Friends' Central students protest cancellation of Palestinian speaker

Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood has called off a talk by a Swarthmore College professor who is a Palestinian Quaker after receiving complaints from the school community that he is an anti-Israel activist. The cancellation prompted students to protest twice this week.

Sa’ed Atshan, an assistant professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at the elite Quaker college, had been invited to speak to Upper School students on Feb. 3. 

In a letter to parents Thursday, head of school Craig N. Sellers said teachers had invited Atshan because students were interested in learning more about the Middle East and “peaceful activism."  Atshan, who graduated from Swarthmore, has a doctorate in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University.

However, the choice of Atshan “raised concerns from some members of our community,”  Sellers said, and the talk was canceled. According to pro-Israel websites, Atshan is a leader in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets companies supporting what it calls the occupation of Palestine.

In his letter, Sellers said he decided to “pause” in inviting any more speakers to discuss the Middle East at the City Avenue school.

At the weekly Meeting for Worship on Wednesday, some students stood up together and read a statement “expressing their disappointment and dismay,” and others walked out of the room, Sellers said.

The walkout was led by the teachers who invited Atshan and run a club that promoted peace and equality in Palestinian territories, according to parents who asked not to be named in order to avoid problems for their children.

“It’s a very complicated situation for everyone," said Philip E. Scott, clerk of the school’s board of trustees. "It reflects complications in the broader society, and we’re working our way through them as best we can.”

On Friday, an assembly was disrupted by about 30 students wearing black and chanting, "Let him speak," led by the teachers, parents said.

Sellers sent another email Friday saying that many students had expressed their feelings on the Middle East to him, and that he was convening a task force to shape an educational forum around the issues.

"Our school simply has no place for any kind of disrespectful conduct that stereotypes, leaves anyone feeling unsafe or threatened, or leaves anyone feeling 'less than,' " he said.

Friends' Central was founded in 1845 in Philadelphia and has about 800 students in nursery school to 12th grade.  Many graduates go to Swarthmore, also founded by Quakers who were prominent in social justice causes, such as the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

Atshan, also an LGBTQ advocate, joined Swarthmore’s faculty in 2015. According to his biography, he taught courses in peace and justice, the Arab Spring and nonviolent strategic action, and gender, sexuality, and human rights in the Middle East at Tufts University before coming to Swarthmore.

He also designed and taught courses at Harvard and Brown Universities on social movements in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, among other topics. He earned four Harvard excellence in undergraduate teaching awards.

Atshan did not respond to calls and emails.

Frequently at Friends schools, the issue of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is fraught with tension, since many families who enroll at the schools are Jewish, said Shan Cretin, secretary-general of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia.

“They are concerned about the defaming of the State of Israel” because the AFSC has long supported BDS work, she said.

Cretin said she had spoken to parents about her own beliefs on the issue and noted that most schools teach their students to listen, reflect, and inquire.

“I’m a little surprised,” she said of the Friends’ Central decision. “Canceling the speaker is not what I hoped.”

She said she knows of Atshan, who attended Ramallah Friends Meeting School, which has produced a number of Palestinian academics and intellectuals. Quakers have been in that area since the late 1800s.

In 2015, according to the Jewish Exponent, a Friends' Central parent complained  to Sellers and the board of trustees that $200 raised from a student peace concert was being sent to the AFSC.  She reportedly told them that parents were pro-Israel and that the AFSC’s position was wrong.

The Parent Teacher Organization also decided it could not support the AFSC's Middle East position and would not donate money to it. The board of trustees said it would not take a position on either side.