Earlier this year I posted about a controversy at Friends Central School in Philadelphia, where a Palestinian Quaker, Sa’ed Atshan, was invited to visit and speak, then abruptly disinvited & the two teachers who invited him, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, were suspended.
The news site philly.com reported on May 10 that the two teachers have now been terminated effective June 30. Along with that decision came an invitation from the school to Sa’ed Atshan to speak at Friends Central sometime in the future, on “his personal experiences and path to peace education.”
The report added that
[The suspended teachers] were offered severance pay of $5,500, but that is contingent on their dropping a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit, said Mark Schwartz, their lawyer.
“This is a ridiculous offer,” he said. “I’d be surprised if they took it. Unlike the school, these two have some principles.”
School representatives on Tuesday declined to give a reason for the terminations.
The Handmaid’s Taleis a novel. The story below is not. It is true, and it happened in 1990, but its reverberations are still being felt, and are maybe stronger and deeper now than when they burst into view. Margaret Atwood’s fictional vision was directly relevant to it — as well as that of another novel which became its mirror image. Read on to understand why.
It begins with a showdown at Silver Bay, involving witches versus demons.
I. Gilead Meets the Goddess
New York Yearly Meeting gathers at Silver Bay, a resort complex on Lake George, north of Albany. Silver Bay is a lovely and peaceful setting, to which many New York Quakers return as pilgrims each summer seeking rest and renewal among Friends.
When the yearly meeting gathered in July of 1990, rest and renewal seemed in short supply. The 1980s had not been easy for New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM).
While many other unprogrammed yearly meetings were growing, New York’s membership declined by about ten per cent; the body struggled to meet its budget; and worst of all, its annual sessions were wracked by chronic wrangling, over doctrine and morals. An effort to rewrite its Faith and Practice, pending since 1977, dragged on abrasively throughout the decade; by 1990, this process had become so acrimonious that the Yearly Meeting put it on hold for a year.
In its travail, New York had become a kind of field laboratory for an ongoing experiment in institutional Quaker ecumenism. Unfortunately, in the latter years of the 1980s, many of the results of this test had not been promising, and never more so than at its 1990 session.
I’ve been retired for four-plus years, and interested in Quaker history for about fifty. I’ve done research, attended conferences of historians, and written my share of articles and books on related topics. I’ve also organized some conferences. (For more about this work, click here. )
Retirement is supposed to be when, with time growing short, one gets to work on the bucket list. And on my list, making some sense of the last century — half of which I spent among Friends — is pretty high. Much higher than going on a cruise.
Working on Quaker history has been continually stimulating for me, and often fun. And not much has been done on the 20th century among Quakers — despite the fact that a LOT went on.
Seventeen years past the end of that century, I figured it was time to start filling that gap. So about a year ago I started sounding out scholars and others I’ve met and heard about who are also Quaker history geeks, and suggested we do some work, then get together and share and discuss it; many were interested. And I had enough savings to underwrite it, so I did. Continue reading Friends’ History Coming Alive: The Quaker History Roundtable→
Three forces in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PHYM) are on a collision course, and unless there is a major new development they are due to meet head-on Saturday March 25, at the spring yearly meeting session.
On one track is the self-styled Undoing Racism Group (URG), which is determined to “hold accountable” the YM, its staff & structures in a drive to “decenter whiteness” & uproot what it sees as an entrenched culture of “white supremacy.”
On another track are those in the YM who are uneasy with the URG. Everyone insists they want to banish racism; but some question whether URG is the best vehicle for this work. Its assertive/aggressive style, some doubt the wisdom of its proposals, some are troubled by both.
This mix is volatile enough. Then on March 4, the third train hove into view in the form of the PYM General Secretary, Christie Duncan-Tessmer. She announced several staff changes, abolishing four job slots, and downgrading another. [Photo below: Christie Duncan-Tessmer, General Secretary, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.]
Job cuts are always hard. As Zach Dutton, PHYM Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life, put it on March 6, 2017:
Laying down the four coordinator positions that make up the Youth & Young Adult Programs Team allows us to create space for the expansion of the current set of programs we offer. I know that this seems counter-intuitive. It also hurts the Friends who work in these positions to lose their jobs. It hurts the communities they serve to lose relationships with their coordinators. This fact bears repeating and holding up. There is nothing about laying down the positions that isn’t painful and that doesn’t make life hard in the short term. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the coming transitions are as smooth and supportive as humanly possible.
This past week (so far) a bunch of big shoes have dropped, including:
— a huge war buildup;
— the sharks circling for the kill on health care; while
— even longtime peaceful immigrants living in fear;
— Muslims, even American-born ones, being harassed at the borders;
— clean air & water are gurgling down the tubes;
– more vote suppression is on the march, and
– I probably forgot several more —
But stop the presses–!!
The really big Quaker news is that the hardline evangelical caucus in North Carolina YM is upset (again) because they aren’t yet guaranteed “sufficient separation” from a handful of liberal meetings they’ve been trying to purge for more than two years. And so they’re pushing for yet another in the unending series of showdowns; it will come this Saturday, March 4, at the NCYM Representative body session.
According to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Sa’ed Atshan, the Palestinian Quaker professor of peace studies whose February 10 speech at Friends Central School (FCS) was canceled last month, is a Jew-hater in a class with –well, you know, the guy who had the pencil mustache:
“. . . if Palestinian speaker Sa’ed Atshan supports Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – an international movement designed to delegitimize, weaken and ultimately destroy the Jewish State of Israel – then students at Friends’ Central School would be exposed to vicious, hateful lies with little hope that the same teachers who invited Atshan would offer students the actual facts about Israel, Palestinian-Arabs, and the Middle East that would set the record straight.”
Feldman is Director of the ZOA’s greater Philadelphia office.
And the college office of the ZOA has already devoted whole webpages to denouncing Atshan. A sample:
“Sa’ed Atshan is a leading activist in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, which spreads lies about Jews and Israel and seeks to destroy the only Jewish state.”
Indeed, to read these ZOA screeds, one would expect to find Atshan saying things like the following, which appeared in the Comments section of the Harvard Political Review in March 2013, while Atshan was a grad student there:
“The real issue is not The [Harvard student paper the] Crimson’s anti-Palestinian prejudice but the overrepresentation of Jews at The Crimson, in the Harvard student body and on the faculty.
We have to face the facts that . . .
Unqualified Jews are taking places from qualified white non-Jews, African Americans, and Asian Americans throughout the US academic system.”
Only, Atshan didn’t say that. A guy named Jonathan Affleck did. (Affleck said lots more like it. And he has a Facebook page that’s exclusively devoted to anti-Jewish fulminations, including a defense of the Nazi “Final Solution.”)
But Sa’ed Atshan did writeabout this. His Comment on Affleck’s statements was, in full:
“The Anti-Semitic comments of “Jonathan Affleck” here are morally reprehensible. As part of the Palestinian solidarity community at Harvard none of us would ever condone such racism. This is absolutely unacceptable (quotas against Jewish students, etc.). With “friends” like Affleck, we definitely do not need enemies. The struggle for Palestinian human rights is a just one based on universal values of equality and the fundamental dignity of all human beings…. and our movement should not be associated with Affleck and the like. NO ONE has authorized him to speak on our behalf.”
This exchange occurred before Atshan returned to his alma mater, Swarthmore College, as a professor, and long before the flap about a speech at Friends Central blew up. But it’s an intriguing and revealing item just the same. It’s a reminder that apples aren’t oranges.
And speaking of the FCS flap, that pot has continued to bubble since our last posts (here, here and here). Two FCS teachers, who protested the cancellation, have been suspended; their fate is still uncertain. There has been continuing media coverage. Op-eds and letters have made impassioned defenses of Atshan, as well as criticism. A petition signed by more than 400 FCS alumni, parents and other Friends has gone to FCS officials. Numerous private approaches have been made.
And yesterday, February 20, media reports surfaced that on Sunday, Atshan, who has maintained public silence amid the controversy, met with FCS head Craig Sellers to begin negotiations about resolving the controversy.
Mark Schwartz, a lawyer and friend of Atshan, said Sellers apologized to the professor and extended an invitation to speak at the school. He said Atshan maintained he was not comfortable accepting the offer unless two teachers who had been suspended over student protests that followed the cancellation were allowed to return to their jobs.
Atshan “has a strong conviction that the teachers should be back,” Schwartz said. “The reason he met with this guy, I’m sure, he was hoping this would get resolved.”
Friends’ Central spokeswoman Lisa D’Orazio gave a different account of what transpired. She said Sellers did not invite Atshan to give a talk but is “keeping the lines of communication open.”
A recently formed task force will look at all future programming, including speakers, at the school. “He’s still on the table,” D’Orazio said of Atshan.
That’s an unfortunate statement: “He’s still on the table.” The operating table? The autopsy table? Better try again.
In a letter Monday to Friends’ Central families, Philip Scott, clerk of the [FCS] board of trustees, said of the controversy: “Outside groups have tried to falsely paint this as a free speech issue. I want to be clear, this is not a free speech issue. It is about the school taking the time and effort to formulate and present intellectual, respectful, and comprehensive programs for its students.”
Well, I want to be clear too: I don’t believe Scott’s “not a free speech” meme for a minute.
One has to maintain a determined sense of isolation not to know that groups like the ZOA are working overtime to keep discussion of BDS and just about anything else that diverges from strong support of current Israeli government polices out of college and other educational spaces. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not. And when they succeed, free speech takes a hit.
As it has at Friends Central School. This IS a “free speech issue.”
I hope Sellers and Scott can persuade those who forced the cancellation and suspensions to back off. Otherwise, this travesty can only further damage the school’s already battered reputation.
In a welcome letter on the FCS website, school head Sellers grandly proclaims that for FCS:
Our Vision: To awaken courage and intellect — and peacefully transform the world.
Nice words. But to get clear about that “vision” again, those in charge need to clean their glasses and see that they have screwed up bigtime here, both as carriers of Quaker traditions, and as educators.
They’ve got the intellect to fix this. What about the courage?
The Philadelphia Daily News is out today with a searing editorial about the ongoing flap involving Friends Central School, a cancelled speech about Middle East issues by a professor of Palestinian heritage, and the suspension of two teachers who supported his appearance.
The headline is biting:
DN editorial: Friends’ Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker
“ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source – a Quaker school.
Last week, the head of Friends’ Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying – in effect – that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.
Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded “our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.”
We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends’ Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.”
Ouch. That hurts. It’s the kind of report that makes Quakers of all stripes cringe.
Back in the day, “integrity” was a key linchpin of the “Quaker way.” Maybe some of it was myth, magnified in the telling (there have definitely been some Quaker scoundrels; Richard Nixon?), but overall, the Society of Friends gained a kind of fame that money can’t buy, for being stubborn about the truth.
In practical ways, like Quaker shopkeepers setting fixed prices, rather than cheating uninformed customers.
In even comical ways, like carefully hedging their speech to be strictly factual (which this anecdote may not entirely be):
Once, it is said, Herbert Hoover (the Quaker president who wasn’t a crook) was riding across the prairie on a train, when another passenger spied some skinny-looking sheep in a nearby field.
“Looks like those sheep have all just been sheared,” said the passenger.
Hoover eyed them warily, paused, and then replied, “Yes, it does — at least on this side.”
Those were also the days when going bankrupt was not just a misfortune, but an infraction that would get a Friend “disowned.” That’s because it marred the Quaker “Reputation of Truth,” one item of which was that Friends always paid their debts.
Well, the Friends’ “Reputation of Truth” is pretty tattered in the eyes of this editorialist:
“The Quakers have always embraced free speech and espoused many unpopular causes. They opposed slavery and war at a time when you could get shot over those beliefs. William Penn went to jail in England because he would not give up his beliefs.
It would sadden Penn to see a school founded on his principles cowering in the corner, afraid to let students hear another viewpoint.”
They’ve got a point there. Who remembers Philadelphia 1838, when Quakers and other early abolitionists erected their own building, Pennsylvania Hall, because other groups wouldn’t let them speak or hold meetings? It opened in May, for a meeting of antislavery women: and was burned down the next night. The fires were set while Quaker Angelina Grimke was speaking.
Did this arson and attempted murder silence the women, or their movement? No.
But that’s not all. The editorial goes on:
“[Sa’ed] Atshan [the Swarthmore College professor whose talk was squashed] hasn’t spoken publicly about the controversy, but let’s assume that he is fervently pro-Palestinian, does favor economic sanctions against Israel and that he expressed those views before a group of high school students. So what? Would the students rush out of the room waving PLO flags? Would he convert them into rabid anti-Zionists? We think not.
Consider such a speech either food for thought or a foolish viewpoint, but it hardly represents a danger to the minds of these students. Being a student means being exposed to conflicting facts, theories and beliefs. It’s called learning.”
Yes it is. And here’s hoping the FCS leadership finishes this lesson in a hurry and fixes this mess, before their reputation, that of Friends Central School, and that of Quakers at large, suffer more harmful, unnecessary hits.
As is often the case in Quaker controversies, the officials blame “a fundamental breakdown in process,” adding “We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue.”
In a departure from what has been earlier reported, the statement says “To be clear, our intention has always been to pause – not cancel – any speaker engagement on this topic.”
This “pause” was needed, the statement says, because “We felt it was important that more facts and input from community members be gathered to develop a thoughtful, respectful, and intellectual approach.”
However, “During this period of pause, two teachers were given explicit directives, which they ignored. As a result of their actions and their expressed intentions, these teachers have been placed on paid leave while we continue a more thorough review.”
[Note: I am not aware of any public comments by the two suspended teachers. And with their jobs hanging in the balance, they are likely being advised to keep quiet.]
The FCS Board held a called meeting yesterday to address this situation. And as Quaker bodies do in the face of almost all emergencies, they formed a committee, here called a “Task Force” tasked “to determine how we move forward.” Pledging to be “proactive,” further updates are promised. The rest of the statement is a set of broad generalities, concluding with:
“Our challenges reflect the world we live in. This moment presents an opportunity to demonstrate what defines Friends’ Central as a Quaker school.”
Full text of the statement:
Important Message from the Head of School and Clerk of the Board Posted 02/14/2017 02:59PM Dear Friends,
As Head of School and Board Clerk, we write to you today with an update on recent events within the Friends’ Central community involving students’ learning about the Middle East, campus speakers, and our path forward. While many have expressed concern, we believe this is an opportunity to live our Mission and emerge a stronger community.
We understand these are delicate issues and want to assure you that the physical and emotional safety of our community is our first priority.
There was a fundamental breakdown in process. We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue. To be clear, our intention has always been to pause – not cancel – any speaker engagement on this topic. We felt it was important that more facts and input from community members be gathered to develop a thoughtful, respectful, and intellectual approach. During this period of pause, two teachers were given explicit directives, which they ignored. As a result of their actions and their expressed intentions, these teachers have been placed on paid leave while we continue a more thorough review.
Members of our community have reached out to share their views, while offering suggestions on how to proceed. To those individuals, we have heard you and we will invite participation shortly. At last night’s called meeting, the Board of Trustees began forming a Task Force to determine how we move forward. To lead this effort, Board members and current parents Fariha Khan and Elizabeth Cohen ’83 will serve as Clerks. The Task Force will broadly engage our community – including students, parents, faculty, administration, and alumni/ae – and bring together a wide variety of viewpoints. Our goal is to move toward and embrace the challenges of intellectual discourse with respect and empathy.
We commit to communicating more proactively. In the days and weeks ahead, you will receive more information about our Task Force and opportunities available to participate. Some may still have concerns and issues you would like to address directly with the School. Craig is available to meet with any member of our community who would like time to discuss these issues in further detail. This is a priority, and Craig is available in the coming days.
Our challenges reflect the world we live in. This moment presents an opportunity to demonstrate what defines Friends’ Central as a Quaker school. We must come together on how we teach our children, to ensure they meet challenges from a place of knowledge and constructive engagement.