Friends Central School Free Speech Case: Negotiations On?

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:

As Steve Feldman put it in a letter to the editor at philly.com

“. . . 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.”

Pulitzer-Prize-winning Philly editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, also a Quaker, weighed in on the FCS controversy too.

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.”

Definitely anti-semitic.

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 write about this. His Comment on Affleck’s statements was, in full:

Sa’ed Atshan, Swarthmore College Peace & Conflict Studies Assistant Professor.

“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.

How far they got toward that end is still uncertain. As the article on philly.com put it:

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.

And there’s more:

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?

8 thoughts on “Friends Central School Free Speech Case: Negotiations On?”

  1. You emphasize that this is a free speech issue. I wish you would have allowed me free speech when, years ago, you kept my pro-Israel article out of a book you are editing. Real free speech allows people with different points of view to express their opinions, not just those whom we agree with.

    On another point: BDS calls for the so-called “right of return” for displaced Arabs to Israel, a right no displaced group has had before, to my knowledge. If these people were allowed to return, the Palestinians would be a majority in Israel, and the whole notion of a Jewish state, to which any Jew could come in times of crisis, would disappear. Since Arabs and Jews have proved they cannot live together, the Jews would presumably be expelled or could. Therefore, I believe that BDS is an anti-semitic group.

    1. It is a free speech issue, in my opinion. Boycott, Divest, Sanction is a movement disagreeing with what you hold dear. It is not anti-semitic call. It is calling out Israel State for wrong-doings.

      Atsham is Quaker, and not afiliated with BSRD, raised in Palestine, in the manner of Friends.
      Anti-Semitism is the war-cry for those who are into violence, empire, oil, and domination.

    2. The antisemitic thing gets a bit old. It’s up there with anti-American and all the other patriotic/we are better to you, nonsense. It is just a sheild to hide behind rather than address the real issues. How does that fit in with those Jews that oppose the Israeli state’s actions?
      Nevertheless, what do you think the answer is then? Make the Palestinians bow to your will and shut up? That ain’t gonna happen.
      I’m sure rhe average Israeli just wants to live in peace, put dinner on the table and maybe raise a family. I’m guessing that is the same for the average Palestinian as well. Seems to me that the current rhetoric of hate and revenge is serving little purpose. The problem will not magically go away, one day there will have to be a resolution and there’s no time like the present to begin in earnest. Of course, it won’t be easy, peace and justice for all is a lot of work, with setbacks and frustrations. It is though, less troublesome than bombings, shootings and war.
      Unless you don’t want it resolved, then carry on as you are.

  2. Perhaps students would benefit from the free speech of the Boycott/Divest/Sanctions point of view, especially if it calls into question the validity and consequences of legally-defined religious states such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. One could also learn what a “Christian” state would look like by studying the Nazi regime or reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. One can only hope that the Quakers at Friends Central School reaffirm the First Amendment to our Constitution.

  3. Who is this man Craig Sellers of Friends Central? Went to their website, and found nothing about the man’s curriculum vitae .. Nothing I’ve read during this contraversy indicates anything but pandering.

  4. From Kathy Kamphoefner: I imagine you are probably aware that denying free speech to critiques of Israel’s repressive policies is an organized effort nationwide– academics have lost their jobs for it. Here’s a new book documenting the phenomena:
    “We will not be silenced: The academic repression of Israel’s critics.” Edited by William I. Robinson & Maryam S. Griffin. Due out April 2017. AK Press.
    William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global and international studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Maryam S. Griffin is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Davis.

    The Publisher’ description is here:
    https://www.akpress.org/we-will-not-be-silenced.html

    https://www.amazon.com/We-Will-Not-Silenced-Repression/dp/1849352763

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