February 17, 2011
Guest speaker, harassment of Pro-Israel students resparks debate
By Nara Williams, Contributing Writer
Towards the end of last semester, a Hampshire student reported being attacked multiple times for expressing support for Israel both at UMass and on Hampshire’s campus. The student, who wishes to remain anonymous. was called a “racist bitch,” “apartheid lover,” and was at one point physically pushed. After receiving an e-mail that was perceived as a death threat, she approached the dean of student life, Amnat Chittaphong.
The incidents were reported to Public Safety through the dean’s office. The student could not identify the persons involved in the multiple incidents as Hampshire students, as they were wearing hoods in all instances. Public Safety was thus unable to implicate specific persons in the incident, but had an outreach officer follow up with the student several times.
Interim President Marlene Fried responded to the incident by writing an open letter to the community in which she condemned the acts and reminded students that "'While conversations around Israel and Palestine are often loaded with emotions, it is our responsibility to ensure that they take place in an environment of respect and care for members of our community." Additionally, eight faculty members signed a letter of support.
In what became an ongoing dialogue, student group Students for justice in Palestine (SJP) responded to Fried with another open letter to the community. Representatives of SJP explained that the letter was a measure taken to make their feelings as a group clear and express that they in no way condone any of the harassment that occurred.
Students Promoting Israeli Culture and Information (SPICI) recently responded with a further letter in which they criticized SJP for making their letter "into a heated proclamation that unnecessarily attacks insignificant nuances in the President's letter and inappropriately defines personal identity as the authors see fit."
These tensions again rose to the surface last Thursday, February 3rd during a speech in FPH by a former frontline lDF soldier, Sergeant Benjamin Anthony.
Before the event, SJP launched a plan to interrupt the soldier through yelling various phrases. They were then to cast a banner and stage a walk out, as well as hold a vigil outside for this [sic] who didn't wish to come in.
Directly preceding the speech, there was some disorder. "Public safety wasn't letting anyone into the event, and everyone in the lobby started yelling and chanting at each other. The pro-Palestine side was chanting their chants and the pro-Israel side was chanting back in the same way. Someone dropped an Israeli flag over the banner and someone then dropped a Palestinian flag,” said a representative of SJP.
"When students were finally let into the lecture hall, the administrators stressed that they wanted everything to be civil and instructed anyone planning to interrupt the event to leave immediately. During the speech, however, members of SJP blew whistles and shouted attacks at the speaker.
At one point one member of the audience members, a non-Hampshire student, called other members "faggots." One member stood up and started yelling "I'm a faggot; I'm a faggot, you're homophobic this must stop." Eventually, public safety removed both members.
Public Safety otherwise reported finding everyone to be generally cooperative. Blocking the doors after a certain point in the evening was intended as a measure taken to enforce fire-hazard regulations, as the room bad reached capacity. "Of course physical violence cannot be tolerated." said Associate Director of Public Safety Ray LaBarre, “but we recognize the importance of dialogue and debate on campus. Our priority is to ensure safety without taking sides.”
Eventually the speaker had to stop his speech earlier, resorting to hold a short question and answer session and the event ended Following the event, members of SJP and others sang peaceful protest songs and ended the vigil.
Representatives of SjP reported that they felt it important to disrupt the event for a number of reasons. In their community letter, which was sent out before the event, they wrote "We find it reprehensible that at a time in which Hampshire is calling for increased ‘civility’ in our political discourse. a representative of the Israeli 'Defense' Forces would come to our campus in an attempt to gamer sympathy the 'hardship' he endured while serving his time."
The students involved bringing the IDF soldier to campus were upset with the interruptions. "Everyone deserves to be listened to", said Amir Fogel, a signer for SPICI. SPICI, who originally backed the event, pulled out several days before due to anticipation of a protest. The event was not intended to be an instigation."
Fried issued a statement the following morning informing the community of the disruptions and
reminding students of the need to be able to conduct "open dialogue and discussion."
Those who openly support Israel continue to perceive a culture of hostility on Hampshire's campus. The student attacked, who considered not returning for the spring semester, had to switch mods [student group apartments] and continues feeling afraid to go out at night alone, even on campus. The student also admitted knowing of "at least ten" other students who had experienced harassment, some of whom had even left Hampshire as a result.
FogeL who had an Israeli flag taken from his dorm room door last year, also attested to the climate of fear. “When someone takes my personal thing, my Israeli flag, a symbol of me, the message gets through that I’m not allowed to have that. I'm shut down for having an opinion, which is the worst feeling ever".
Students from all sides continue to express frustration with the polarization of the issue and the misconceptions that have arisen. Representatives of SJP express hope that despite disagreements, they wish to have a dialogue and ultimately establish similar views and hopes for the world. SPICI, Fried, and the members of the administration have also expressed the need for civilized dialogue and general education regarding Israel and Palestine.
Open Letter from the Students Promoting Israel Culture and Information
(already reproduced here)
Open letter from the Students for Justice in Palestine
Dear Community Members,
We are issuing this statement as concerned members of Hampshire’s Students for Justice in Palestine to inform the community about the event that took place on Thursday, February 3, 2011. We feel that the letter that President Fried sent out the following day omitted crucial information about what took place that night and that it is necessary to clarify the nature of this specific event.
Sergeant Benjamin Anthony of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) came to give a presentation on behalf of his organization, Our Soldiers Speak. The sold purpose of this organization is to present the lives of Israeli soldiers and the wars they are a part of a sympathetic light with no mention of the Palestinian civilians who suffer as a result of these wars. As such, they implicitly and explicitly defend the internationally recognized war crimes soldiers like Sgt. Benjamin Anthony have participated in.
Appalled that a soldier from an occupying army was coming to speak openly on our campus, a multi-generational group of students and community members participated in a collective protest during the event. Our protest had multiple goals: to call attention to the fact that there was no space for the voices of Palestinians to speak to the injustices committed against them by such soldiers like Sgt. Anthony, to challenge his purported “a-political” participation in the occupation of Palestine, and to offer a safe space for support and remembrance of those thousands silenced, killed, and displaced by the Israeli regime. In the interest of transparency, we would like to outline the steps we took to carry out each of these goals.
SJP produced and distributed a pamphlet for the event that described the history of the organizations that sponsored their event, including their participation in Islamophobic, racist, and anti-Arab propaganda. From the beginning of the event, a banner was held up that read “Where is the Palestinian voice in this dialogue?”, while protesters held up signs with phrases including “Never Again for Anyone” and “The Wall Must Fall,” as well as the names of the 352 children killed during Operation Cast Lead. Over the course of the night, members and allies of our group stood up and raised their voices as a form of resistance to Sgt. Anthony’s narrative, and all of them complied with Public Safety when they were asked to leave the room. Those expelled from the lecture hall joined a vigil in the lobby, which offered an open space for song, silence, and honor for those who have died as a result of the occupation. The vigil allowed us to remember those who continue to resist, within the occupied Palestinian territories and internationally.
Our intentions in disrupting Anthony’s speech were to re-center the talk in a human rights discourse, and to condemn the human rights violations of the longest standing military occupation in the world. From the outset, the structure of the event itself showed a power disparity.
Only those in support of the speaker were allowed to sit in the front three rows, with the exception of a protester who uses a wheel~chair and two of her friends. Certain members of the audience were not only barred from sitting in first three rows but were immediately warned that if we attempted to go towards the stage we would be handcuffed immediately. The audience was also informed that nobody would be allowed to use recording equipment in the room. However, this was only enforced against protesters; a handful of Sgt. Anthony's supporters recorded the event without consequence or impediment.
Throughout the event the administrative representatives present fully cooperated with Sgt.Anthony’s agenda, which we feel discredited subsequent claims they made for fair and just “dialogue." In an move that is unprecedented at Hampshire, public safety officers guarded the doors for the entirety of the event and did not allow anyone to enter late or re-enter if they had left. Everyone attending was prevented from entering until the speaker gave his order. Each person was then lined up in a single file by a public safety officer. When one Hampshire student was assaulted and called a “faggot” by a supporter of the speaker, public safety officers initially moved to remove the Hampshire student who received the homophobic slur, rather than the person who used this threatening language. When two Palestinians in the room were referred to as “terrorists”, no action was taken. No attention was given to the safety of protesters when audience members suffered hate speech.
We understand this event as part of an effort to whitewash the IDF and to distract from growing international criticism of Israel’s human rights violations. As students in the US, it is our responsibility to critique our government and challenge our educational institutions for their unquestioning support of Israel’s atrocities. Whenever the Israeli government and its supporters attempt to gloss over 46 years of war crimes, glorify the construction of illegal settlements, claim democracy despite the blockade and bombardment of Gaza to overthrow its democratically elected government, legitimize the confiscation of water access, or justify the destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes, they will be challenged with truth and justice.
We will not be silent.
Students for Justice in Palestine
Another open letter to the Hampshire College community
By Robert Liota
Three months ago, one of our fellow community members wrote an editorial piece in The Omen meant as a joke. It was in fact insulting to many on campus, and induced unease and even fear for some individuals' social safety on this campus. A dialogue session was held.
I think lesson a key lesson to be taken away from that incident is that, while we all have a right to free speech, that fact does not morally validate or condone saying something that is hurtful or endangering, nor does it release any individual from a responsibility to uphold a certain form of social contract as part of this community.
The reason I revisit that event is because the recent letter to the community from Students for Justice in Palestine has rather disingenuously turned a very serious caution about the social rights of individuals on campus into a spring-board for propaganda, one which also subsequently proposes that certain individuals should not be allowed on campus to speak. One that hinges on drawing a contrast between Judaism and Zionism that suggests that to be anti-semitic is not to be anti-zionist. True. But when it is framed as part of a response to hearing about both violent and threatening acts targeting an individual on campus, it seems to affirm these actions in making them distinctly different from each other, depending on whom they are targeting. That is wrong. Perhaps SJP did not intend to sound like they were condoning acts of violence- they certainly seem to be oblivious to much of the contents of the President's initial letter (it was sent in December, not January).
For instance, at issue in the President’s letter were not necessarily acts of anti-semitism. At issue was violence directed toward individuals in our community. What SJP is essentially demonstrating in their first paragraph (and subsequently in their entire letter) is that they take issue with acts or threats of violence, vandalism, and harassment of individuals when concerning anti-semitism. Definitely laudable. But then it proceeds to backtrack on itself and say, "But wait, what is really at issue in the letter is anti-zionism!" Or rather:
“However, what is very clear to us is that the letter issued to every member of the Hampshire community was not primarily concerned with acts of anti-Semitism, but with vocal opposition towards expressions of Zionism." (SJP, "An Open "letter to the Hampshire College Community")
First of all, the letter was not in fact concerned with vocal opposition toward expressions of Zionism. It was fact concerned with this:
"…students on this campus have been subjected to physical, verbal, and written harassment, and intimidation because of their political views in support of the state of Israel" [emphasis added.]
Nowhere in President Fried's letter does it condemn anyone for "vocal opposition" toward” expressions of Zionism. I would also like to bring up another criticism here, however—being in support of the state of Israel bears a rather vague association to Zionism. You can be a Conservative Republican and be against a woman's choice in bearing a child but still be in support of the States of America [sic], just as you can be a liberal Democrat and believe exactly the opposite but still pledge allegiance to the United States. So it is still a stretch to glean "expressions of Zionism" from "political views in support of the ·state of Israel," What if one's support hinged: on an Israeli state free of religious/racial directives?"
I could criticize SJP about the way they approach some of their activism for a very long time, but that would be getting away from the point of this letter, which is that this community has some serious problems with hostility. Rather than allowing President Fried's letter to resonate with a warning about it, SJP has decided to deaden it piggybacking on it with a letter that boils down to anti-speech propaganda. I think that's disrespectful of this community, and I think it hints dangerously close at excusing the actions that were described in Marlene Fried's December l7th letter.
While we all have a to free speech, that fact does not morally validate or condone saying something that is hurtful or endangering, nor does it release any individual from a responsibility to uphold a certain form of social contract as part of this community.
I ask both sides of the Israel-Palestine issue, as well as the community at large to heed this caution in general. And stop hitting each other. It makes Hampshire College sound more like a day-care for wealtjy brats than it aready is.
Sincerest love, appreciation, disgust, and/or respect,