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May 2, 2019 6:35 pm

Williams College Student Leaders Deny Recognition to ‘Pro-Israel’ Group, Prompting Calls for Inquiry

avatar by Shiri Moshe

Morgan Hall at Williams College. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

Student leaders at Williams College in Massachusetts denied official recognition to the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) campus group last week, following protests from students opposed to the Jewish state’s policies.

During an April 23rd meeting, members of the College Council (CC) anonymously voted 13-8 with one abstention against allowing WIFI to become a registered student organization (RSO), The Williams Record reported on Wednesday. It is believed to be the first time in over a decade that the CC voted against recognizing a club that complied with its bylaws.

According to its constitution, WIFI seeks “to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.” With RSO status, it would be eligible to receive funding and administrative support, among other benefits.

Yet critics took aim at the club for failing to express a stance on certain issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among them the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the occupation of lands claimed by Palestinians.

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Public opposition was first raised at an April 16th CC meeting, which was partially aired on social media before the recording was halted to protect student privacy. Students opposing WIFI could be seen distributing handouts, condemning various Israeli policies, and asking the club’s leadership, led by sophomore Molly Berenbaum, about its political positions.

“Why do you feel the need to ally yourself with the state of Israel as opposed to taking a human rights oriented approach?” one student asked.

Another student challenged the idea of a club “that’s built on the assumption that Israel has a right to exist, in the sense that it has a right to enact its policies, which [are] oftentimes drowning out the voices of Palestinians.”

Berenbaum, in turn, emphasized that WIFI did not seek to “take a particular stance on any policies or governments or leaders in Israel.”

“It’s specifically just a group that thinks Israel should exist,” she explained. ‘That’s really as specific as it gets.”

She said the club would invite an ideologically diverse array of speakers to campus, as well as commemorate national holidays such as Yom HaZikaron, which honors fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorism, and Israel’s Independence Day. It would also engage in political activism by hosting forums and putting up posters, but not endorse a particular Israeli political movement.

While Williams College has a “very well attended” Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, for students coming with a view “that Israel should exist as a nation, it’s difficult if not impossible to get your voice heard,” Berenbaum said.

The SJP chapter, as well as a nonpartisan Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue (SIPD) group that Berenbaum helped establish, both have RSO status.

The discussion was ultimately tabled and resumed at last week’s CC meeting. While the CC did not share a live recording of the proceedings and anonymized the minutes, which are only available to members of the campus community, the Record reported that it too included a “heated debate.”

“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,” junior Joseph Moore told the Record.

He criticized WIFI’s constitution for including “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.”

WIFI members said in a Wednesday op-ed that they were “vilified by multiple speakers” during the April 23rd meeting, who accused Israel’s government of enacting “genocidal” policies against Palestinians — a controversial charge that has been strongly condemned by Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League. Several also expressed concern “that the guests opposing their club were trivializing past Jewish oppression and concerns about anti-Semitism in their statements,” the Record reported.

The votes of individual council members were not disclosed, with some opponents of WIFI arguing that a public ballot and public minutes would be tantamount to voter suppression, as some students were afraid to make their positions known due to privacy or safety concerns.

The meeting’s outcome was condemned by WIFI leaders, who maintained in their op-ed that the club “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.”

“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,” the students added.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, head of the campus antisemitism monitor AMCHA Initiative, called the incident “a case of blatant discrimination and shameless intolerance.”

Groups that support the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against, such as SJP, “attempt to suppress all pro-Israel views and voices, and ostracize and marginalize those that hold them. This is exactly what is happening here,” she told The Algemeiner on Thursday.

“This shameless and reprehensible attempt must be called out and reversed by the university immediately,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “If it is not, we stand ready to jump in and take action to ensure Jewish and pro-Israel students’ rights are adequately and fairly protected.”

Yael Lerman, legal director at the Israel education and advocacy organization StandWithUs, likewise called on the university to investigate the CC’s vote.

“If the facts as reported are true, this appears to be a clear case of silencing students due to their political opinions and Jewish and/or Israeli identities,” she said. “This is an especially alarming decision in the context of a college campus, which is supposed to be a marketplace for ideas and open dialogue.”

“The College must promptly inquire into what transpired and if the facts are accurate, immediately reverse the decision and denounce this act of bias in the strongest possible terms,” Lerman added.

Rabbi Seth Wax, Jewish chaplain at Williams College, told The Algemeiner on Thursday that while he is concerned about the CC’s decision, “by and large, it will not affect how the group functions.”

“WIFI organizers have been meeting with me, faculty, staff, and administrators since the decision last week,” he said. “Stakeholders at the college have made it abundantly clear that the club can exist without being an RSO, and I can assure you that it continues to do so.”

“The group can access almost any service available on campus, including campus spaces for meetings and events, even without RSO status,” Wax added.

He expressed particular gratitude to the college administration for supporting WIFI’s existence, and “viewing it as a matter of fairness and the students’ right to express their views.”

A representative for CC did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

This article has been updated to include comments from Rabbi Seth Wax.

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