Respectful discourse crucial for community

As the situation in the Middle East worsens with each passing day, students on many campuses across America have become enmeshed in discussions on the hostilities. These exchanges have too often degenerated into unproductive, and even dangerous, arguments. At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, Jewish students coming out of worship services have been pelted with eggs; last week, someone threw a cinder block through the front windows of the Jewish Hillel cultural center and wrote “F—” Jews” in black marker on its recycling bins. Palestinian students have been harassed as well; some have been labeled terrorists and called anti-Semitic just for voicing their opposition to Israel’s policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The situation has degraded to the point that UC Chancellor Robert Berdahl has issued a statement calling for calm, and the sprawling university system has created a group to facilitate constructive dialogue on its campuses across the state.

Fortunately, the situation here at Williams has not fallen to such depths of ideological or physical conflict. Still, there have been a number of concerning incidents in recent weeks at the College. Among them was an e-mail sent to the Jewish Religious Center listserver referring to “Muslims and their Jihad sympathizers” (the e-mail was promptly denounced by the Jewish Association Board). Some students have also expressed a feeling of physical insecurity at this time. Discussion at the College has been difficult. For example, a response board set up in Baxter has been misused, and contains some inane comments like “Williams Midwest forum asks: can there ever be peace between Iowa and Illinois?” and “Let Disney have the whole lot – a kind of religious theme park, perhaps?” Posters put up by students have also been torn down by students who apparently disagree with the opinions.

In his induction address in 2000, President Morton Schapiro said, “This is a time for Williams to set a new standard of excellence in undergraduate education for an entire industry crying out for guidance. Let history one day note that our community had the courage to seize the moment.” In recent weeks, the discussion at Williams has too often failed to live up to our ideal of excellence.

In response to the potentially explosive situation, leaders of College Council (CC), the Minority Coalition (MinCo) and the Dean’s Office organized a forum last Thursday night to discuss the events in the Middle East. The forum provided the opportunity for mature discussion and was an example of both CC and MinCo operating at their finest – as advocacy bodies working to build community and conversation on campus. The forum began with a group of students who briefly presented prepared statements on the situation. The forum was then opened up for a general discussion, which at times grew contentious and heated. The event’s moderators, Evan Sandhaus ’02 and Austin Duncan ’02, did admirable jobs trying to keep the discussion on a productive path. The forum, however, was nothing more than a first step in what must be a continuous dialogue. The onus is now on the College community to continue having productive discussions.

In an e-mail sent out after Sept. 11, President Schapiro challenged the community to continue to focus on tolerance and understanding. “These two themes are important at all times but especially when our nation and our community are under stress.  As we at Williams continue to reach out to support and protect each other, I encourage us especially to consider our community members of Middle Eastern and South Asian background. Next to those who have lost loved ones, this group is the most vulnerable among us. We should do all we can to protect and support these valued friends and colleagues.”

These sentiments are certainly consistent with the spirit of intellectual excellence and social empathy that should, and often does, exist at Williams. We must continue down the path forged by CC, MinCo and President Schapiro and ensure that we strengthen attitudes of inclusiveness and personal integrity instead of succumbing to the temptation of stereotyping and insensitivity to members of our community. Students must consider the possibility that what is said as a joke could hurt others; the power of words must be acknowledged and taken to heart. Furthermore, Security and the Dean’s Office must make a serious commitment to addressing any concerns a student brings to their attention, and campus leaders must keep the promising dialogue moving in a constructive manner. Only then can we honestly claim that our actions reflect the College’s high standard of intellectual and social excellence.