WILLIAMSTOWN — On April 23, the student government at Williams College rejected the Williams Initiative for Israel's (WIFI) application to become a Registered Student Organization. The vote, while
contentious, was far from abrupt. Debate took place over two separate College Council meetings and lasted several hours on each occasion.
At one point during the conversation however, things turned particularly serious. One Palestinian student who could not be present at the first meeting came to the second to share something of the personal experience living under occupation: not being able to visit family without passing through checkpoints, only getting clean water three times a week, having rifles shoved in their face as a child. This student mentioned how the Nakba, the forcible expulsion of more than 500,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, had affected their family.
WIFI's leadership responded to this student by saying that this and other clear attempts at ethnic cleansing against Palestinians did not constitute genocide. When asked why the intentional displacement and killing of an ethnic minority would not be a textbook example of genocide, WIFI's leadership pointed to the slight increase of the Palestinian population in recent years. The United Nations Genocide Convention specifically defines genocide as "acts intended [emphasis mine] to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." Population decrease or increase has nothing to do with the definition of genocide, and attempts to redefine the term to protect a narrow political interest and invalidate the lived experiences of Palestinian students should be beyond the bounds of reasonable debate.
Immediately after this remark, WIFI's leadership simply stated that illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank (illegal under Israeli and international law) are not a form of settler colonialism; no explanation was offered on this point, although it was roundly and repeatedly asked for.
At this point, a vote was called for. Many people in the room did not feel comfortable approving a student group that had spent the last hour obfuscating human rights abuses; WIFI was voted down 13-8. While refusal to grant WIFI recognition as a student group would not affect members' ability to share their views, hold meetings, reserve spaces or invite speakers to campus, the vote sent a strong message — student government at Williams refuses to be complicit in defending state violence.
The media response was swift and vehement. Center-left news outlets bashed those of us on the other side of the debate for infringing upon free speech; right-wingers published our names and photos, called us jihadists and asked that we be expelled from Williams. Many of us received threatening emails, calling us bigots and liars; those of us that felt intimidated knew that was the point.
WIFI, on the other hand, was giving quotes to a variety of media outlets. It had the opportunity to speak volubly and to a national audience about how it had been silenced. Simultaneously, the administration at Williams College moved to reverse the student government's original decision and quickly granted WIFI official recognition via a procedure in the student handbook dug-up post-facto.
As the debate has been framed, it is incoherent to talk about the WIFI controversy as a free speech issue. At no point was their right to express themselves infringed upon, nor were they even denied platforms — as the mountain of friendly media coverage can attest. WIFI was only denied official recognition because it failed to clear a very low bar; it could not convincingly argue that if granted approval it would not defend or obscure literal crimes against humanity.
There are, of course, a wide variety of defensible positions on Israel/Palestine — but there also some views so odious that they ought to be called out as such. Support for South Africa under apartheid, for one. Where to draw that line is always a difficult question, but in this case the decision was arrived at democratically and after full and open debate. Denying WIFI was not a violation of free speech; it was an exercise in free speech, an instance of a community deciding via debate what controversial views it can privilege with official status.
That is not to say, however, that everyone's right to free speech has been respected in this controversy. No one gets harassed by national media outlets without it affecting them, but, for Muslim students and students from conflict zones this kind of harassment affects their physical safety. There are students who would be writing articles like this one right now, but if they did not fear the exposure would invite violence upon them personally or invoke reprisals against family members living in exceedingly dangerous places.
All of us who opposed WIFI wholeheartedly support the right to freedom of speech; we simply ask that we also be granted that same right — that we not be harassed and branded as terrorists for taking part in the debate around Israel/Palestine that, now more than ever, is so desperately needed.
Joseph Moore is a member of the Williams College Class of 2020.