dialogue," he said, urging president Gould to withdraw the college's sponsorship of the talk tonight or resign. Those are Hikind's demands, in which case, he said, "They can go on and have their hateful forum."
Follow Alex Kane on Twitter @alexbkane.