Who is Swarthmore professor in the eye of Friends' Central storm?

Sa’ed Atshan — the Palestinian-raised Swarthmore College professor in the eye of a free-speech storm at the Main Line’s prestigious Friends’ Central School — has said his first lesson in nonviolent resistance involved his grandmother and a watermelon painted red, green, and black.

He grew up in Ramallah on the West Bank during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s. Palestinian flags were banned, he recalled, so his grandmother painted the melon in her homeland’s colors and displayed it in the center of her living room. She only smiled at the young Atshan and the rest of the family when Israeli soldiers stomped it to pieces.

“It just empowered us from such a young age, which is to say, yes, they have this quantitative power over us, this military power over us, but they don’t have control over that moment, us smiling,” Atshan said in an undated lecture recorded by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, and posted to its website last week. “They can't take that away from us, that moment. …”

An assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore, where he earned an undergraduate degree a decade ago, the 32-year-old Atshan is a Quaker. Friends and associates say he remains on a lifelong quest to find peaceful answers to the questions that sprang not only from the violence he witnessed as a child, but also from growing up gay in an intolerant society.

Yet the soft-spoken Atshan has remained silent in the face of the biggest controversy of his academic career, triggered when the Quaker school in Wynnewood called off his scheduled talk this month to a student group after some Jewish parents objected. His critics have pointed to his support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure Israel economically for an end to the West Bank occupation, which he has likened to a form of apartheid.

The cancellation of the Feb. 10 speech provoked student protests, led to the suspension of the two teachers who invited him, and propelled Friends’ Central into a highly publicized imbroglio over academic free speech and the Mideast conflict. Throughout, Atshan has declined all requests for interviews.

“He’s a professor, not a media star,” said an acquaintance, Mark D. Schwartz, a lawyer and former Friends’ Central parent who is representing the two suspended teachers, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa.

In a statement Friday, the school administration said that “in the context of balanced programming, the contributions of varied perspectives will add to a rich and ongoing dialogue. Our community is working through this difficult moment and defining a path forward. We never intended to place Dr. Atshan in this unfortunate situation.”

Colleagues say he has experienced much worse in recent years — most notably when he tried to return to Ramallah to visit family.

“Two Christmases ago, he was stopped by Israeli security forces with his sister,” said Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke, who has worked with Atshan on various issues for a decade. “He was detained for 24 hours, strip-searched and humiliated, and sent home and told he couldn’t return [to the West Bank] again. He had to pass a bag of Christmas gifts to his sister so she could take them to his family.” Atshan, she added, has since been permitted to return to the region after pressure from activists.

Peers and students speaking out on Atshan’s behalf almost universally depict him as a promoter of open dialogue and mutual understanding.

“I think he always encourages people to act from a point of love and understanding,” said Helen Wang, a 21-year-old Swarthmore senior from Baltimore who took Atshan’s course on gender, sexuality and social change. She said her long conversations with him during his office hours even helped her in political disagreements with her politically conservative parents. “He was encouraging me to try my best to understand where they’re coming from.”

“Sa’ed is a professor of peace at Swarthmore. That fits not only his research agenda and scholarly interest but his personality,” added Franke, the Columbia law professor. “He is deeply committed to framing the most difficult questions of dispossession, of belonging, of citizenship in Palestine and Israel from a compassionate viewpoint.”

However, there is a radically different portrayal of Atshan on a network of websites and news outlets that monitor Middle East affairs from an aggressively pro-Israeli viewpoint, and that have been tracking the professor’s appearances at campus rallies and seminars for years.

Their coverage of Atshan — which reportedly prompted the complaints from some Friends' Central parents — focuses largely on comments he has made in support of the BDS movement. As prospects for a two-state solution have disintegrated, he also has favored a “one-state solution” that would give full voting rights to Arabs.  A website called Canary Nation includes a page attacking Atshan as “Lying to Slander Israel” through statements such as his labeling the West Bank occupation a form of apartheid.

The Swarthmore Phoenix, the student newspaper, said last week in an editorial supporting Atshan’s right to speak that the professor had no plans to discuss the BDS movement at Friends' Central, and instead “had prepared a hopeful and autobiographical reflection aimed at a teenage audience on the power of pacifism, justice, and love.”

In interviews and lectures, Atshan has focused less on his homeland’s tangled politics and more on the ways his upbringing in the West Bank as the eldest of five siblings and his education as a Quaker at the Ramallah Friends School  inspired him to study and promote nonviolence as the ultimate answer to the seemingly endless conflict.

Some of his most eloquent words have been about his struggle to find his identity as a gay man growing up in Ramallah and then arriving as an undergraduate at the suburban campus in 2002.

He told the Philadelphia Gay News in 2015 that a turning point was seeing the depiction of a gay Indian character in the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham. “The film taught me two lessons: that it’s OK to challenge the expectations of your family and society, and that gay people come in all types and colors,” he recalled. 

Atshan earned his Ph.D. in anthropology and Middle East studies at Harvard and taught at Brown before joining the Swarthmore faculty in 2015. English professor Lara Langer Cohen, who has collected more than 750 signatures on a petition urging Friends’ Central to reinvite Atshan and reinstate the teachers, said he brings people together at the liberal arts college, which has a reputation for political strife.

In his classes, she said, “students really talk to one another in ways that they haven’t had a chance to do otherwise.”

In his recorded lecture, Atshan said he gained strength during clashes in Ramallah from the Quaker tradition of silence. He said, “All around us you could hear the bulldozers, you could hear the Apache helicopters, you could hear missiles bombing buildings from the Israeli military, you could hear funeral processions passing by, you could hear youth preparing demonstrations, to throw rocks at the soldiers. ...” The juxtaposition with silence, he was said, was “powerful.”

Now, as protest and controversy swirl around him, Atshan has turned to silence yet again.