Pro-Israel Student Group ‘Silenced’ at Williams

The student government at Williams College drew the ire of the college president and national organizations for rejecting official recognition of a student group supportive of Israel.

May 9, 2019
 

Members of a pro-Israel group at Williams College had everything in order to be recognized by the student government, including a constitution and signatures of support from their peers.

But when the time came for the Williams’s College Council to vote on the Williams Initiative for Israel's affiliation with the college last month, it rejected the organization in a 13 to 8 vote, with one abstention. The council seemingly did so on the basis of not agreeing with the mission or perceived politics of the organization, also known as WIFI.

The decision reverberated throughout the Massachusetts campus for a couple of reasons.

Williams had just recently dealt with a controversy over protecting free speech on campus, which was widely considered to be another example of students censoring others' views. And according to the minutes of a student council meeting, this was the first occasion in a decade when the body turned down a student group that had met the affiliation requirements. The minutes were reviewed by Inside Higher Ed.

Last year, some Williams students actively opposed an attempt by some professors to adopt the Chicago principles, a set of well-recognized standards promoting free expression on college campuses, and ultimately prompted the faculty members to withdraw their petition. The students said they were concerned that unfettered free speech could lead to minority students being "harmed." The students showed up at a meeting of faculty members who were discussing the free speech proposal, holding signs that read “free speech harms,” and drowned out professors who were attempting to speak.

Debates over the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, growing anti-Semitism in the U.S., and the so-called BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions global campaign promoting various forms of boycotts against Israel, have inspired strong emotions nationwide, but they have been particularly heated on college campuses.

The college council’s decision prompted statements both from Williams's president and national groups.

Maud Mandel, Williams's president, expressed “disappointment” with the council and support for WIFI. She said in the statement that WIFI members were allowed the same privileges on campus as other recognized student organizations.

“Even without [council] approval, WIFI or any other non-[council] organization can still access all services available to student groups, including use of college spaces for meetings and events, and we are guaranteeing them exactly equal resources,” Mandel wrote in a message to the campus. “I see the communication of this fact to WIFI as a basic matter of fairness and people’s right to express diverse views. Differences over such views are legitimate grounds for debate, but not for exercising the power to approve or reject a student group.”

StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group, responded with a letter to Mandel saying that her words were not strong enough. Mandel had alluded in her letter to “tension” with the council’s bylaws, implying that the decision went against its rules.

Roz Rothstein, chief executive of StandWithUs, said the "tension" characterization was an understatement. The student government's action was “blatantly discriminatory” and potentially a violation of not just council rules, but the Williams conduct code, Rothstein wrote in her letter to Mandel.

“It is imperative that your administration take all necessary steps to reject and reverse the council’s discriminatory decision,” Rothstein wrote. “We understand that President Mandel is trying to empower Williams students to right their own wrong. However, if this outcome had occurred against any other minority group, we strongly question whether her tone would remain as conciliatory toward the students who made that choice.”

The council’s bylaws forbid discrimination against student groups based on “immutable characteristics including but not limited to race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status or disability. These functions include routine operations, attendance and/or participation in events, election or appointment to club board positions and fulfillment of board role functions, club member enrollment and any other avenue through which Williams College students may join, participate in or otherwise interact with registered student clubs.”

A Williams college spokesman did not respond to a question about whether Mandel would take any further steps.

The council also did not respond to request for comment, but minutes from its meetings in April that were leaked online indicate that council members and attendees were wary of approving the group because of the Israeli government’s “oppressive policies.”

One student, Omar Kawam, said during on a council meeting April 16, where WIFI's application for recognition was deliberated and tabled, that he was worried the group was “watering down the real-life experiences of Palestinian groups who have been oppressed” by Israel, the minutes show.

WIFI representatives said during that meeting that the group does not take a stance on Israel’s politics, rather, it simply supports the country’s right to exist. To that end, the WIFI representatives said they would invite speakers to the campus who would discuss Israel's history and policies -- and try to find ideologically diverse points of view. The WIFI members said they would also celebrate Israeli holidays and support “political activism,” despite not subscribing to one particular political view.

Another student, Joseph Moore, asked WIFI if it would accept donations from outside groups that support Israel. WIFI members said they could not answer because they weren't sure whether they would seek outside funding.

Moore responded that he would not accept money from a group “who lobbies for or acts” immoral.

He wrote in an essay in the student newspaper, The Record, that Palestinian students confronted WIFI over Palestinian rights and its members dodged the questions.

“The response to these concerns repeatedly brought up by WIFI’s leadership throughout both [council] meetings was that WIFI would simply serve as a space for students who believed that the state of Israel had a right to exist in whatever capacity that means to each individual member of the group,” Moore wrote. “In geopolitical terms, however, Israel’s ‘right to exist’ is uncontestable … the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is both extremely well funded and politically influential. Thus, both practically and discursively, the state of Israel does not need a student group defending its ‘right to exist’ on this campus any more than we need to ‘defend’ the rights of wealthy, straight white men.”

The leaders of WIFI issued a rebuttal, also in The Record, writing that they had been vilified from the start. Their letter also noted that the council had approved a Williams chapter for Students for Justice in Palestine.

“Despite WIFI’s moderate mission, many [council] members and guests fought to silence WIFI, and in doing so, they successfully prevented the club from becoming officially recognized,” they wrote. “These individuals used instances of Palestinian suffering as justification for dismissing WIFI as a legitimate organization. It is true that many Palestinians have endured terrible hardships, and we empathize with those who have been affected and hope to see a future where Israelis and Palestinians can both enjoy peace and prosperity. But to describe the situation between Israel and Palestine in such black-and-white terms is disingenuous and does not tell the whole story.”

The editorial board of The Record did not exactly side with WIFI, but in an opinion piece, it took issue with an April 23 council meeting, during which the council voted on WIFI's application for recognition, not being more transparent. Minutes from that meeting do not list the names of council members who spoke, so all their comments were anonymous.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog in academe, also lambasted the council’s decision and urged Mandel to act.

“A commitment to freedom of expression requires taking steps to restore it, not just lamenting when it’s been challenged,” Sarah McLaughlin, a senior program officer at FIRE, wrote in a blog post.

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