At its April 23 meeting, College Council (CC) voted 13–8 with one abstention against recognizing Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) as an official registered student organization (RSO). During a CC meeting one week earlier, Council members had voted to table WIFI’s initial request to gain RSO status. WIFI was the first club in over a decade that complied with all CC bylaws for recognition but failed to gain RSO status, according to archived CC minutes.
In both meetings, there was heated debate among a number of guests, including representatives of WIFI and students advocating against the club. Last week’s meeting had nearly 20 guests, most of whom advocated against WIFI, and included Palestinian students who shared personal stories of trauma that they experienced while growing up in Palestine.
Most debate centered around WIFI’s stated mission and purpose, which, according to the group’s constitution, “is to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.” The club also plans to hold events, including Jewish cultural events and celebrations of Jewish and Israeli holidays.
“What we’re looking to do is to engage in educational initiatives, hold events, bring speakers to campus from a wide variety of political backgrounds with this issue and just put out more information so that students can look at all the available info and make a decision for themselves,” said Molly Berenbaum ’21, a leader of WIFI. “We’re really not interested in dictating a political position to students or faculty here.”
Students advocating against WIFI took issue with the lack of specificity they saw in WIFI’s stated mission. “From our perspective, there are ways of supporting Israeli statehood that don’t support the occupation or human rights abuses against Palestinians, but there are ways of doing that that definitely do,” said Joseph Moore ’20, who attended and spoke at both meetings as a guest. “[WIFI’s] inability to take a political stance with reference to those issues was incredibly problematic, and I think it came out during several parts of the conversation.”
Mohazzab Abdullah ’21, who attended and spoke at the second meeting, shared similar sentiments. “Generally speaking, [Israel is] a state involved in an active conflict that is one of the really vile and problematic conflicts on the planet right now,” Abdullah said. “Regardless of what angle you approach it from, I think almost everyone will agree that massive abuses are happening, and I think that you need sort of a special consideration and debate when it comes to voting for RSOs that affiliate themselves with a state involved in such a conflict.”
Several members of WIFI said that, during the meeting, they felt that the guests opposing their club were trivializing past Jewish oppression and concerns about anti-Semitism in their statements, including when one guest said: “I have Jewish friends, I have Jewish professors, my advisor is Jewish … I attended Shabbat dinners because I am not anti-Semitic, and I have a lot of Jewish friends.”
Later in the meeting, a member of WIFI argued that Israel was not colonialist and was not committing genocide against the Palestinian people because the Palestinian population has risen in recent years.
“WIFIs definition of genocide as requiring an overall population decrease is not consistent with any official definition of the word genocide,” Moore said after the meeting. “It’s offensive precisely because it’s a crass redefinition of a politically loaded term that ignored both how the dictionary defines the word and how it’s defined under international law.”
Abdullah shared additional concerns about the way that members of WIFI, in his opinion, were invoking the Holocaust to dismiss the experiences of Palestinian students who shared personal stories about their childhoods. One student shared that a gun was pointed to their face by an Israeli soldier when they were a child. “I don’t think that when you’re talking about your oppression at the hands of another state, I don’t think when a child is talking about having a gun shoved in their face by a soldier at the age of five, they should have the Holocaust thrown in their face,” Abdullah said. “No one in that room doubts that the Holocaust was everything that it was absolutely horrible and nightmarish and that the Jewish community genuinely has reason to need a strong state in the region, and no one doubts the fact that the Jewish state does face hostility from other Arab states in the region. But the way that should be interpreted is not to block legitimate and genuine criticisms of the state. That’s like saying that just because Pakistan was once colonized, the genocide we committed in Bangladesh should not be talked about because … our army need[s] to be strong to protect us from future neocolonialism. I come from a place that has also suffered, I have a heritage that is mutilated, but I don’t throw it in the faces of Bangladeshis if they were to ever bring up or organize something to the effect of raising awareness of Pakistan’s abuses in the 1971 war.”
Prior to the actual debate in last week’s meeting, there was a discussion among Council members and guests concerning how the meeting would be recorded and archived given a flurry of recent national media coverage of College events. In particular, a livestream from a Council meeting earlier this month has been featured on a number of alt-right and white nationalist blogs and websites, and some College students have received explicit threats, according to both guests and CC members who spoke at the meeting. CC ultimately decided not to publish a livestream for the April 23 meeting and published meeting minutes without any speaker names in a document accessible only to students and faculty with Williams emails.
“Given all the stuff that happened with CC with Black Previews and the livestreaming … there were a lot of people concerned that, if this became a national news story, they would be put on blast and harassed,” Moore said. “So the anonymization of guests and the blind voting was an attempt to create a space where people could argue and debate the issue. In the case of the Palestinian students that we had in the meeting with us, they could very possibly face reprisal against their family or them specifically [if their names became public].”
To Abdullah, given this recent coverage, a public ballot and public minutes would be a form of voter suppression because some members would be afraid to vote a certain way and speak freely during the meeting. “A few [guests] are literally afraid of their families being targeted by rifles and grenades, and the rest of them are afraid of their faces and privacy being invaded on these blogs,” he said. “I want it to be known that at this point, that this issue has gotten so bad that students on this campus aren’t sleeping on their own beds because they feel really paranoid.”
Berenbaum shared these concerns for student safety but added that it was still necessary for CC members to maintain a level of transparency regarding their stances. “I don’t want to in any way delegitimize student concerns for their safety because obviously that has to come first,” she said. “I do think that when a number of members did try to bring up transparency as an additional concern, those concerns were sometimes dismissed too quickly. I wonder if there might’ve been a different balance that could have been struck between, what obviously has to come first in student safety, and also allowing students to know… in CC elections, what different representatives have said and what the positions are.”
Berenbaum also emphasized that WIFI has no intention of inflicting harm and that diverse viewpoints are important in any intellectual environment. “The intention of our club is never at any point to make anyone feel unsafe, emotionally or physically,” she said. “I do think that some of being a student is encountering intellectual ideas that make one very uncomfortable. And I think that the answer to encountering those ideas is to engage with them and to respond with your own perspective rather than try to shut down and silence that information.”
During the April 16 CC meeting, when discussions about WIFI were ultimately tabled, students advocating against WIFI handed out a number of informational pamphlets about the Israel-Palestine conflict that focused on the military funding Israel receives from the U.S. and the disproportionately high number of Palestinian deaths relative to Israeli deaths in the conflict. “The goal throughout both of the meetings was to make, on evidentiary grounds, cases as to why the Israeli government is engaging in colonialism and why that should preclude certain discursive support for them,” Moore said.
Still, Berenbaum said she believes that WIFI fills a void in campus discourse that she has noticed throughout her time at the College. “I’ve noticed over my last two years here that while there is relatively a lot of campus discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues, it’s almost entirely from a certain perspective,” Berenbaum said. “And I felt, as did a number of people, that it would be useful to be able to have an organized group which could hold events, invite speakers, generally just put more information out there about other perspectives.”
Last spring, Berenbaum was involved in creating Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue (SIPD), a nonpartisan dialogue club that became an RSO. The club was active over the fall, hosting a number of workshops focused on fostering difficult conversations, but Berenbaum felt that the campus discourse on this topic was, at large, “an imbalanced conversation.”
“I fully support Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue club and its great mission, but as the year progressed, I just felt more and more that there was also a need for a group which specifically put out information from other perspectives that weren’t really being heard,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have a dialogue group, but if you don’t really have multiple dialogue partners, then it can be hard to hold meaningful conversation.”
The guests advocating against WIFI were, for the most part, unaffiliated with any specific student group. “This was more or less a spontaneous movement of people who just heard this was happening and came together from all sorts of backgrounds,” Abdullah said. “It wasn’t something organized by an existing activist group on campus; it wasn’t something that took place under the auspices of SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine]. I know for a fact that several people of Jewish backgrounds, and several of them even being of Israeli descent or citizenship, were really, really helpful and useful allies in this… I really hope that this doesn’t get spun as an Israeli versus Palestinian, or an Arab and a Jewish issue, because this is really not that at all. The demographics in our movement and the ideologies in our movement were quite diverse.”
Given the current campus and national political environments, Berenbaum said she expected there to be pushback during the initial meeting. “We knew going into it that it was likely going to be contentious given the political realities of the situation, of the campus, of everything that’s been going on recently with CC,” she said. “I think that the first meeting was really an initial meeting in a lot of ways in that I was not surprised in the end when they did table it.” Her group met amongst itself and with multiple faculty members in the week in between the two meetings with the goal of formulating a plan for gaining approval in the following meeting.
Moore and Abdullah, however, said they believed that many of the principal concerns with WIFI they brought up during the first meeting were never adequately addressed going into the second one. “It’s especially concerning that they wouldn’t give any thought to human rights abuses against Palestinians and minoritized communities in Israel when we brought it up in the first meeting, we had a second meeting and they had that entire interval to respond, and they didn’t even have anything either time,” Moore said. “You can look at their constitution: there’s no reference to Palestine, no reference to human rights abuses, no elaboration of how their support for Israel would not be support for many problematic actions that the Israeli government is involved in right now.”
In the time since WIFI was voted down as an RSO, Berenbaum and members of the organization have had a number of meetings with faculty, staff, faculty advisors and administrators, looking ahead to strategize on how the club can exist on campus without being an RSO. “There are two holidays coming up … which are Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day, so we’re also planning an event to mark those days,” Berenbaum said. “We’re definitely not going to just dissolve away and disappear.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated online on Friday, May 3 at 1:15 p.m. ET. An earlier version of the article quoted Joseph Moore as saying, “Even when you consider the fact that the Palestinian population is rising, it’s because they have a high fertility rate. Generally, populations in war zones have higher fertility rates because they don’t know if all of their children will make adulthood.” It was updated because the Record did not include a rephrasing of the quote that Moore had requested prior to publication.