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The screenshot heard ‘round the world

A Connecticut College professor comes under fire for a Facebook post

By Cindy Mindell

The following is an updated version of the print story that appears in the Ledger’s April 24 edition.

NEW LONDON – It’s been two months since student activists at Connecticut College began protesting against Andrew Pessin, a Jewish faculty member whose posts on Facebook during the August war between Israel and Israel in Gaza mushroomed from an internal campus issue to the stuff of national and international news.

Here’s the short version of the story from Pessin, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the college since 2005 and currently on leave, who communicated with the Ledger via email.

“In brief, I wrote a post during last summer’s Hamas-Israel war defending the Israeli blockade on Hamas. It was the 11th in a series of posts I wrote about Hamas and Israel during that war. I used the ill-fated metaphor in which I suggested that the perpetual threat Hamas poses to Israel is comparable to the perpetual threat a rabid pit bull might pose to its owner. If I had been able to draw I would have drawn it as a cartoon, with Hamas represented as the snarling pit bull, and the word “Hamas” would have been on it; it would probably be seen as a pretty ordinary cartoon typically found on the editorial pages. But because I can’t draw, I described it. In full context — which includes all my earlier posts, which make it clear that I distinguish between Hamas and ordinary civilians, and attribute the violence coming from Gaza to Hamas — the post is quite clearly about Hamas. In fact, the comment thread on the original post made that fully clear, explicitly. Out of context, however — if you just looked at the post itself without the comment thread, and without my earlier posts — it was ambiguous, and could perhaps be read as being about Gazan Palestinians in general.

The incident began when a student at the College emailed me to complain about the “racist post.” I wrote back immediately on Feb. 20 to explain that it was actually about Hamas, not Palestinians, but I apologized for any lack of clarity in the language and deleted the post immediately, since I did not want it to be misread in that way. Rather than end there, the student decided to escalate and began spreading the post, apparently deliberately excluding the comment thread that clarified its meaning as being about Hamas.

She was also fully aware of all my previous posts, but didn’t bother to think about how those, together with the post in question, also clarified my meaning.”

The student-run newspaper, The College Voice, published letters and op-eds from current and former students, condemning Pessin for “racism” and “bigotry.” In response, Pessin wrote a letter of apology that was published by the paper. Students submitted bias incident reports and a petition to Connecticut College president Katherine Bergeron, stating, “We demand that the entire senior administration of College engage publicly in free speech on behalf of its angered and disquieted community, expressly declaring that it condemns the racist sentiments of Prof. Pessin and asking that the backlash against students who have publicly identified Prof. Pessin’s racism for what it was cease with immediate effect.”

The student who originally emailed Pessin in February is Lamiya Khandaker, chair of Diversity & Equity on the Student Government Association (SGA) Executive Board. Khandaker is a member of the Class of 2017 at Connecticut College, where she majors in government and global Islamic studies.

While “backlash” is not explained in the petition, Khandaker – who says she neither wrote nor signed the petition – believes that the reference is to “harassment and bullying against the students who write letters to the editor in The College Voice,” though she did not cite any specific incidents.

“In essence, students were asking for a community dialogue on our values as a college community regarding language used by our community members, racism, acts of bias, and the like,” Khandaker says. “We also wanted the administration to affirm our principles by stating clearly that they do not condone bigoted language, something that a majority of the campus had wanted.”

When asked to define “majority,” Khandaker admitted that she did not mean a majority of students on campus, but rather a majority of students “who mobilized and cared enough to speak out about this.”

On March 25, a month after the Facebook post had gone public, and with the campus roiled in debate, Bergeron called the first of two community fora to air students’ concerns about the bounds of free speech and announce a four-part response by the administration to increase diversity and inclusion on campus. In her opening remarks, Bergeron referenced Pessin’s original Facebook post, admitting that she had only read about it in an email from a concerned alumnus and in the pages of The College Voice, where “I also saw, for the first time, a fragment of the offending post, which, despite having been deleted from the original Facebook page, was somehow still in circulation.

“When I read the post, I was, quite frankly, surprised and disappointed by the language. The paragraph analogized the situation in Gaza to a violent and rabid animal — an image that seemed to be referring not just to a political situation but also, by extension, to a whole population. I realize that the passage may have been taken out of context. But, reading only that one paragraph, as I did, I was taken aback as much by its central image as by its vehemence. At the very least, the intervention seemed to show poor judgment. It was not in keeping with the level of discourse that I have come to expect from the Connecticut College community and, in particular, from its faculty.”

Bergeron did not note subsequent attempts by her to put Pessin’s comment “in context” by reading his previous posts.

At the regular SGA meeting on March 27, some 100 students attended, says Khandaker, “all of whom were loudly voicing for the administration to condemn hate speech. That very night, SGA passed two resolutions: one where the SGA condemned the use of hate speech, and the second in which the SGA demanded for the administration to condemn it.”

A second public forum followed on March 30. To encourage attendance, all classes were cancelled. At both events, according to Khandaker, the majority of students who spoke asked again that the administration protect from harassment and bullying those who write letters to the editor in The College Voice that refer to Pessin’s language as racist. Again, it is unclear what incidents, if any, instigated the reference to “harassment and bullying.”

Rabbi Susan Schein, director of Connecticut College Hillel, was involved in early planning meetings prior to the community forum. “I was pleased by the way the campus community came together to discuss the issues in a constructive and respectful way,” says Schein, who hosted a post-forum conversation for Jewish students at the Zachs Hillel House.

By the time of the March 25 forum, in the wake of hate mail directed at Pessin and his family, Pessin had requested and received a leave of absence.

The matter spilled off campus and into the Greater New London Jewish community, and then beyond, onto the pages of The Day, the Washington Post blog of David Bernstein, Breitbart News, and the Times of Israel, among other news outlets. An online petition supporting Pessin and addressed to Bergeron was posted on Change.org.

“I think the Connecticut College administration believed that they could have a contained, moderate discussion on campus that was internal to the campus community and it’s not clear that’s what’s happening,” says Rabbi Rachel Safman of Congregation Beth El in New London. “Certainly when it gets picked up by the Washington Post or when you have speakers coming in with the support of national organizations, it’s no longer internal to the campus community. I don’t think that the Connecticut College administration was prepared for it to take on this much of a life of its own and to attract attention from such broad quarters.”

While the idea of a campus-wide conversation was not necessarily misguided, “I have heard that the conversation that actually transpired was maybe not the most productive,” Safman says. “Certainly, I have to say, from a Jewish perspective, having a task force on inclusion and equality that invites speakers and screens movies that are from a clearly partisan perspective that delegitimizes Israel doesn’t feel very inclusive or equal and doesn’t strike me as contributing to a feeling of ‘safety’ for all students and faculty.”

A former academic, Safman says that the controversy has altered a unique aspect of the institution.

“Connecticut College was a rare and privileged space among American campuses, in terms of the tone and nature of discussions and debates about Jewish identity, Jewish issues, and, particularly, Israel,” she says. “There were simply not a lot of tensions surrounding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That’s not to say that there weren’t different points of view, but this community was actually able to conduct a very civil discourse around these issues, and that’s not the case at the moment.”

Pessin agrees. “Our campus has largely been very quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian issue until now,” he says.

“Interestingly, throughout this episode, the students and the faculty condemning me for my racism – on the basis of the partial post, without the comment thread that clarified its meaning – have insisted it isn’t about my pro-Israel views, that it’s not about the Israeli-Palestinian issue at all, but just about my ‘racist language.’”

When the conflagration died down and outraged critics were able to examine the Facebook post within Pessin’s intended context, some retracted their attacks. Last week, The College Voice published a letter of apology to the professor, written by Zachary Bertrand Balomenos, an alumnus living in Amman, Jordan. Balomenos had written a letter to Bergeron in early March, which was also published in the Voice. There, he admitted to having insufficient information but made his accusation anyway and hinted that Pessin should no longer be employed by the college.

In his second letter, Balomenos addressed Pessin directly. “I wish to formally apologize for the letter that I published in The College Voice in early March 2015,” he wrote on April 16. “Since then, I have come to the realization that I made a grave error in writing and publishing such an accusatory piece outlining your actions and opinions. I now understand that I was not operating with sufficient contextual knowledge on the matter, and thus misinterpreted your words.”

Earlier this month, the college administration appointed three new interim deans of Institutional Equity and Inclusion. According to Pamela Dumas Serfes, vice president for Communications, “priorities for this team include creating new campus-wide events and programs related to diversity, equity, and inclusion; improving the college’s protocol for handling bias incidents; and serving as a support team for students, faculty, and staff; and planning the formation of a new community council.”

Based on input from the Connecticut College community, the interim deans have launched a series of programs focused on bringing the community together around these issues. “These types of lectures and interactive conversations are characteristic of the intellectual programming that happens on our campus,” Serfes says. “We are proud of how our community has engaged with the programs so far and look forward to scheduling additional events later this semester and next.”

It appears, however, that the outlines of the current campus conversation seem to have blurred from the originally-stated issue of free speech to a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first program sponsored by the deans of Institutional Equity and Inclusion was a screening of “Where Should the Birds Fly,” a documentary film by Palestinians living in Gaza, followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Fida Qishta, joined by Jewish Voice for Peace-New Haven co-chair Bob Gelback and secretary Standard Heller, and Connecticut College postdoctoral fellow of anthropology, Seema Golestaneh. A national U.S.-based organization seeking “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem,” Jewish Voice for Peace was described by the Anti-Defamation League in 2010 as one of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the country.

Would the campus have experienced such an uproar had a pro-Palestinian faculty member expressed an ambiguous or possibly offensive comment against Israel or the Israel Defense Forces?

“It’s hard to know,” says Pessin. “But on many campuses across the country, it seems a lot easier and more widely acceptable to say horrible things about Israel than it might be to say horrible things about the Palestinians. We had a couple of faculty members a year ago who quite comfortably and publicly endorsed academic boycotts of Israel, which I believe to be morally outrageous and a form of racial and nationalistic discrimination; the campus yawned. Some of these same faculty members are now serving on the panels that our new deans of Institutional Equity and Inclusion are running. It’s hard for me to see how promoting boycotts of people just because they are Israeli is consistent with endorsing ‘inclusivity’ as an institutional value.”

Khandaker, who was active in the anti-Zionist group ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ while a student at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York, says that the campus debate “is absolutely not a conflict over Israel and Palestine, but the professor believes otherwise.”

She says that, while students are not calling for disciplinary action against Pessin, many still consider the language he used in his Facebook post hate speech.

“Even the students who have filled out a bias incident report did not call for any specific action against him, nor have they asked him to be fired,” she says. Pessin refutes that claim, noting that “At the March 25 open forum, several students vocally called for me to be fired.”

While Khandaker maintains that all the students wanted was “a clear acknowledgement of the problematic and dehumanizing language used by him, which he did apologize for publicly, but later rescinded in media outlets,” Pessin disagrees, saying the apology was never rescinded.

“All I can say, in short, is that the students who found this post, and students who wrote letters to the editor in our college newspaper, criticized his use of dehumanizing language and believe that it falls under the category of hate speech,” says Khandaker. “We acknowledged his right to free speech, but that also means that we as an academic community can respond and criticize speech that comes off as derogatory. Not once have we criticized his political opinion or right to have a political opinion. Even our Hillel organization took a clear position in saying that it did not condone such dehumanizing language.”

Indeed, in one of many open letters from various Connecticut College departments and organizations, issued the day after the forum, the Connecticut College Hillel Executive Board wrote, “Although a variety of viewpoints were expressed at the forum, the Hillel Executive Board would like to publicly state that Connecticut College Hillel firmly denounces hate speech. We do not condone racist speech or actions toward any group under any circumstance.”

Khandaker, who outlined her version of events in a College Voice editorial published last week (“Why I Wrote My Letter-to-the-Editor and How a 19-Year-Old Received Backlash,” April 15), and reprinted on TheNation.com (which appears to have been removed from the publication’s site sometime after the Ledger went to press on Tuesday, April 21), says that students have been mobilizing and organizing their own events “to keep the student activism and conversations going.” SGA’s Diversity Committee recently staged The Color-Brave Monologues, in which members of the Connecticut College community performed pieces about their personal experiences with identity and, Khandaker says, address “themes of oppression and privilege.”

Before the semester ends, two pro-Israel speakers are coming to campus, according to Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut Executive Director Jerry Fischer.

On Wednesday, April 29, Daniel Robinson, an Israeli Defense Forces veteran and 25-year resident of Israel, and husband of Rabbi Safman, will give an Israeli perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He will be representing an Israeli point of view which, while not Netanyahu’s, is very much a mainstream point of view within the Israeli public debate,” says Safman. “This will give students on campus the chance to hear the perspective of somebody who last summer found his wife, child, and himself taking cover from missile fire and to hear why the Jewish community might have a different perspective on the security challenges posed by Hamas.”

On Monday, May 4, Steven M. Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will speak on campus.

Pessin, who “remains a faculty member in good standing,” according to Serfes, intends to return to campus.

“I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received from around the world – hundreds of emails from strangers all over, and the online petition which someone started on my behalf is approaching 7,000 signatures in just a week,” he says. [At press time, the number was nearly 8,000.]

“The threatening tweets and emails have slowed in direct proportion to the slowing of the petition that the students had posted against me, thank goodness.” Still, he adds, “It will be a long time before I or my family feel safe.

You can imagine how it feels to be a Jewish advocate for Israel being falsely maligned around the world as an anti-Palestinian racist.”

Meahwhile, his colleagues are standing by him. An open letter issued by the Department of Philosophy states, “…We staunchly support our colleague Andrew Pessin’s academic freedom. We deeply value his contributions to our philosophical community and we look forward to welcoming him back at the end of his leave. We know him to be an excellent teacher and a first-rate scholar. And we are committed to including him in the intellectual life of the department and the college.”

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