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Separate and Unequal for Jewish Groups on Campus

After the student government at the elite Williams College denied formal recognition to a pro-Israel group, the school’s president intervened

KC Johnson
May 20, 2019
Photo: Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr
Williams College, Williamstown, MassachusettsPhoto: Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr
Photo: Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr
Williams College, Williamstown, MassachusettsPhoto: Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr

In late April, the Williams College Council, the college’s student government, rejected a request to recognize a group called Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI). The move was more or less unprecedented: In the previous decade, the College Council had not rejected any otherwise-qualified group. WIFI’s opponents openly admitted that they did not want a pro-Israel organization to operate on campus.

In short, the student government at one of the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges utilized two sets of criteria—one for a proposed pro-Israel group composed mostly of Jewish students, another for every other current and potential student group on campus. Often, debates about biased attitudes toward campus pro-Israel voices and the mistreatment of Jewish students raise ambiguous issues. This was not one of those cases.

One longtime faculty member, art history professor Michael Lewis, told me that the council’s decision “surprised” him. Williams, he noted, traditionally has “tended not to be a highly politicized campus”—a legacy that makes the vote more noteworthy than had it come from more activist colleges such as Swarthmore, Oberlin, or Vassar. Lewis added, however, that the campus climate had begun to change in the past few years.

This winter, some Williams students, concerned about the dearth of pro-Israel events on campus, decided to form a group “to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.” According to College Council guidelines, they needed to fulfill a host of technical requirements, which they did. Approval should have been routine.

But, as Lewis had noted, the campus culture recently had become more fraught. An early sign came from a group called Uncomfortable Learning, which invited speakers representing dissenting views to give talks on campus. (I’m a former Williams professor; I appeared twice without controversy, but other speakers encountered different experiences.) In the 2018-2019 academic year, major controversies erupted over demands by some minority students for “affinity housing”; and whether the college should adopt the Chicago Principles on free speech, which a coalition of students and faculty members strongly opposed.

Against this backdrop, WIFI requested recognition. The matter triggered a 50-minute council discussion on April 16, with action deferred. Anti-Israel protests popped up on campus two days later, culminating in dozens of students repeatedly chanting, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.” The debate over whether or not to recognize the pro-Israel group resumed on April 23; after a raucous meeting, in which the council co-president allowed unelected anti-recognition students to dominate the debate, the council voted 13-8 not to recognize the group. A few days later, Williams President Maud Mandel condemned the move and asserted that WIFI could operate on campus. After the filing of a complaint with the Department of Education against the school, Mandel issued an amended, strengthened statement. Then, on May 14, the college released another statement indicating that Mandel, citing a previously unused provision of the council bylaws, had formed a committee that not only extended all rights to WIFI but formally recognized it, on equal standing to other student groups.

Video of the April 16 meeting remains publicly available. I also obtained a complete transcript, with the names of the students redacted, of the WIFI discussion at the April 23 council meeting. Unlike its other 2018-2019 sessions, the council produced no video record of that gathering.

Some anti-WIFI arguments were standard fare on college campuses. Multiple anti-recognition students said they would experience unspecified forms of emotional or physical harm unless the council refused to recognize WIFI. Others positioned the group as offering succor to “the rhetoric of Trump right now, who’s saying Jews don’t belong here, Jews should go to Israel.” This student, needless to say, did not identify when Trump had made such a statement.

Shutting down the council’s usual livestream was justified, one college legislator noted, to accommodate “the students who are afraid to speak out because of the pro-Israel lobby in this country and the things that they are known to achieve when it comes to their campus activism.” A colleague presented the obvious response: “Why are people so worried about the things they’re going to say? Are they that hateful?”

The latter question proved prescient. Three themes dominated the council debate. The first was an attempt to use the powers of student government, which previously had recognized a branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, to limit campus discourse about Israel. WIFI critics deemed the organization unnecessary on grounds that Williams hosted a purportedly comparable group—Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue, whose founder describes it as “neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine.” Several speakers added positive references to the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace as a type of organization with which they’d sympathize.

Though constricting the spectrum of acceptable positions on Israel would seem to undermine principles of free speech, a WIFI critic explained otherwise. “It’s really important,” he reasoned, “for us all to take a moment to just think about what ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’ actually means.” Two sides should present “clashing free ideas,” after which the council should “vote in what we think are the best ideas and for us to vote out what we think are ideas we think are worthy of being discarded.” Defining free speech as tyranny of the majority is a mainstream view on too many contemporary campuses.

The two council sessions also featured troubling, and in one case appalling, lack of historical knowledge about events in both the Middle East and Europe. Multiple Williams students deemed nondebatable the proposition that Israel has perpetrated a genocide against Palestinians—a position so extreme that virtually no member of Congress shares it. This purported genocide, one student explained, came amidst an alleged historical record of Muslims living in peace with Jews in the pre-1947 mandate and the contemporary reality of “Jewish people, living in Palestine, safely.” Where in Gaza or the PA-controlled West Bank these Jews live was not indicated.

Assertions about World War II were even more disturbing. One student acknowledged the “horrible conditions that Jewish people experienced” during the Holocaust, but claimed that Palestinians currently were “even experiencing worse.” Why? Unlike the seemingly unending Israeli occupation of the West Bank, “the purpose of these [World War II] ghettos were basically to control, segregate, and separate the Jewish people for short periods of time.”

Schools such as Williams long ago abandoned required courses in Western civilization or European history. Nonetheless, a student at one of the nation’s best colleges publicly describing the World War II experience of European Jews as even partly a short-term problem of living in ghettos is shocking. That other Williams students could take from such an assertion a possible reason to avoid recognizing a Jewish campus group is remarkable.

WIFI critics preemptively denied allegations of anti-Semitism. The student who made the assertions about World War II assured the council, “I have a lot of Jewish friends.” Another dismissed anti-Semitism as a possible motive, since “the Arabs are actually Semites, so the term anti-Semitic is not very accurate to describe whatever people use it to describe.” In a revealing admission, however, the council’s note taker excluded “clearly anti-Semitic things” from his minutes of the April 23 council meeting.

The debate’s final theme was an indifference to regular procedure. WIFI representatives and their council supporters mostly focused on straightforward procedural questions—it wasn’t, they noted, the council’s job to litigate the Middle Eastern conflict or restrict student speech. As the debate proceeded, one council member asked to hear from those with expertise in what the bylaws said about student organizations. But the council majority showed scant interest in normal rules. As one member who voted against WIFI explained, “There’s nothing in the bylaws that says we, representatives, have to vote for something even if it follows the bylaws.”

And so, after a procedurally irregular meeting, the Williams College Council denied recognition to a pro-Israel group by using criteria the body hadn’t employed in at least a decade. It did so despite a debate in which critics of the organization made statements the council’s own note taker considered anti-Semitic, and offered wild arguments, in at least one instance bordering on a form of Holocaust revisionism, that were wholly unrelated to the specific issue at hand. And the council performed its act in the dark, after a session that it chose not to livestream to the campus community.

As the decision generated national and international attention, WIFI opponents reiterated their ideological rationale. “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,” 11 Williams students wrote in TheWilliams Record, the campus newspaper. Articulating an unusual form of the heckler’s veto, they added that WIFI supporters violated a condition of “free speech on campus” by not showing “basic respect” for their viewpoint—presumably by disbanding the group.

President Mandel disagreed, posting a statement on the afternoon of Friday, May 3. The council, she correctly noted, had ignored its own procedures, “which at no point identifies a proposed group’s politics as a criterion for review,” and it might have violated the nondiscrimination provision of the student government’s bylaws. As a result, Mandel informed WIFI leaders that the “club can continue to exist and operate.” After a complaint was filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights, the president amended her statement, though without indicating that she had done so. She promised that WIFI would receive “all” (rather than “most,” as her original statement read) of the benefits given to other student organizations, since “we are guaranteeing them exactly equal resources.” In response to a request for comment about the origins of the change, Jim Reische, chief communications officer at Williams, said, “As soon as we confirmed that we could raise the bar to promise exactly equal resources, we updated the statement to say so.”

Given the campus environment in which she operates, Mandel deserves credit for issuing any sort of statement, and ultimately appointing the committee that fully recognized WIFI. Yet she seemed intent on threading a needle between allowing WIFI to exist and not alienating the group’s campus critics. Perhaps for this reason, she declined to send her original message to all students, even though, as the Record noted, her previous six website statements also had been sent campuswide. (Reische, the Williams chief communications officer, responded that “the president’s website includes all kinds of posts that didn’t originate as campus messages: speeches, letters to Congress, and so on,” as the Record could have discovered it if “had scrolled a little further.”) The college did forward her WIFI remarks to at least one Williams group email list—alumni volunteers—presumably to address criticism the council’s move had received. As of Friday afternoon, moreover, no campuswide email has been sent regarding the decision to formally recognize WIFI.

In her original statement, Mandel commented on “the transcript of the debate.” Few college presidents in the country would be better qualified intellectually to tackle this issue than Mandel, who received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan before becoming a professor of Judaic studies at Brown. (One of her books, In the Aftermath of Genocide, explores the experiences of Armenians and Jews in France.) She has not commented on the historical ignorance that the council debate exhibited, and whether the contents of the debate indicate a broader failing within the Williams curriculum.

The college’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Stephen Wax, expressed concern with the council’s vote, but praised Mandel for viewing the issue “as a matter of fairness and the students’ right to express their views.” Mathematics professor Steven Miller, somewhat more critical, commented that the episode “illustrates the fear that many of us have, namely that without certain protections one does not have free speech, one has speech that others approve of.”

Cautioning that “all student groups on campus should be very concerned about this,” Miller wondered why others had not issued “statements of solidarity. You can disagree with the content of what people are saying, while supporting their right to say it.” That’s a lesson, obviously, that campuses beyond Williams need to learn. That such a troubling incident occurred at Williams, however, provides an ugly snapshot of more general attitudes toward Israel at elite campuses.


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KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.