The indefinite suspensions of two Friends' Central School teachers who supervised a student club that invited a controversial speaker to the Quaker campus illustrates the difficulty in getting people to set aside their emotions when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes the topic of conversation.
English teacher Ariel Eure and history teacher Layla Helwa, the faculty sponsors of the Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, invited Swarthmore professor Sa’ed Atshan to speak to students. They were placed on paid leave Monday for ignoring "explicit directives." The school decided to "pause" its invitation to Atshan after some students and parents complained that he supports a boycott of Israel for occupying Palestinian land.
Atshan, who teaches in Swarthmore’s Peace and Conflict Studies program, is listed in a database of university professors who purportedly hate Israel, which was compiled by a group that calls itself the Canary Mission. About 90 professors on the list teach at institutions ranging from Vassar to Barnard, including Rutgers, Delaware, and Penn.
The database cites Atshan for actions and statements he allegedly made while serving as faculty advisor to the Students for Justice in Palestine club at Tufts University. But most of the allegations appear to deem Atshan guilty by association for being on discussion panels or otherwise linked with other people accused of anti-Semitism or encouraging jihad.
For example, the Canary Mission criticized Atshan for praising two Muslim Americans who opposed the Muslim Leadership Conference, which encourages Muslims to learn more about Judaism. It also said Atshan falsely compared the treatment of Palestinian Arabs to how Native Americans were treated in this country and “fraudulently” claimed that Israel practices apartheid.
The litany of accusations doesn’t equate guilt, but it does suggest the Friends' Central teachers should have anticipated the visceral reaction to inviting Atshan to speak. In retrospect, perhaps a program that also featured a speaker who presented an Israeli perspective might have been more acceptable to those parents who complained about what they assume Atshan would say to high school students.
Students need to know that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is about land and religion. The dispute over an area about the size of Maryland is traceable to how it was divided by the Allies after World War II. Neither wars nor treaties since then have resolved the dispute — and it won’t be until both sides can get past their ancient animosities.
Two teachers who wanted their students to hear one perspective on why Israel and Palestine haven’t found a way to coexist shouldn’t be suspended for standing up for what they believe in.