Film screening cancelled at Syracuse merely because professor feared pushback from BDS supporters

We’ve all seen plenty of examples of speeches at universities disrupted by offended students, speech invitations withdrawn because of student protests, and honorary degrees rescinded because of political offense (viz., Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis). But this is the first case I know of where a presentation was cancelled out of fear that it might offend students. And that fear was unsubstantiated and would have been unwarranted.

It’s reported in The Atlantic, so you can’t say this is biased right-wing reporting. The piece, “How political correctness chills speech on campus,” is by Conor Friedersdorf, a writer whom we’ve met before as a free-speech defender. And the case is distressing.

What happened, in brief, is that Syracuse University planned a conference next spring called “The Place of Religion in Film”, and a documentary filmmaker was invited to show a relevant (and well regarded) film there. The invitation came from a professor at the University of Nebraska who was also an organizer of the conference. The film was by Simon Dotan, and I’ll quote from The Atlantic:

The award-winning filmmaker, who sits on the faculty of New York University’s graduate school of journalism, recently finished a feature length documentary,The Settlers, that chronicles the history and present state of the religious settler movement in the West Bank, where more than 400,000 Israeli Jews live on occupied land.

The film is “one of the first close-up views of the motives and personalities in a group that rarely opens up to outsiders,” The New York Times noted. Variety raved that its festival presence is assured, and said that it is gripping enough to break out to wider audiences.

More about the film’s message later, but it’s not what you’re probably thinking.

After the invitation to Dotan was extended, with an offer to fly him from Israel to Syracuse, and then to Omaha for another screening, Professor M. Gail Hamner, a professor of Religion at Syracuse, put the kibosh on the invitation. Not because there were protests, mind you, but because she feared that the BDS group (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a notoriously nasty and anti-Semitic outfit) would object. But Hamner hadn’t even seen the film, or, apparently, knew anything about it. Here’s the letter she wrote to Dotan rescinding the invitation (my emphases):

Dear Professor Dotan,

I know you have been in contact with my Omaha colleague, Bill Blizek, about screening The Settlers and serving as plenary speaker at a religion and film conference in Syracuse in March, 2017. I am the convener of that conference and I found Bill’s description of your work, and the reviews I read of it exciting.

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.

I do want to stress that my colleague who Chairs our SU Jewish Studies program, Zak Braiterman, was fully willing to strongly support your coming, even though he too has not yet screened your film.

Obviously, my decision here has nothing to do with you or your work, and nothing to do with Bill, who contacted you in good faith. I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations.

I sign off in hopes that I do have the chance to engage your work one day, and in prayer that you’ll forgive me. My sincere apology and best wishes,

M. Gail Hamner
Religion Department
Affiliated Faculty in Women and Gender Studies
Affiliated Faculty in Film and Screen Studies
Syracuse University

And so Dotan’s film will not be shown because of the mere perception and fear that BDS activists would make trouble, and Hamner’s reputation would be sullied! I know of no similar cases.

But here’s the real kicker: BDS wouldn’t be making trouble if they knew about the film, for it’s not pro-settler! As Friedersdorf notes:

The political viewpoint of The Settlers shouldn’t matter. But a final irony is that the documentary, while allowing all sides to speak in their own words, portrays the settlements in a negative light, and is skeptical, at the very least, toward many settlers. A typical educated audience member would emerge with new knowledge of terrorist acts perpetrated by Israeli settlers, explicit racism in the settler movement, and a sense of the apartheid culture that has been created in the West Bank. Had I seen the film before learning of this controversy rather than after, I would have expected any attempts to stop it from being screened to come from the pro-Israel faction that has threatened free speech at the University of California.

Now I’ve argued that using the “apartheid” trope isn’t really appropriate to Israeli treatment of Arabs, but I’m not going to get into that argument now. The film deserved to be shown because of its quality and because it would provoke discussion.  I haven’t seen it, but I would go to see it, and I would never protest its being shown.

If you don’t think that The Offense Culture of students has had a chilling effect on free speech, read the above. In fact, it’s prevented the showing a film that the Perpetually Offended would have welcomed. They’re hoist with their own petard, but so are the rest of us—as this toxic student culture spreads through the US and UK.


M. Gail (Ban)Hammer


  1. Historian
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Hamner’s letter is one of the most pathetic I have ever read. Beyond doubt, she knows that she is not doing the right thing by not letting the film be shown. She says “I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation.” She later expresses hope that Dotan will forgive her. She admits that she is rejecting the film because of her “own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations.” I fear that now that this letter has become public her reputation as a person of integrity is perhaps damaged forever. The current atmosphere of fear and intimidation that is prevalent on so many campuses has real world consequence as Hamner has learned.

    I have previously expressed the opinion that this current mood on campus will eventually pass and I still believe that, but until that happens if you’re about to enter college and are looking for freedom of speech as part of the campus experience, pick your school carefully.

    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      “I have previously expressed the opinion that this current mood on campus will eventually pass and I still believe that..”

      I wish I shared your optimism, but I don’t know that I could disagree more. I suspect we’ll see fewer cases like this, but only because people will be more cautious about inviting people who could potentially provoke controversy. That’s the goal of the “perpetually offended”, and I think they are succeeding. I hear more, and more people I once respected arguing that universities have an obligation to filter what students hear on campus, and teach them the “truth” as they see it, just as they do in a classroom. They speak of college students as though they are children who are incapable of filtering information on their own. They don’t believe they can win, or that winning takes too long in an open marketplace of ideas.

      • bluemaas
        Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        I agree, Mr Paps. I work on a ~36,600 – student public university campus. Approximately 7,000 more of us are staff and faculty members.

        My next statement, made without its evidentiary data and only from that “lived experience,” is that these “children” (for sure) are getting, year after their entering year, more and more … … initially … … (parentally ?) mollycoddled. Before we ~7,000, charged with their future ‘educations’, ever see them for our first times.

        To the point that they show up commanding, and keep up in subsequent upper class years’ worth with those (which Dr HamNer may be experiencing), a whole passel of expectations I never in the 1960s, for my 18 – year – old self, knew to even think up, let alone, to demand, let alone, to get granted me ! In a previous post of just this morning, Dr Coyne remarked on a person, Nice Mangoes, being able to keep civility throughout her program within her group of disagreeing others. I hear from the leaders of classroom after undergraduate classroom after graduate student groups of almost only hour – long disruption and disregard (screen devices’ garnering face time over attentiveness to the matters stat before them then) and obvious wholesale disrespect. Even, at times, public verbal threats against the teachers in front of their fellow students.

        And this ? This is in (allegedly !) Iowa Nice – territory ! I am nearly never hearing of the opposite: of rooms full up of attentive, eager – to – learn 19 – year – olds or seminars full up of, say, nine graduate students respectfully analyzing or, gaaaawdess – forbid, honorably and politely disagreeing over the possible conclusions to be made from experimental data !

        I came back here some 2.5 decades ago — — from private endeavors in veterinary medicine and humans’ obstetrical wards. I despair for the World’s kitties and cattle and babes … … as re to their medical caretakers’ preparedness, let alone, as to those persons’ tenderness and reverence for them.


  2. Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Possibly having professors of Religion, and of Women/Gender studies, contributes to this sad state of affairs. They have to entertain themselves with something, and their subjects do not provide much real work to do. I have never heard of a chemistry professor engaged in anti-free-speech activities.

    • jay
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      This engineering professor has the right idea, trigger warnings “physics, trigonometry, sine, cosine, tangent, vector, force, work, energy, stress, quiz, grade.”

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted September 2, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        One of the worst I have ever come across for supporting snowflake students in their insistence that they shouldn’t be offended is a retired engineering professor. He thinks, for example, that the student filmed screaming at the Yale professor that this was her home etc was in the right.

  3. jay
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    This leaves open the question: Did Ms Hammer write this because she was over sensitive or was she legitimately terrified of the BDS movement on her potential for future employment?

    The second one is pretty scary.

    • David Jorling
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Or, consider this possibility: She is very pro settlement, and did not like the movie’s message. So she stopped it and used the BDS movement as a scapegoat.

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        It’s possible, but she said she hadn’t screened the movie, and was warned off by several colleagues. Of course, you can say that she knew what was in it already and is flatly lying about it.

  4. Malgorzata Koraszews
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink


  5. Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    If only professors of religion would tremble before atheists as they do before the BDS.

  6. rickflick
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Hammer’s admission of shame and offer to pray makes her sound as though she think piety is a reasonable substitute for integrity. One of the subtle benefits of the religious life.

  7. jeffery
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”

  8. Historian
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I have come across a conservative website called Legal Insurrection. One writer there, William Jacobson, has been covering this story. Apparently, Syracuse is feeling the heat. Its Vice Chancellor has issued a statement giving at least lip service to free speech and hoping to invite Dotan in the future. Also, Hamner has now issued sort of an apology:

    “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.”


    Assuming Jacobson quoted Hamner’s statement in its entirety, the apology seems tepid. She does not explicitly say she should have allowed the film to be shown.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      What I don’t get is why the heck she didn’t take the time to see the movie before making a final decision. She sounds like someone who can be too easily influenced by others and who isn’t very good at weighing up the evidence and making decisions for herself. I don’t think this is a good character trait in a professional.

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

        In her – tepid – defense, she didn’t need to see the movie to realize that BDS activists would likely raise a stink about an Israeli movie, and those activists wouldn’t bother watching the movie either.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

          Which is a often a big part of the problem – people opining about subjects they’re ignorant about.

          I think everyone has the right to an opinion and to speak out of course, but I also think that if they’re going to speak out, they have a responsibility to know what they’re talking about.

          • Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

            Agree. But BDS movement seems to think they already know everything they need to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted September 3, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

              Yes! They’re impossible to have a rational argument with on the subject.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      To quote an old tagline –
      OMG, not *another* valuable learning moment!


  9. CB
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    There is another excellent film on the same topic-called. “Five Broken Cameras”
    Highly recommended.

  10. Rob
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    So, we’re afraid some students might throw a childish temper-tantrum rather than express their opinions in a mature grown-up fashion?

    So….temper tantrums now trump thoughtful discourse?

    We’re talking university or day care?

  11. Damien
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Once again, to me, a complete mindfuck.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    As soon as people retreat into hollow euphemism, as Prof. M. Gail Hammer does in her letter to Simon Dotan, like “ideological matrix” and “egoic needs,” you’re in for a bullshit sleigh ride where hard truth gets left behind.

    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Anyone trapped in an ideological matrix needs to take the red pill.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      “bullshit sleigh ride” Ha! Hold your nose.

  13. Posted September 2, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    This blows my mind. This person is a full professor and is playing the “I have to play nice with other people in my (affiliated) departments” card? I could at least be a bit sympathetic if she was faculty on the bubble, but from what I can tell, her position is secure. The sentiments expressed in that letter are extremely cowardly. Ironically, her reputation is suffering now due to this anti-intellectual stunt to protect it. I think that the damage might be well deserved.

  14. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Let me see, a bunch of academics who haven’t seen the film and don’t know which side it takes (if any), are pronouncing on whether a pressure group whose opinion on the matter they also don’t know might object to its being shown?


    “I will lose credibility” – done that already.


  15. fjordaniv
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    It appears that Syracuse has reversed the decision:

    Syracuse was roiled by a series of protests following Nancy Cantor’s departure in 2014 (Cantor, who left for Rutgers, wasn’t particularly fond of free speech).

    The student group, THE General Body, released a long list of demands; among them was a demand for hate speech codes banning certain words. The students also had extensive support from many of the faculty members, some of whom were likely among those Hamner fears.

  16. charlize
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Just the kind of reasoning one would expect from someone who presents papers entitled “The Sign of God in the Burning Bush: Peircean Pragmatism and Continental Postmodernism,”
    and dedicates her academic life to Theology – “the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”
    — H.L. Mencken

  17. Posted September 3, 2016 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    This, Syracuse University, the home of “Dean” Dougie Biklen and “Facilitated Communication” surprises us how?

  18. Mike
    Posted September 3, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Professor Hamner needs to grow a pair, even if the BDS were likely to cause trouble she should have gone ahead, you can’t let fascist groups dictate what is permissable or not, they’ll be burning books next !

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