College under federal investigation after pro-Israel group denied recognition (UPDATE)

UPDATE: A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson confirmed to Campus Reform that its Office of Civil Rights has launched a federal investigation into Williams College. 

”The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can confirm that it opened an investigation at Williams College (MA) on May 31, 2019, for possible discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.  Because this is an ongoing investigation, however, OCR cannot provide additional information or confirm case-specific details,” the department spokesperson said. 

George Mason University law professor David Bernstein told Campus Reform that he filed a complaint with the department. 

”I filed it because I read about the incident at Williams, which struck me as obvious and blatant discrimination against Jewish students at Williams College. In my experience, such incidents tend to get swept under the rug and ignored by administrators, and it was Yom HoShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and I wanted to make my own small contribution to ‘Never Again,’” Bernstein told Campus Reform

Bernstein provided a copy of the complaint to The College Fix

Original story below: 

A Massachusetts college council rejected a pro-Israel group’s application to become a registered student organization (RSO), seemingly due to the group’s politics and failure to take a public stance against the “occupation.”

Williams College’s college council rejected registered status to the group, Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), by a vote of 13-8. WIFI is the first applicant in a decade that met all the bylaws for becoming an RSO, but was rejected anyway, according to the Williams Record.

The Record reported that the majority of the debate surrounded the mission of WIFI, which is to “support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.”

“From our perspective, there are ways of supporting Israeli statehood that don’t support the occupation or human rights abuses against Palestinians, but there are ways of doing that that definitely do,” Williams student Joseph Moore told the Record. “[WIFI’s] inability to take a political stance with reference to those issues was incredibly problematic, and I think it came out during several parts of the conversation.”

In an op-ed following the vote, two of the college council members, Jesus Payan and Kai Soto-Dessen, along with Moore and nine other Williams students, signed a letter which claimed that they opposed WIFI’s registration due to its “complicity in [Israeli] state violence.”

“Given that the Israeli state is engaging in ongoing violent practices and is built on stolen Palestinian land,” the letter said, “one cannot ‘support’ the existence of an Israeli state as an abstract concept without ignoring and indirectly endorsing the state’s violent practices.”

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Furthermore, “WIFI repeatedly avoided questions and concerns about Palestinian human rights and refused to outline what political stance they would take with respect to the occupation of Palestinian land,” the letter said. “One member of WIFI leadership asserted the Israeli state routinely killing Palestinians in order to displace them from their land did not constitute genocide because the Palestinian population as a whole had not declined, due to a high fertility rate.” 

“This is totally inconsistent with any definition of the word ‘genocide,’ either provided by a dictionary or defined by international law and deeply offensive to Palestinians who have suffered repeated attempts at ethnic cleansing by the Israeli government,” the students claimed.

Campus Reform spoke with Zac Schildcrout, campus coordinator for pro-Israel nonprofit Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), about the college council’s decision. 

“The College Council’s decision to deny registered student organization status for Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) is bigotry and discrimination – plain and simple,” Schildcrout said. “Pride in the state of Israel and support for its right to defend itself are profound pieces of many Jews’ identities, and members of WIFI are under no obligation to capitulate to the College Council’s political bullying.” 

Williams College President Maud Mandel weighed in via a letter to the campus, stating that she is “disappointed” that the college council did not “follow its own processes” which “at no point identifies a proposed group’s politics as a criterion for review.”

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However, Mandel pointed out that “college leaders” have informed WIFI leaders that “even without CC approval, WIFI or any other non-CC organization can still access most services available to student groups.”

“I see the communication of this fact to WIFI as a basic matter of fairness and people’s right to express diverse views,” the president continued. “Differences over such views are legitimate grounds for debate, but not for exercising the power to approve or reject a student group.”

StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization, exclusively sent Campus Reform a copy of a letter sent by CEO Roz Rothstein and Legal Department Director Yael Lerman to President Mandel and Vice President for Campus Life Stephen Klass.

Rothstein and Lerman criticized Mandel’s letter, which they say attempted “to excuse the Council’s discriminatory conduct on the grounds that WIFI can exist and operate at the College without official RSO status.”

“This position,” StandWithUs argued, “sidesteps the greater issue and whitewashes the problem with the Council’s actions.”

Rothstein and Lerman’s letter also argued that the college council’s decision could violate Williams’ non-discrimination statement and code of conduct.

Mandel’s letter did “not go far enough” because WIFI “was rejected not because of mere political views but because of anti-Semitism,” according to the execs, who called on Williams to reverse the college council’s decision.

Three students, Gavin Small, Molly Berenbaum, and Maxwell Plonsker, wrote an op-ed “standing against [the college council’s] silencing of WIFI.”

“It is apparent,” the students wrote, “that WIFI 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.”

They wrote that opposing students accused Israel of “apartheid” and “genocidal” policies and that the requirement to be called upon to speak, coupled with the vast numbers of anti-WIFI students at the meeting “made it virtually impossible for supporters of the club to contest these accusations, or to properly clarify the mission of the club.”

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“Our goal,” they continued, “is simply to bring an additional perspective into the ongoing campus discourse on this issue for students who support or who want to learn more about Israel.” 

The WIFI supporters also made clear that they “celebrate the fact that groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine have been granted RSO status, and that students who believe in that group’s mission have been given a platform to support their cause. WIFI is requesting only that students with a different perspective be given that same platform and opportunity to be heard.”

“How ironic,” Schildcrout told Campus Reform, “that the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter is not required to publicly disavow Hamas’ Jew-hatred to maintain its registered student organization status.”

“We call on the College Council to eradicate this anti-Semitic double standard from their operational procedure.”

Follow the author of this article on twitter: @mstein81