(May 17, 2019 / JNS) The administration at Williams College overrode the student government’s rejection earlier this month of a pro-Israel group being formed on campus.
A college spokesperson, Gregory Shook, told the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which fights to free speech on college and university campuses, that since Tuesday, Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) received recognition a student group, which allows them access to funding and administrative support.
In a statement, Shook told FIRE:
After the College Council’s vote, college administrators discussed the fact that the college’s Student Handbook described a parallel path to RSO status that had not been engaged in this case. This involved a committee made up of administrators and CC reps.
Under Massachusetts state law, a college’s student handbook is a binding contract between students and the institution. Therefore, we had a legal obligation to offer that process if WIFI requested it, which they did.
We notified College Council of the process described in the Handbook, and asked them to designate a representative for the committee.
On Tuesday, May 14, the committee considered WIFI’s request, as required by law, and voted to grant RSO status to WIFI. WIFI is now an RSO with the full rights, privileges and responsibilities that label entails.
This experience has pointed to the value of a discussion with Williams students about student governance. As we move forward, we will continue to support students in thinking about the kind of governance they want and deserve. In addition, we will be working alongside the current Council to identify best practices relative to bylaw creation and support, managing meetings effectively, and any other structural issues that will be helpful for good student governance.
In an anonymous vote, the school’s College Council rejected WIFI in what apparently was the first time in more than a decade that it voted against having a club that met the criteria of its bylaws.
WIFI, per its constitution, 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.”
Issues that the council members had with the group included it not taking a position on matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At an April 16 council meeting, one student asked, “Why do you feel the need to ally yourself with the State of Israel, as opposed to taking a human-rights-oriented approach?”
Another student seem concerned about having 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.”
WIFI leader Molly Berenbaum responded, “It’s specifically just a group that thinks Israel should exist. That’s really as specific as it gets.”
‘A brazen attempt to silence students’
The student government decision was condemned by Williams College president Maud Mandel, who said that the “transcript of the debate and vote indicate that the decision was made on political grounds.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Mandel, that the student government did not follow “its own processes and bylaws.”
The bylaws make no mention of political views as an eligibility factor.
StandWithUs wrote a letter to Mandel and the vice president for campus life, Stephen Klass, criticizing both the rejection of WIFI as a campus group and Mandel’s response, which SWU said did “not go far enough.”
“WIFI’s application for registration was rejected not because of mere political views, but because of anti-Semitism,” stated the letter.
“Zionism is the movement supporting Jewish rights to self-determination, and the Council’s rejection of WIFI as an RSO seeks to denigrate this vital aspect of mainstream Jewish identity for many Williams students,” it continued.
“The Council’s actions are a brazen attempt to silence students because of their political opinions and their Jewish and/or Israeli identities. While students are certainly entitled to maintain and express their own viewpoints, they may not do so in a discriminatory manner that “infring[es] upon the rights of others” with differing views,” added the letter. “WIFI complied with RSO formation protocol. Its denial of RSO recognition was done in bad faith, constitutes blatant discrimination, and thus deliberately violates the individual rights of all WIFI members.”
Nonetheless, SWU and other pro-Israel groups applauded the administration overturning the student government’s decision.
“While it is good that WIFI has finally been registered as a student group, it is outrageous that they were denied their rights in the first place,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein told JNS. “Bypassing the College Council is good but not nearly enough. The administration must unequivocally condemn the original decision and ensure that a similar incident never happens again.”
“We applaud the Williams College administration for overriding the illiberal student government and registering the Williams Initiative for Israel as a formal student organization. Colleges and Universities are intended to be centers of discussion and debate, not censorship and forced ideological conformity,” Aviva Rosenschein, International Campus Director of CAMERA, told JNS. “We commend the students who, despite intimidation by their elected student leaders, did not back down and pushed for the right to have their voices heard.”
“This is exactly what university administrators should do, step in and right a wrong when, in the name of a hateful ideology, students engage in blatant intolerance and discrimination,” AMCHA Initiative co-founder and director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told JNS.
“BDS is an anti-Zionist tactic that involves suppressing all pro-Israel views and voices, and ostracizing and marginalizing those that hold them. That is exactly what was attempted at Williams,” she continued. “We commend the administration at Williams College for shutting down this shameless and reprehensible attempt. However, we also encourage the university to go even further and establish safeguards for ensuring that Jewish and pro-Israel students, and all students, are treated equally in every aspect of college life.”