May, 6 2019
The president of Williams College in Massachusetts spoke out on Friday after student leaders denied recognition to a Zionist club over objections to its mission, while off-campus advocates urged greater action.
President Maud Mandel said she was “disappointed” that the College Council (CC) failed “to follow its own processes and bylaws” by voting 13-8 on April 23rd against allowing the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) to become a registered student organization (RSO).
WIFI’s leaders said the club is meant to promote a diversity of viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and provide a space for students who believe in Israel’s right to exist. It seeks to “support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community,” and celebrate Jewish and Israeli holidays.
Critics of the club opposed granting it RSO status — which would make it eligible for benefits including funding — due to its refusal to take a stance on certain issues related to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, such as the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the control of lands claimed by Palestinians.
It is believed to be the first time in over a decade that the CC voted against recognizing a club that complied with its bylaws. An anti-Zionist club that focuses on these issues, Students for Justice in Palestine, has already been recognized as an RSO.
Mandel acknowledged that the decision against WIFI “was made on political grounds,” marking a departure from the CC’s “own process for reviewing student groups, which at no point identifies a proposed group’s politics as a criterion for review.”
“The decision also seems to be in tension with CC bylaws, especially Article V, Section 3: ‘Prohibition Against Discrimination in Student Organizations,'” she wrote.
College leaders told WIFI organizers “that the club can continue to exist and operate without being a CC-approved RSO,” she noted, calling it “a basic matter of fairness and people’s right to express diverse views.” WIFI will still have access to “most services available to student groups, including use of college spaces for meetings and events.”
The group will, nonetheless, not be eligible to receive base funding from the CC, which oversees the allocation of a roughly $500,000 annual budget drawn from student tuition.
“However, non-CC organizations may still request ad hoc funding from CC for specific events and programs,” Rabbi Seth Wax, Jewish chaplain at Williams College, told The Algemeiner.
Solly Kasab, one of the student leaders of WIFI, explained that while RSO status had an impact on funding, as well as “certain privileges regarding room reservation and advertising,” it also meant “that all budget requests would be scrutinized heavily and external funding restricted or even denied entirely.”
“Not being an RSO means that WIFI can accept and use external funds without restriction by the student government, as well as money from academic and administrative departments,” added Kasab, who also serves as the CC’s Spring 2019 vice president of communications.
He shared reservations about appealing the decision against WIFI, pointing to the result of its first request, and noted the support the club had received from some peers — “even those who do not agree with the mission of the group,” but who found the CC’s decision “appalling.”
“[We’ve] seen support from peers who have come in to CC to speak as well as through direct conversation,” Kasab said.
The incident also drew input from leaders of the off-campus Academic Engagement Network (AEN), who in a Friday email to Mandel expressed concern over the lack of transparency surrounding the CC vote against WIFI.
The minutes of the April 23rd meeting and the vote were both anonymous, while a livestream recording of the proceedings was not aired, all in departure from usual standards.
“According to media reports of the CC meeting and the statements of opponents, it is clear that the rejection of WIFI’s RSO application was based purely on political opinions regarding its mission,” AEN leaders wrote.
“While not a public university bound by the First Amendment, Williams College is nonetheless obligated to adhere to its own stated principles and policies” on free speech, they added. “Consequently, we urge you to take immediate action to reverse the decision of the CC and to give WIFI the RSO recognition that it deserves.”
In a separate letter on Sunday, leaders of the Israel education and advocacy organization StandWithUs said they were disappointed by Mandel’s comment that WIFI will still be able to operate without RSO status.
“This position sidesteps the greater issue and whitewashes the problem with the Council’s actions,” the group wrote. “WIFI complied with all procedures required to form an RSO and therefore should receive such status, as well as all, not most, services available to Williams RSOs. Denial of any benefit granted to RSOs is a form of de facto discrimination and should be rejected outright by your administration.”
The letter’s authors also criticized Mandel’s statement for saying the CC’s decision “was made on political grounds,” asserting it “does not go far enough.”
“WIFI’s application for registration was rejected not because of mere political views but because of antisemitism,” they argued. “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.”
“The Council has patently abused its authority by discriminating against WIFI and denying it RSO recognition,” they added. “We urge the administration to exercise its own authority within the College’s system of shared governance to correct this misstep.”
Williams College did not answer a request for comment by press time.
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