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Barak Mendelsohn, Uncensored: A Campus Conversation

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Barak Mendelsohn is a Professor of Political Science at Haverford College. He specializes in security studies. Recently, he hosted a faculty teach-in after the October 7th terrorist attack in Israel to offer a topical educational opportunity to the campus community.


Barak Mendelsohn in his office.

I’ve known Professor Mendelsohn for about a year. He was one of the faculty members I spoke to when I was in the fact-finding phase of launching The New Kronstadt and conducting informational interviews with dozens of Haverford College students, alumni, faculty, and staff about their experiences with free expression at Haverford. In recent weeks, Professor Mendelsohn has been enveloped in a maelstrom of controversy both online and on campus. 


Following the horrific shooting of Haverford junior Kinnan Abdalhamid, a group of Haverford students released a list of demands, which seek “A statement from the College condemning the state of Israel as responsible for [...] apartheid,” among other controversial proposals. Reminiscent of the campus climate during the fall 2020 strike, many community members have felt trepidation about opposing these demands publicly. But not Professor Mendelsohn. A week ago, he tweeted:



Some of the demand-writers found this tweet insensitive, and accused Professor Mendelsohn of participating in the sort of rehtoric responsible for Kinnan's shooting. This led to heated back-and-forths. Now, students are calling for Professor Mendelsohn to be fired.


In the wake of all this, I sat down with Professor Mendelsohn to seek his unfiltered thoughts on free speech and academic freedom at Haverford College. Here is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.


 

An open letter to the Provost of Haverford College is circulating, and it seeks to have you sanctioned or fired. There are currently 612 signatures. What do you think this means for academic freedom and free speech at Haverford College? 


Well, I've seen the petition. It was important for me not to look at the signatures because there might be students there that I might be teaching. Somebody did send me the signature of Josef Mengele that has since been removed. It took a second for that to actually sink in, that the name Josef Mengele was added… that's not actually a student that graduated in 2020. That's just juvenile anti-Semitism.


I mean, 600 people, I don't know the distribution of them, and 600 people saying something, on one hand, is a great sign of speech. On the other hand, it's not so great when the intention is actually to suppress the speech of somebody else, especially somebody that just came out with a statement that people are not happy with.


Can you share more about your statement? What was your Kronstadt moment that prompted you to speak out? 


It's really hard to decide where to start.


So just let's say that since October 7th, I've been trying to do my job. I'm an international security scholar studying the Middle East and focusing on terrorism. I'm not some kind of English professor that's only recently decided it's time to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No, I've been doing my job, which is to provide analysis as nuanced, as unbiased as I possibly can. And I do believe that I can. People that actually know me know I'm critical of everything.


I was, since October 7th, just trying to do my job. Yet I am constantly facing clear evidence that rather than being seen as the scholar that I am, or even as an American, people are seeing me as somebody that was born and raised in Israel and as a Jew. And I guess that to be Israeli, to be an Israeli Jew — that seems to be on campus these days the worst violation that you could have. And I'm not happy with that, with that notion.


I mean, [I've been] getting proposals from leadership, people in leadership positions at Haverford College to add additional voices to my teaching, where I do my job, with my expertise. It is pretty clear that the real issue is that people are so focused on identity politics that they forgot that the college is not a social institution. It's an academic institution designed to produce and disseminate knowledge and to educate. So even when I was the only one that actually took initiative to teach about this, I got lots of crap for that.


You're referring, by taking initiative, to the teach-in that you hosted? 


Yes.


But the teach-in ultimately I think was a great success. We didn't even know how many students would come. We went for a small room because, you know, the teach-ins that I did before about Israeli politics drew about 10, 15 students. We had no clue how people would be interested. The decision was just, this is my job, I need to do [it].


Ultimately it went really well. Instead of an hour, it went for two hours. After that I spoke for an additional 45 minutes with different students, including Kinnan Abdulhamid, the student who was shot. We actually found that there is a lot that we agree about, you know, like our attitude towards the Palestinian Authority. There was a lot that we agreed upon. We had a great conversation.


Then came fall break and then after fall break I went to Swarthmore College to give a talk. And at Swarthmore, there were demonstrations against me. Among those demonstrations, I was accused of complicity, of genocide. I was accused of complicity in the murder of a six-year-old Muslim kid in Chicago about a month ago. I was accused of starting my talk with the events of October 7th rather than the events of 1948 before I even started my talk, which, of course, started in 1948. 


Were these — you referred to people demonstrating — were they interrupting your talk? Was it a heckler’s veto situation? 


Well, yes, but it gets worse.


So, first of all, the talk was scheduled over the summer. I have given talks before at Swarthmore College. My host at Swarthmore is Sa'ed Atshan. He's a Palestinian that embodies intersectionality: gay, Quaker, from Christian origins, pacifist. There is much that we don't agree on, but he’s consistent. He's professional. He does his job.


This is the first time that something like this has happened. Before the talk, I was informed that there was likely to be a demonstration and a security presence. The head of security asked if I could accept that, without, you know, saying I'm not going to speak or something like that. And they described what they thought was going to happen. The students will stand up, they will make a speech, and they will do a walkout. To which I said, of course. You know, this is the right to demonstrate. I didn’t think it was probably the most effective way to achieve what they wanted, but they were exercising the right to demonstrate.


Before they start, Sa'ed is reminding everyone not to take any pictures, not to take any recordings, because of student requests, fearing they will be doxxed. The students that are going to demonstrate, you can easily identify them because they have COVID-19 masks on their faces. And as they start, one of them starts their long statement, one of the students is immediately taking a video. So, so much for good faith. Then, it's a long accusation and she calls for everybody to leave. Her segment was too long, so the choreography did not work well. There were not that many people demonstrating and so people were waiting for her to finish the walkout. While she is speaking, they’re standing by the door of the hall and she is going on and on. She leaves and I start my talk. 


Then, they are unhappy that this did not go as they planned because they wanted everybody to leave… they had called on the audience to leave my talk. But many of the people that were attending were actually adults, not students. Some were locals, some were faculty. Swarthmore College's administration understood the danger here. They sent somebody from the Provost’s Office. The head of communications attended that talk, too. 


So the protesters exercised their right and they left, but they were not happy with the result. So, 30 minutes after the first interruption, they came back for a second round that they did not plan before. And now there is a much bigger group of people outside the hall, the security sort of standing in the doors, to make sure that nobody tries to get into the room. So in the second round, the bigger group, they brought friends. They are trying shouting and screaming, anything to drown my voice down, but I go on.


As we finish, people are coming down to speak to me, to thank me, to say what happened, to ask questions. Because my talk was mostly informative. I don't come to the class draped with an Israeli flag. No, I'm a scholar.


The part that, one of the things that so pisses me off is that, for 20 years I was building my identity as primarily a scholar. I left Israel over 20 years ago. Being an academic, I'm uprooted. This is part of that profession. I have nationalities, but I don't have that kind of strong identification with any identity marker more than I have with my identity as a scholar and educator.


Suddenly, I'm a Jew. I'm not even an American. I'm an Israeli Jew. I've been put into that box, and suddenly years of work dissolves.


I have three books, I have over 20 articles, my writing was accepted in good places, my writing is always critical, my writing is always critical on all sides. My best piece is about Israel and the messianic right and about how the path dependency process got Israel stuck in a situation where it is beholden by a lobby group that is basically acting in a way that undermines Israeli interests. 


I've been vocal and I've been vocal online as well. You know, with the Palestinian communities in area C, I’m calling out Israel’s ethnic cleansing of herder Palestinian communities, the area that under Oslo Accords is under Israeli civilian and military control (area B just Israeli security control, A for Palestinian control)... I've been doing that.


I wanted to ask about that actually. I've seen that your public statements and research have included criticisms of Israeli security policy, Netanyahu's leadership, and settlements in the West Bank. So I'm curious, especially with how you're being perceived on campus, how are your views perceived by Israelis? 


I’m seen as far-left. 


I mean, if I come here and say that we have a problem, — if I'm supposed to be the natural ally for those that are supporting the Palestinian cause — to find yourself in the front of such a fight… we have a problem. 


I'm not somebody that emphasized my Zionist Israeli identity. And I'm an American citizen now. And most of all, I'm a scholar. So that just outrages me. And to see that coming also from the leadership of Haverford College, again using that common, passive-aggressive tone, which abuses Quaker thinking in an instrumental way rather than actually buying into those Quaker notions. I just see that hypocrisy. And I have got to call it out.


But, I want to finish the story with Swarthmore. 


Please do. 


So I'm trying to come and try to speak. But I see that my host is saying: we have to start going, we were supposed to have dinner at the Swarthmore Inn. And I don't understand why he's saying that, but I'm starting to go.


But as we go down the stairs, he and the head of security say, you actually, you gotta go fast. We have a cart waiting for you outside because the student mob is waiting to chase you. Now, I'm a proud Jew, and I would not run away. So I walked to that cart. I mean, the whole situation was just so surreal: being ushered out in a cart. When I was sitting in that cart, the first demonstrator rushing in my direction was a foot away from me.


That was part of my experience there. But as I said, the person from the Provost’s Office came and said, “we're sorry, that was not a good look on us.” Then, when I was sitting in [the] Swarthmore Inn, the head of communications brought the Swarthmore College president to come and thank me and Sa'ed for what we are doing and admitting that what happened that day was not a good look for Swarthmore. And I appreciated that. I understand the difficulties that colleges do have as they need to balance hate and free speech. And so I did appreciate that she took it seriously, that she actually made an effort to reach out to me.


The first time that anybody from Haverford’s administration reached out to me in a positive way since October 7 was the day after Swarthmore did, when the provost heard from the Swarthmore president about what happened to me at Swarthmore. That was the only time that I got any kind of positive message from our administration.


What do you think about the demands?


I'll be the first one to admit there is a significant rise in both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. And both must be fought. So Kinnan is shot and of course students who are affected by that. And [then] the students started their list of demands.


Now if the students just wrote a piece against hate and support for students who were victims of a hate crime, almost everybody on campus [would have signed it]. You wouldn't have the number of signatures you currently see. You’d have a whole lot more. But that wasn't the point. 


Academic leniency was demanded, but that wasn't the point either. That's just nonsense, because we are a small liberal, arts college. I have a Palestinian student. Did I wait for any instructions to check on how she is doing? Did I need to wait for any instructions to give her extra time? No, this is just what we do.


There was a war in Ukraine that started two years ago. Didn't we show consideration for the students that were directly affected? There was no need for the whole big list of demands. This is something that easily the student body, if they want to represent the individuals, I don't even know what's the size of the group, but there's a good chance that the number is very small, could be easily done through the Deans, but that was not the purpose. We are lenient. This is what we do here. But the point was to make demands.


And the most important thing is that as you get to the long, long letter of demands, that's where the nasty stuff, real nasty stuff is. And that nasty stuff, I saw as Hamas apology. For example, when you put all the blame on the war on Israel, and there is no mention of Hamas, I'm sorry, this is just hard to — you can speak about different levels of bias — but I'm sorry, this is Hamas apology. 


And I'm a super left-wing. In terms of my definition of anti-Semitism it will probably be very narrow. Criticism of Israel, of course, allowed. I do that all the time. Criticism of any state is allowed. Obviously Israel earned the right. Israel definitely earned a lot of the criticism. Now one can also be non-Zionist right? You don't need to be Zionist. You can be a Jew that feels that you can live a full Jewish life without a homeland for the Jewish people. No problem. 


You can also be an anarchist and not an anti-Semite because if you reject all the whole idea of self-determination as a group, I mean groups of determination, because then you are consistent. It's not just that you're against Zionism. You're also going to be also against any kind of nationalism and that's fine. That's consistent. But if you're only anti-Zionist that's where we have the real problem. 


Now given my experience with the administration, given my lack of trust, I think the only thing that it seems that almost everybody at Haverford College agrees on is how little trust we have in the administration. 


Can you give more details about that? Do you think that your academic freedom as a professor, your pedagogy, your lesson plans are being interfered with? 


It was framed in the Haverford way, so that was not directly said, but we read Haverford-speak, we understand Haverford-speak. So there was an emphasis, of course, on academic freedom. However, yes, I felt that somebody was trying to impinge on my academic freedom, my freedom of speech, and worse, on my professional integrity, to actually give the most nuanced and unbiased analysis that I can. 


So is this in the lead up to your teach-in? You had administrators reaching out to you, asking you to stage the teach-in a certain way or to not hold it at all? 


Yes... or [at least they were] suggesting so, [but just] suggesting, [not forcing me]. Again, Haverford-speak. It's important. This is Haverford-speak. That's why I'm saying that part of the thing that so pisses me off. 


There are lots of people genuinely trying to figure out what it means to be a Quaker institution. There are also lots of people that are abusing the Quaker vocabulary to promote stuff in an instrumental way, rather than reflecting genuine Quaker beliefs.


Because when really the important stuff comes up, we see that half of all Quaker procedures are thrown out the window. When there was a strike in fall 2020, was there any meeting of the whole student body to say we have reached consensus on the strike? Bullshit, none of that happened.


And the leadership of the student body is now making a similar statement. Are they really representing the full student body? Is that really the Quaker tradition? That's why I was so upset and so enraged because the letter's demands are not really about Kinnan. It was trying to take advantage of this horrendous tragedy.


You know, I want to emphasize again, I don't care if that guy that shot them is mentally ill — that would just be part of the excuses for the, you know, the prison time that he should serve — it's obvious to me that this is, this was a hate crime and this is awful. That cannot stand. 


But this is not a justification to then go back and try to use that to promote an oppressive atmosphere on campus when our Jewish students are already in serious pain. And I did not trust the administration to actually respond in a proper way and they got deadlines. And so I thought that this was an important time that I needed to come up and speak my mind… use my privilege. We're teaching students here; use your privilege in a positive way. There's nothing I can do about my privilege, but how I use it. And I use my privilege to call out the campus and the leadership of the student body for completely reprehensible behavior.


You saw the tweet. I was just so outraged that this is happening, especially since there was an alternative that would have been a lot more peaceful. But that was not the objective. And I knew that this was going to create ripple effects. I knew that I'm putting a target on my back. But nobody else stood up. The students are terrified to say anything, terrified to say anything controversial on Haverford grounds on normal days. So on days where they feel anti-Semitism everywhere, of course they won't say anything. But even faculty are afraid to speak up. 


Jewish faculty and staff — just to give you a sense of the alarm that we're feeling — staff and faculty usually don't mingle. Jewish staff and faculty organized to protect our students because people here don't pay attention to what's going on because the pro-Palestinian students are mourning in a different way than the Jewish students are mourning. And the pro-Palestinian mourning is a lot more vocal. I'm not making a judgment about right or wrong here, just this is the fact of the matter.


The Jewish mourning has been each in their own corner, isolated and feeling alone. And so I knew that I'm creating this kind of controversy, but it was important that somebody made their voice heard. This all fits in a general atmosphere in Haverford that is just so narrow-minded.


I mean, I think back to when we spoke during the fall 2020 strike, I mentioned to you the student that was afraid to write a blog post about white people in rural Pennsylvania voting for Trump. I mean, that is just crazy. [Editor's note: for an excellent article on Haverford's anti-free-speech culture, please see this student's article in The New Kronstadt: "False Omnipotence: Some Thoughts on Haverford, Free Speech, and Uncertainty."]


In an academic institution, students cannot even write a blog post about [Trump]. Not expressing, again, not draping themselves in a MAGA hat, but just trying to explain the phenomena. There is just no tolerance for that kind of stuff, but students feel that they can harass and they can badger me, but I need to completely stay above the fray when I've been in the last eight weeks under constant kind of attacks, and I'm seeing my students, my Jewish students, in their worst time. 


I'm sorry, people your age are putting their lives on the line defending our country. And now for years students at Haverford College [have been] boycotting my classes because I served in the IDF. The day after this exploded, we've been meeting with Jewish students, just to give you another sense of the alarm that we are feeling. My best ally these days: Rabbi Eli from Chabad. We work together, but I'm extremely to the left. We have the Rabbi of Chabad, the Rabbi of Hillel, faculty that [are] to my very left wing, others way to my right. All of us are coming together.


I'm an atheist, right? I mean I've been here for seventeen years. Friday was the first time that I went to a Shabbat dinner. I don't care about me, my Judaism is different. As I said, I've been building my identity as a scholar. But you know what? Fuck that! If you're gonna be hating me as a Jew, that’s fine. I embrace my Jewish identity. I'm a proud Jew. I'm a proud American Jew. And we have demands. We demand that we will be treated as a minority that deserves political protections.


In general terms, outside your specific case, do you feel that if a faculty member at Haverford speaks their mind and the student body objects that the administration will support the faculty's rights?


The administration will do anything that they can to try to avoid conflict if possible. This is not about really caring for what is right. This is about considering the consequences.


I'm not sure that this is something that is completely wrong. I understand that the college as an institution has interests as well that they need to take into account. I'm not sure how their handling is actually really helping the institutional interest because I'm sure that the college is now suffering at a time that is a donation time.


Whether it's from people that support me or people that oppose me, the whole Haverford community at-large is up at arms. There are groups of Jewish alumni and Jewish parents that are organizing counter-letters from former students. And I get lots of students that are writing behind me as it happened during the strike when I stood for free speech. And people wrote me emails saying, thank you for doing what is right, and that we hope that you understand why we cannot stand with you and say this publicly. 


So this environment seems to remind you of the fall 2020 strike at Haverford. 


Yes. 


Okay. And what about when you were first being hired at Haverford? Given Haverford being a Quaker, historically-pacifist institution, have you felt from your arrival on campus a question about your academic freedom?


My hiring got more complicated because there were people that suggested teaching about war and conflict legitimizes violence. So there I was, I was here for a job talk in early November. I did not get a job offer until March and only after the department insisted that they want to have me, that I bring something different. But from the beginning I knew that I'm not welcome. The department welcomed me. But I knew that I'm here for a small segment of the students that actually care for security issues. But it doesn't bother me because as long as I [am] able to do what I need to do with my students in the classroom, I don't [need the] ability to affect the whole campus. I can affect one person at a time or I can affect my class. And you know, students either really hate me or really like me. 


I have a Palestinian student that took a class with me in the spring, the evolution of the jihadi movement. Now, if I was Islamophobic, do you think that she would have stayed and taken two classes with me this semester? 


I always say because I studied the jihadi movement, you need to understand my focus is international security. That means that there is a bias in the kind of stuff that I'm interested in. Just know that there is a lot of literature that speaks about different kinds of aspects [of international security]. So for example, I tried when we did the class about religion and international relations to also assign readings about how you can use religion to promote peace. 


But I always try to speak about that. When I speak about Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, I always make it very clear how little support they actually have. And that even Muslims around the world that would like to see more religion in their life are appalled by that kind of view of Islam. I'm always [cautious], because I know that these kinds of things that I study could be mobilized for Islamophobia. I hardly use the term “terrorist” or “terrorist organization” because it's an identity term and because I saw how politicians are abusing that. 


I usually try to speak about non-state actors. I'm also one that doesn't have any problem admitting that even states can commit terrorism. And I argue my points. So this is all very disappointing. I was always in my corner. I did not want to become suddenly involved in that conflict. I feel that people are going after me because [of] my brash style. But really the issue that they have is how did I burst their bubble?


I mean, I mentioned the conversation with the students. It was so heartbreaking. People here don't understand the depth of the problem and in part because [Jewish] mourning [at Haverford] is so silent.


I grew up in Israel. My views of my understanding of anti-Semitism or how it looked like, I did not really know. To see our students like that was so painful. And what's really even more outrageous to me is that people don't understand, especially here, a lot of speak about trauma. But they don't try to understand the mentality of the people that came out of the Holocaust. They don't understand the triggering aspect of hiding. Whether it's the hiding of people on October 7th, in stories of real kids hiding in closets as they see through the tiny fraction of the light, how their parents are being killed in front of their eyes, beheaded.


Do you see a connection between that physical hiding in broader history and self-censorship at places like Haverford?


Yes. This is an immediate inclination of American Jews. And so, one of the greatest things that we managed to do is to at least we, when I say we, not the full college community. “We” are the few Jewish professors that really care for those students and their problems. And we brought them together. We helped them connect. We gave them, or tried to give them, a space where they can speak more freely. I mean, it was an event that started with, I mean, as one of the most painful moments in my life and ended up as the most inspiring. 


Because we decided that we're going to be proud Jews, that we're not going to let this bullshit happen. So, I did not want to be in this situation. I did not want to be Jewish. But, if you hate me as a Jew… I'm going to embrace my Jewish identity and with my people we're going to fight against it.


You've referred to yourself a lot throughout this conversation as trying to build your identity as a scholar. In your public comments, you have called settlers in the West Bank “terrorists” and “genocidal.” So I'm curious, as a scholar, if you think it's necessary to risk offending people in order to pursue the truth. 


Well, obviously, yes. I mean, I have no doubt. Now, how you offend people, there can be different ways that you can offend people, and there can be different levels of offense. But we have got to go to the truth. Even if the truth is uncomfortable. 


Has anyone ever accused you actually of anti-Semitism for your blunt criticisms or analysis of Israeli security policy? 


So the Dean that was trying to dissuade me from hosting the teach-in, he jumped on an email that came from actually a Jewish student that said that the teach-in is too early, it's insensitive, there are people that are still mourning. The Dean's email said students fear it's going to lead to increase in anti-Semitism. To the student's email, I responded saying, bluntly, "I'm sorry for any personal connection to losses, my family was affected directly as well, however we are, first, an academic institution and our job is to inform, second we are an American academic institution and at the time that the United States is sending forces to the Middle East and American forces might be putting their lives on the line, we have to be speaking about what is going on." I said obviously I do not expect you to attend this talk but I don't think that you have any right to deny other people who want to pursue this knowledge, that opportunity. And since the student wrote me and the Dean, that's created an opening for the Dean to then jump in.


Now the thing is that since I think it's my teaching, the Jewish community here, its opinion about me and definitely since the tweet has completely changed because I mean there were people who were in the Jewish community that did not want to take my classes because of my views. The funny thing is that my politics really are not relevant to my classes, I'm teaching a class about conflict in the Middle East, it's phrased “IR theory, conflict, and the Middle East” because the point is to take international relations theories and try to work about how they try to explain the Middle East, my classes don't involve passion, I don't care about your passions, passion should go to somebody else's class.


In my class we're gonna argue and I don't care about your personal position. I want you to be able to argue both sides because what we are teaching is logic. And yes, going back to your question, you always gotta pursue the truth.


I tell students that they want to tell me about what they want to write their papers and they have their conclusion on what they're going to find and I say, no, that can't work like that. If you know the true result, you don't need to do the paper. And how can you really know the answer before you conduct [the] research?


Some of the sources that people are using in order to make claims about current events, certain Instagram posts and stuff that you just say, we are doing something very wrong here if students don't understand how the academic enterprise actually works. I mean everything is in front of us to see if we just are willing to open our eyes. It's not comfortable. And again, I just want to emphasize none of that should mean that we shouldn't support our Palestinian students that are grieving. But it is also important that colleges will know to draw some lines.


I know that this is hard. How you produce the balance between free speech and hate. And in general, I would try to limit the limitations as much as possible. But I don't see college administrators in most places doing something like that. And so the Jews, whether it's faculty, staff, or students are left alone. I mean everybody saw yesterday's ridiculous hearing in Congress. 


Oh, I wanted to ask about this. You mentioned earlier you would be in favor of a narrower definition of anti-Semitism. And I wanted to ask you what you think about Congress currently considering a bill that would make into law a pretty broad definition of anti-Semitism. So I am curious if you have some concerns about legitimate expression being curtailed as a result?


Absolutely. I tell you, well first, in principle, I don't think that BDS — I mean not necessarily against Israel — but a boycott as a tool seems to be a perfectly legitimate tool. And so when states are banning BDS, I think that this is wrong because calls for a boycott [in general] should not be banned. Now, if you're genocidal calling for that, but that's not going to be about the call, it's going to be about who you are. Criticism of Israel, obviously, is allowed. So is criticism of Zionist thinking.


So, for my students, I think that it should be allowed to criticize people like Herzl, obviously. I mean Herzl, there is actually a lot of critical work about that. Herzl's vision of Israel, he underestimated what would be the effects on the Palestinian indigenous people from the return of the Jewish indigenous people. By the way, we could have done that if Haverford actually allowed us to offer a class on Israeli politics next semester that was going to be funded by the Israel Institute, but Haverford decided under lame excuses of “unforeseen potential legal consequences” not to take money from the Israel Institute, which is a super legitimate institute that puts visiting professors in places like Stanford, Cornell, etc. and does not intervene.


And we have in the neighborhood somebody that came from Israel to the area for a year who is an expert on the Oslo Accords, who has a PhD in history from UCLA, and we had a freebie. And we have a class on Israeli politics in our books. Now they are trying to find some excuse that they are not used to this or that this is an advocacy group, the Israeli Institute, therefore they can’t accept. I call bullshit. Yeah. And you know, especially “unforeseen legal potential” and “unforeseen legal consequences” — that seems to me like completely whitewashing and sort of giving you an answer that you cannot really argue with. 


Who is this decision coming from?


It happened in the summer, I don't know. The decision is conveyed as coming from the provost, but I don't know who actually made the decision. I don't know what's the structure, to one extent. The president is actually controlling all the communication, because we see the communication is not really a strong suit. I don’t know whether this is a bunch of people that are organizing all that. So it's hard for me to tell… I'm not privy to these kinds of things.


I did want to ask about a specific incident at Bryn Mawr, not at Haverford, but there were some students who were having a sit-in in the Dean's office at Bryn Mawr and the Deans there took down some of their posters and wanted to bring them to an Honor Trial. And I wanted to ask you if you had any thoughts on that. These were pro-Palestinian protesters and their signs did include the phrase "from the River to the Sea." And I'm curious for you how you feel about this in relation to free speech.


I would say not [ok to have an Honor Trial] for the sit-in, yes for the genocidal phrase. But I don't know how the Honor Code functions. And well, again, it's not like I'm sure that we really know what it means here or that we actually really follow it or just play along. But yes, and again, just based on the details that you gave me, I would say the sit-in is legitimate. It could frustrate the students, right? Because the provost or the president can take countermeasures as we saw in Swarthmore.


Yeah, the president of Swarthmore also doesn't have any problem walking through them and getting to their office and doing their work. So yeah, no problem with that. But the genocidal claims. I'm sorry, part of the story here is that the anti-Zionist Jewish groups on American campuses are legitimizing these calls. And they are trying to argue that they actually represent the true Jewish voice. But the thing is that they are a marginal fringe group among American Jews. And they are not the ones that will determine what is anti-Semitic and what is not. And the same way that every other minority has the right to speak out, determine what they consider as hate towards them, so do Jews.


But you see that those that are using the genocidal claims, that I want to separate, you can be a pro-Palestinian demonstrator, which would be perfectly legitimate with me. There is a good reason to be pro-Palestinian these days. I just don't understand the people that rather than be pro-Palestinian are being pro-Hamas. I constantly criticize the policies of the state of Israel, while at the same time, think that Hamas sort of signaled what kind of actor it is, and that this is not an actor that you can actually do business with. You can have these kinds of viewpoints, so properly stated demonstrators don't need to be pro-Hamas.


Sit-ins, obviously part of the right to free speech, but for order there needs to be some limits, right? Because you also need to... there is a limit to how much you actually then intimidate the people where you are doing the sit-in. So it's complicated and it's not really my field. [Editor's note: for an overview of the First Amendment's boundaries and an explanation of why "From the River to the Sea," taken alone, is protected political expression under the United States Constitution, see this article from FIRE: "As campuses reel, a reminder of the First Amendment’s boundaries."]


So at this point I'm speaking with less confidence. But I would say the statement itself would be extremely problematic. And the fact that things like that, posted from what I understood, these kinds of slogans, are put in places like the Dining Center.


I mean, when I did the teach-in, I told the students, I don't expect you to come. I could have done something in my class, but that would be forcing the discussion on a captive audience, and would be wrong. Right? Now in my seminar, it was a different story. So in my seminar, I informed students before and I told students: I'm going to be doing the same bit of teach-in stuff in the seminar today. And I don't expect anybody to be there. So if you feel uncomfortable, there is no problem. You can [leave]... I'm not going to impose on you to actually listen to that.


So to see the imposition of genocidal claims on our Haverford students in a public space that they can't really avoid. So what would be the solution? Do they need to take their food and go back to their rooms? Is that how we want to imagine Jewish life here? And the stuff that happened in Plenary. Right? Again, the selective use of Quaker principles to just serve you instrumentally. 


Haverford College has 13.4 self-identified liberal students for every one self-identified conservative student. Do you think that's a problem?


I think it's reality.


Yes, I mean, these days, obviously it's a problem. But how do you convince people to come to Haverford that are less liberal when you can't even write a blog post about why people might be voting for Trump in rural Pennsylvania without fearing repercussions?


I had a couple of former students that ended up joining the military. Just imagine the nightmare of these students that go to Haverford, knowing that they want to join the military afterwards and the kind of attitude that they're getting. I mean, it's not surprising that the few that we have, some of them end up working with me because I appreciate working with them. They are protecting us. There is a kind of mean, disgraceful lack of gratitude. I mean people live here in comfort, completely ignorant, which allows them then to hate the state, the country, without really giving any positive credit for the fact that there are people that are putting their lives on the line to protect us and even though you can have issues with the government and how it sends them, you gotta give respect to those people that are showing true patriotism and really care and are putting their lives on the line. But a student like that will never feel comfortable at Haverford. So how would we get this guy? 


People at Haverford have complained for a long time about the inability to speak their mind. And these are liberals, when we're speaking about different shades of liberalism. If for half a second I'm considering the conservative fringe, what the fuck?


That's a great quote.


And you can use that. So, did you know that I say in class, I try to say “fuck” in class three times? I try to normalise it, because when you say fuck, it's an emphasis. What the fuck? Sometimes you just gotta say it.


Yeah, that's free speech. There's a Lenny Bruce quote, it's like, I don't know… “You lose the freedom to say fuck, you lose the freedom to say fuck the government,” or something like that. And, as you know, most Haverford College students profess to be very skeptical of the government and of the police, but at the same time, they still want to give the power to the governor or police to shut people up… or to give that power to the college administration…


… to shut the other people up. 


Right, yes. It's free speech for me, but not for thee.


And the same about security, right? So the safety on campus is not just for the Palestinian students, right? What about the ability to protect the Jewish students? Maybe the Jewish students do want to see more patrols of Campus Safety, even though the demand writers call for less of it. 


Do you think there's something performative going on here? 


Oh, mostly, Haverford is mostly about performance. It's a lot more performance than action. Again, going back to the fall 2020 strike. Six days. This whole thing happens. Five or six days before the general election where the results could be the end of the United States as we know it. And they were dealing with a real issue that happened in Philadelphia. But because of an email, they didn't end up in Philadelphia. Instead of actually focusing on what's going on outside and doing the real fight, they went back to fighting on campus as if the world around them is not falling apart. I mean, this was sort of the band on the Titanic, playing on the Titanic, which was crazy to me.


If you really want to now promote the Palestinian cause, I think that some of the things that the pro-Palestinian protesters are doing are extremely counterproductive for their cause. I have a former student that is an aide to a senator. She tells me, we don't pay attention to all this crap. What we do pay attention to is when we get letters and phone calls. But they are so attached to the activism as the performance, rather than as activism supposed to actually provide results. 


If your interest is really the Palestinian people, I can give you a list of things that you can do that would help the Palestinian people. But if your issue is simply the performance of rage, then it becomes again just about the protesters, rather than about the Palestinians. But then it does create a reality. It does create a reality where you see an increase in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Don't want to assign Islamophobia even primarily or partly to this action, when Islamophobia exists regardless. But clearly there are people that are seeing these kinds of statements and say, this does not help their cause.


Activism is allowed and we should accept it, even if I think that that sort of activism is pointless in this context. It could work in a grass-roots kind of work, but not in this kind of context. This is not how you influence policy. They also did the thing that for me is completely anti-intellectual. The lack of causality, the shift, the vague arguments that try to link the shooting of Palestinian students in Vermont to an atmosphere on campus, was supposed to make sure that nobody dares to speak out about anti-Semitism or share Zionist opinions.


And a specific student was singled out as well.


Yes, and this is just horrendous and I'm still waiting to hear from the president that the singling out of those [students] and it's not just her that was singled out, it was basically all the Zionist students. 


Now back to my definition of Zionism, my definition of Zionism can be really narrow but I envision Zionism as the belief in the right of the Jewish people for self-determination in the land of Israel. There are versions of Zionism that will be genocidal. I know I go against them. My version of Zionism is one that probably applies to everybody within the country, where it's a country for Jews, but not just for Jews. So I would like to see a lot greater equality within the state of Israel. So Israel could be a place, the home of the Jewish people, but also the home of all its citizens. So my definition is very narrow. My definition of Zionism, which means that I allow for a lot more criticism of Zionist thought… or there is a lot more space to criticize. Of course, Zionist scholars have been arguing about what is Zionism, internal problems with Zionism, so this goes on. 


In the definition of Zionism and of Israel you were just kind of expounding, I heard a lot of emphasis on pluralism, on multiple forms of thinking, and also on multiple groups of people. So, I suppose this is maybe a basic, elementary question, but why is pluralism important? 


It almost feels ridiculous to have to answer that kind of question and I can see in your smile that this is just a ridiculous thing… isn’t it, that we're actually having to deal with this question? 


Pluralism is important because through pluralism you hear new perspectives. They allow you to see things from different points of view which then allow you to judge the situation better, get the facts more accurately, brainstorm on new ideas that could help us find better solutions to whatever kind of problems we are facing. 


Pluralism also has the benefit that it allows people to feel that they belong in a bigger framework. I kept emphasizing that what we are seeing now because of the alarm that Jews on campus feel is that we are actually expressing our pluralism within the Jewish community. We have a lot of differences. Me and the Chabad Rabbi are not necessarily supposed to [agree], but this is [where things are,] and we have lots of respect. The same way that I have lots of respect for Sa'ed Atshan at Swarthmore. That's pluralism. But the point is the good faith. We speak about pluralism here. We don't do pluralism. And definitely when we speak about pluralism, I don't think we speak about it in good faith. 


And what would you like to say to the people who are saying you don't belong at Haverford? What is your response to those who seek to have you removed from our community for your expression?


I probably won't be able to change the mind of people that hate me, [but for] people that still are willing to see [what] I am [like], I recommend that they take my classes or speak with former students of mine. But in reality, my view is that what every student here needs is not the whole faculty.


Every student here basically needs one or two professors, one that they feel completely comfortable and safe to speak with, one that they know is always on their side. And second, somebody that they're interested in their subject and granted being able to also get along with them.


Ideally, you can combine the two. And so I know that I'm a niche person. There are lots of people that won't take my classes simply because I was born in Israel and as an Israeli citizen served in the military. It's not like I had a choice. Well, I suppose I could have gone to prison. I would like to see any of the kids here willing to take that kind of action.

 

— William Harris, for The New Kronstadt (Dec 8, 2023)

William Harris '24 is a current student at Haverford College.
 

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