On April 23, 2019, College Council (CC) rejected Williams Initiative For Israel’s (WIFI) application to become a Registered Student Organization (RSO), by a vote of 13–8. Though WIFI complied with all CC bylaws and regulations for student organizations, the club was still denied RSO status. During the CC meeting, no Council member present contested WIFI’s compliance with school rules and regulations. Therefore, it is apparent that WIFI was denied official status on purely political grounds, as CC members and guests fought to silence us and effectively turned the meeting into a referendum on Israeli-Palestinian politics.
From the outset of the meeting, WIFI was vilified by multiple speakers, who conflated the club’s mission with what they called the “genocidal” and “apartheid” policies of the Israeli government. The speaking order mechanism of the CC meeting, which dictates that people be called upon to speak in the order in which they raise their hands, coupled with the fact that there were significantly more people speaking against the club than for it, made it virtually impossible for supporters of the club to contest these accusations, or to properly clarify the mission of the club. WIFI aims simply to promote education about Israel, celebrate Israeli cultural events, advocate for campus recognition of Israel’s right to exist and allow Williams students the opportunity to form their position regarding Israel for themselves.
The situation between Israel and Palestine is undeniably complex, and our purpose in proposing this club is not to claim that all Israeli actions are justified, nor is it our intention to make any students on campus feel uncomfortable. Rather, our goal is simply to bring an additional perspective into the ongoing campus discourse on this issue for students who support or who want to learn more about Israel. To be clear, we celebrate the fact that groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine have been granted RSO status, and that students who believe in that group’s mission have been given a platform to support their cause. WIFI is requesting only that students with a different perspective be given that same platform and opportunity to be heard. Multiple peer institutions, including Wesleyan and all eight Ivy League schools, as well as hundreds of other colleges, have Israel clubs.
Despite WIFI’s moderate mission, many CC members and guests fought to silence WIFI, and in doing so, they successfully prevented the club from becoming officially recognized. These individuals used instances of Palestinian suffering as justification for dismissing WIFI as a legitimate organization. It is true that many Palestinians have endured terrible hardships, and we empathize with those who have been affected and hope to see a future where Israelis and Palestinians can both enjoy peace and prosperity. But to describe the situation between Israel and Palestine in such black and white terms is disingenuous and does not tell the whole story.
Placing sole responsibility for the entirety of the conflict on Israel is both factually unfounded and rhetorically dangerous. The only thing that is black and white about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is not clear-cut. This is an extremely complex issue with multiple perspectives and interests at play. Indeed, it is so complex that the conflict has defied resolution despite years of repeated and earnest efforts by many people and nations. There are multiple valid perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet CC has made it clear that only students holding one opinion are allowed to organize and be recognized by the College.
CC is tasked with determining whether a proposed organization meets the required criteria to become an RSO; its role is not to evaluate the substance of what it perceives to be the organization’s ideas or positions. If any member of CC had such strong opinions about what they perceived to be WIFI’s political positions that they were unable to be impartial on the matter of the club’s approval, they should have recused themselves from the vote rather than vote the club down based on their own personal views.
Last week, President Mandel sent out an email to all Williams students and faculty in which she spoke about ways to create a healthier culture and discourse at the College. She posited that “a school like Williams absolutely should discuss these complex and important issues. When we do, conflicts will necessarily and even productively arise. Our goal shouldn’t be to avoid disagreement or dissent, but to develop ways of engaging in it without losing respect for each other as people.” President Mandel’s point is well taken and wholly applicable to the present situation. Indeed, it inexorably leads to the conclusion that a group such as WIFI, which presents another perspective on a difficult and complicated issue, should be recognized and heard. President Mandel acknowledged that doing so may bring conflicting perspectives head-to-head, but she recognized that such conflict is productive and healthy and should be encouraged, not stifled. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly one of the most complex and important political issues of the current era, and as President Mandel stated, we as a college community must commit to ensuring that all perspectives on this issue are respected and given a voice on campus.
Molly Berenbaum ’21 is an Arabic studies and religion major from Denver, Col. Gavin Small ’22 is from Huntington, N.Y. Maxwell Plonsker ’21 is a political science major from Larchmont, N.Y.