Failures of Mandel’s WIFI statement: How her words are being weaponized against students

Kai Soto-Dessen, Joseph Moore, and Mohazzab Abdullah

On Friday, President Mandel released a statement criticizing College Council (CC) for supposedly violating its bylaws by refusing to recognize the Williams Initiative For Israel (WIFI) on “political grounds.” Those of us who opposed the recognition of WIFI by CC were disappointed that this unilateral position was adopted without so much as consulting a single person who voted or argued against WIFI’s approval, the same day she sent an all-campus email calling for inclusive and balanced dialogue. Beyond that, however, we feel that the condemnation of CC’s decision on the basis of bylaw violations was poorly argued.  

For one, nowhere in the bylaws does it say that decisions should not be made on political grounds, out of concern for student safety or simply because CC takes moral issue with something. For that reason, it is enormously condescending that the President’s Office would deign to tell CC how its own procedures should be enacted. Obviously, if the majority of representatives thought that the bylaws mandated WIFI be granted RSO status, then said CC members would have voted differently, and WIFI would have been granted RSO status. The fact that a decisive majority of CC opposed WIFI (13–8) made clear how CC interprets its own bylaws. To say that the administration has the right to impose its own interpretation of CC procedure onto the campus community strips CC of its role as a democratically elected representative of the student body and turns it into yet another arm of the administration.  

It is worth remembering here that CC has often responded to minority student initiatives with strong resistance on what are quite clearly understood to be political (e.g, questions being raised about inclusive/exclusive spaces with regard to black previews) and arguably discriminatory grounds. This is, however, the first time that a student initiative facing resistance has prompted a letter from the president, typed out so urgently that her office didn’t bother to so much as speak to the students opposing WIFI. However, even if we pretend that an elected democratic body is supposed to be completely indifferent to politics and morality, speaking to any of us or going over the recording of the CC meeting will quickly reveal that our primary objection to WIFI is that it fails to distinguish itself from other RSOs that already allow for Israeli perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict (such as Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue [SIPD]). WIFI clearly failed to distinguish themselves from SIPD.  

Although it is the first time a club has been denied in years, it is also the first time someone has attempted to start a nationalist club. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organizes around issues related to Israel-Palestine; however, they are not interested in defending the interests of some hypothetical Palestinian state. Instead, SJP takes a human rights-based approach to the conflict; it is deeply troubling that WIFI could not commit to doing the same. It is this inability to take a human rights approach to the conflict that factored heavily into WIFI’s request for recognition being denied.  

These poorly argued condemnations play into a media vilification of student activists, often directed at Palestinian and Muslim students in ways that pointedly lay out their involvement with Muslim organizations. One article goes so far as to use the president’s face as its thumbnail, and the title includes the words “President blasts students.”  Many of us have already been characterized as fascists by at least one blog; at least one of our (Jewish) allies has been characterized as a terrorist sympathizer for taking a human rights-based approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. If one of this article’s authors is characterized as a terrorist sympathizer in ways that Pakistani security takes issue with, he  will disappear. If the Palestinian students who organized with us are characterized as such and as anti-Semitic, their families may well face military reprisals and given border control by the Israel Defense Force (IDF), may never be able to return home without risking detention without trial – or worse. Given that President Mandel’s words were being used as ammunition to harass students, we thought it reasonable to ask that she amend her statement. However, when we asked President Mandel to make these revisions in order to protect students and their families, she refused to commit to changing anything about the letter.  

We also find it highly disingenuous that the Friday statement criticized CC for playing politics when the statement itself is clearly political – in that arguments about bylaw technicalities and rhetoric about politics as a discrete category (as opposed to the perspective that everything has political implications) are prioritized above the morality of opposing a club more concerned with nationalistic sentiment than opposing Israel’s active genocide. That, ultimately, is why so many of us showed up to College Council last week – to oppose a student group that tried to redefine genocide in order to suit its own political ends. We feared that the decision would be contentious, but we never could have imagined that the words of our own college president would be used to slander us in the national media and jeopardize our physical safety. We therefore demand that President Mandel amend her statement to stop her words from being used to harass students and to suppress their free speech by exposing them, and their families in active conflict zones, to actual, physical violence.  

Mohazzab Abdullah ’21 is an anthropology major from Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan.  Joseph Moore ’20 is a comparative literature major from Stroudsburg, Penn. Kai Soto-Dessen ’22 is from Irvine, Calif.