Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends' Central speech, stands with fired teachers
Writing this piece was an attempt to bring together prayer and activism, the inward and outward, silence and the breaking of silence.
"I never knew there was affirmative action for terrorists!"
Coming from the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker institution that has been in Palestine since the 1800s, I had not expected such remarks as a freshman at Swarthmore College, particularly considering our Quaker ethos. Overall, I loved my college experience, and such challenging moments ultimately shaped me into a stronger person who vowed never to be silenced again. After earning a doctorate at Harvard and postdoc at Brown, I am back at Swarthmore, as a professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies program.
One of my closest friends at Swarthmore was a Jewish classmate. He supported me after the "terrorist" comment and on many occasions. I broke bread with his family during Jewish holidays. I was a groomsman in his wedding. This dear friend had graduated from Friends' Central School, so when Friends invited me to speak in February, I did not hesitate to accept.
The invitation came from teachers Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, who were advising the Peace and Equality in Palestine club, which was started by a Jewish student. I prepared an uplifting presentation, tailored to a high school audience, about Israeli and Palestinian heroes of mine who advocate for nonviolence, human rights, equality, and coexistence in Israel/Palestine. I also planned to speak about my experiences at Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine for teenagers from conflict zones, including Israeli and Palestinian youth.
Several days before the talk, Friends Head of School Craig Sellers decided to cancel the event. He had received complaints from some parents who objected to the school's hosting a Palestinian speaker. As a Quaker, I am deeply committed, as a matter of faith and practice, to pacifism and seeing the light of God in every human being. Thus, it came as a shock that a Quaker school was backpedaling in its invitation to a Quaker speaker who is a professor of peace studies at a historically Quaker college.
After 65 students and the two teachers silently walked out of Quaker meeting for worship in protest of the cancellation, the school suspended the teachers. Though this was all covered extensively in the media, I remained silent. But now, according to Mark Schwartz, the teachers' attorney, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating the treatment of the teachers, and I believe it is time to break that silence.
The media portrayed this controversy as a "Jewish vs. Palestinian" dispute, ignoring the many Jewish Friends' Central community members who disagreed with the administration and supported the teachers. And I was disheartened by the anti-Semitic responses to this coverage. We must unequivocally disavow and dismantle all forms of anti-Semitism. And we must recognize the heterogeneity of Jewish voices and listen deeply to progressive Jewish individuals and communities who are asking us not to perpetuate the false notion that the most reactionary voices speak on their behalf.
It is possible, and imperative, to simultaneously critique Israeli policies while working against anti-Semitism. Jewish progressives have modeled that beautifully. Refusing to recognize this blinds us to Jewish-Palestinian solidarity, with which I have had intimate experience. That solidarity is fundamental to achieving peace, security, rights, and justice for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine — and ensuring that American involvement in the conflict is as ethical as possible.
Quaker schools, like many institutions, are not immune from the broader political environment in the United States. We must all address stereotyping and marginalization, including that which stems from anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. As a gay Palestinian Christian, I am accustomed to my personhood being dismissed in discourses on the conflict, yet I understand the inextricably interlinked nature of all struggles for dignity. That is why, after receiving an apology and reinvitation from Friends' Central, I graciously declined and explained that I could not, in good conscience, speak there until the teachers were reinstated.
Though there has been an outpouring of love and support from the Quaker world to the former Friends teachers and myself, there have been frustrating moments. I tried to respond to a fellow Quaker, for example, who believes the fired teachers' identities as queer women of color are irrelevant to how they were treated. I patiently ask such individuals how they would feel if they were — outside of the proper Quaker decision-making process — stripped from their workplace and community overnight and then had to deal with unemployment, stigmatization, and all the media coverage and misinformation that resulted from acting upon caring for their students.
The most difficult moment for me since the talk's cancellation came after speaking at an American Friends Service Committee event. A Friends' Central student approached me, sharing that she had come imagining a "monster" based on what she was told about Palestinians. She was genuinely surprised to see that was not the case and felt comfortable approaching me. It took a lot for me to restrain my tears.
That student and the many people who have responded to Friends' Central embody our precious Quaker testimonies. The former Friends teachers are an inspiration, and I proudly stand with Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa.
They are all part of what makes America great: building robust institutions and communities, including faith-based movements, to affirm and protect pluralism and democracy in the face of creeping authoritarianism, regardless of where it emanates from on the political spectrum.
Quakers know very well that our deep silence grounds us spiritually — and it is from the depth of that silence that we are able to speak truth to power with love and compassion. Writing this piece was an attempt to bring together prayer and activism, the inward and outward, silence and the breaking of silence.
Sa'ed Atshan is a professor at Swarthmore College. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.