Hunter College has agreed to reschedule a screening of a documentary critical of Israel, following an outcry from faculty members and students who claimed that the administration’s earlier decision to cancel it violated academic freedom.
A screening of the documentary, “Israelism,” had been scheduled for Nov. 14 as part of a film series organized by a professor in the New York school’s film and media department. It would have been followed by a discussion with one of the directors and one of the film’s protagonists, a young American Jew who travels to Israel and the West Bank and discovers a reality very different from the story she was raised with.
But that morning, Hunter’s interim president, Ann Kirschner, announced that the screening would be canceled because of safety concerns.
“In the current climate, we seek to balance our commitment to free speech and academic freedom with the danger of antisemitic and divisive rhetoric,” Kirschner said in a statement.
The decision drew strong criticism at Hunter, a public school that is part of the City University of New York, and beyond. The Hunter Senate, which includes students and faculty and staff members, called it “an egregious and illegitimate violation” of academic freedom, and demanded that the administration provide a venue for the screening within the month. The free expression group PEN America called the decision “totally antithetical to the principles of free expression.”
Shortly after the Senate’s meeting on Nov. 15, a spokesman for Hunter, Vince DiMiceli, said that rescheduling the film, while not mentioned in Kirschner’s original statement, “was always the plan.” (Kirschner’s statement has since been removed from Hunter’s website.)
On Wednesday, DiMiceli confirmed that the screening would take place on Dec. 5, and would be followed by a discussion with one of the directors, Erin Axelman, and a rabbi, Andy Bachman.
DiMiceli said there would be no further comment from Kirschner or Hunter about the event, including on why a rabbi had been added.
Since its release in February, “Israelism” has won several prizes, including sharing an audience award at the prominent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It has had dozens of screenings at community spaces and universities, including some sponsored by campus Jewish groups and Jewish and Israel studies departments.
But the film also received strong criticism, including from at least two online letter-writing campaigns aimed at convincing Hunter and other schools to cancel screenings. One online letter called the film “antisemitic,” saying it had been “solely created with the goal of convincing its viewers that Israel is an apartheid state.”
Most screenings have proceeded without any issues, according to Daniel J. Chalfen, one of the film’s producers. But on Nov. 21, the administration of the University of Pennsylvania denied a Jewish student group’s request, made a month earlier, to hold a screening on Nov. 28.
In a statement, the executive committee of Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors expressed concern about the denial, calling it “one more expression of our university leadership’s failure to uphold the principles of academic freedom.” The film was shown Tuesday night anyway, without permission, under the auspices of the school’s Middle East Center.
In a statement, Penn said it had told the students they could show the film in February, and cited concerns with safety. “The university’s first responsibility remains the safety and security of our campus community,” it said.
At Hunter, the Dec. 5 screening will be limited to students. (Other films in the series are open to the general public as well.)
Tami Gold, a professor in the film and media department who organized the screening, said she had questioned the administration’s insistence that a rabbi be added to the program. The film and filmmakers, she said, should speak for themselves. But she said she was glad Kirschner had listened to faculty members and students and “made a pivot.”
“What the president of Hunter did should be an example of what other colleges should be doing,” she said. “To not be afraid of dialogue. To allow it and encourage it.”