Target of anti-Israel witch hunt stands up for freedom of speech
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Target of anti-Israel witch hunt stands up for freedom of speech

In accusing Prof. Andrew Pessin of racism, three students launched a political correctness snowball that is starting to boomerang

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Connecticut College Prof. Andrew Pessin says he is the target of an anti-Israel witch hunt. (courtesy)
Connecticut College Prof. Andrew Pessin says he is the target of an anti-Israel witch hunt. (courtesy)

After a witch hunt is over, how does the victim pick up the pieces and return to “normal life”? This is the question facing Andrew Pessin, a philosophy professor at Connecticut College, who was the target of anti-Israel activists in trumped-up racism charges pinned to a Facebook post hand-picked from last summer’s Gaza war.

The case has launched student petitions calling for action against Pessin’s “dehumanization” and “racism” (currently under 600 supporters) and petitions in support of Pessin and free speech (almost 7,000 supporters). It has made international headlines — and divided a campus.

All classes were canceled at Connecticut College on March 30 for mandatory campus-wide events to discuss racism. The 2,000 students and some 200 staff came together to discuss marginalization, racist language, equality and inclusion. This unusual step came directly on the heels of racist graffiti found in a campus bathroom.

But the firestorm was ignited when three letters on March 3 accused Pessin of racism in the school newspaper.

The letters condemned Pessin’s use of language in a Facebook post in which he ambiguously compared the situation in Gaza to a ‘rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making efforts to escape.’

Led by a former Pessin student Lamiya Khandaker, the letters condemned Pessin’s use of language in a Facebook post in which he ambiguously compared the situation in Gaza to a “rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making efforts to escape” while the liberal world looks on and decries its imprisonment.

Impassioned, Khandaker wrote, “I am infuriated, repulsed and depressed. I feel unsafe… I had not understood the exact importance of my role as Chair of Diversity and Equity until actual encounters with subtle institutional racism were taking place at our academic institution.”

Previously, in mid-February, Pessin had been approached by Khandaker via email about the language in the post. Pessin immediately wrote back to clarify he was not talking about all Palestinians, rather Hamas, and that she had misunderstood his intent. He apologized and deleted it.

He thought that was the end of it, when really, the nightmare had only just begun.

In conversation with The Times of Israel this week, Pessin, who is on medical leave from the college, audibly shrugged and said, “The one-sentence version is a Connecticut College student affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine basically went through all of my writings about Israel, everything on Facebook and the Huffington Post, until she could find one thing she could twist out of context to look racist against Palestinians to ignite a whole campus storm in the name of defending racism.”

Pessin, who is Jewish and the author of several popular works on philosophy, said he is a strong pro-Israel advocate “on the side,” but he has kept his advocacy out of the classroom.

Nazi propaganda poster used by Vassar's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. (courtesy)
Nazi propaganda poster used by Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. (courtesy)

The three letters condemning Pessin were printed in the school paper without his knowledge, and definitely without a response. One writer, alum Zachary Bertrand Balomenos who lives in Jordan, printed a full retraction and apology on April 16.

But the damage to Pessin is far from over.

He explained that many liberal arts colleges are now conducted in a “hyper politically correct climate” and Connecticut College is no different. The student letters spawned what he called a “digital lynch mob” with faculty and students issuing statements condemning him for “deliberate misrepresentations” of his words. 

The administration, far from backing Pessin, requested he apologize to the students — a step broadly seen as an admission of guilt.

On the Connecticut College website, its president Katherine Bergeron stated, “Connecticut College is a community that values the dignity of all people. As your president, I will not tolerate forms of racist or hateful speech designed to demean, denigrate, or dehumanize.

“Even though speech may be protected does not mean that we have to approve of the odious things that people choose to say with their freedom,” she said.

‘Even though speech may be protected does not mean that we have to approve of the odious things that people choose to say with their freedom’

Also online are dozens of faculty and student statements condemning Pessin’s alleged racism, including the campus Hillel executive board, which wrote, “We would also like to clarify that Connecticut College Hillel is not a political organization: we do not associate with any one political viewpoint or agenda… We support discourse that encourages a more educated, empathetic community by grappling with the conflict from multiple positions and experiences.”

Pessin called himself “very naive” for not expecting the maelstrom of condemnation and student protest. He said immediately after the letters were printed someone draped a Palestinian flag outside his office with a mocking note.

His wife, fearing for his safety, said, “It only takes one crazy person to come be the hero and come get the prof,” and urged him not to return to campus. He said he is using this time “to recover and heal, and get the support I’ve gotten.”

Pessin is now aided by the legal wing of pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs.

‘It only takes one crazy person to come be the hero and come get the prof’

“It is not at all surprising that this happened given the hostile climate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is perpetrating on college campuses. Their single-minded campaigns to demonize Israel, and anyone who supports it, includes bullying and have led to anti-Semitism,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs.

Rothstein said the legal department of StandWithUs approached Pessin “immediately upon learning that students were leading a defamation campaign against him simply because he is pro-Israel.”

“The critical point for us was that his Facebook post had been condemning Hamas terrorism, not all Palestinians, as the campaign against him tried to make it appear,” she said.

StandWithUs founder Roz Rothstein (left) with head of the Canadian office, Meryle Kates. (photo credit: courtesy)
StandWithUs founder Roz Rothstein (left) with head of the Canadian office, Meryle Kates. (photo credit: courtesy)

She voiced displeasure with the school administration’s lack of backing Pessin and said StandWithUs organized a letter signed by 15 other organizations expressing concern and suggesting a six-point plan to rehabilitate Pessin’s reputation and the atmosphere on campus.

The letter’s signatories pooh-pooh current efforts taken by the administration.

“To add fuel to the fire, in an effort to restore calm on campus, you allegedly have appointed Interim Deans of Equity and Inclusion to create inclusive campus programs. Yet the programs initially suggested are not only vehemently anti-Israel but racist because they single out the Jewish state for unique condemnation. They include speakers who compare Israel to Nazis, support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and endorse terrorism against Israeli citizens.”

Rothstein doesn’t think the Pessin case is isolated and puts it in context with a slew of BDS and anti-Israel movements on campuses.

‘It is likely that we will see other cases on campuses as SJP continues to intimidate those who disagree with them’

“It is likely that we will see other cases on campuses as SJP continues to intimidate those who disagree with them,” she said.

Pessin said he sees himself “as the first shot in what will be a war.”

He said that should he return to campus, he is now prepared to be its “point man of pro-Israel advocacy.”

His job is secure, but he wonders how he can work with a faculty that publicly attacked him. “Practically every faculty member signed statements calling me racist,” he said.

But to Pessin, what is most disturbing and “disgusting” is the misuse of the meaning of freedom of speech by those conducting the witch hunt.

“In the name of these values that allegedly the college and the West hold dear, they are being oppressive and destroyers,” he said. “What they were doing was in no way honoring the norms of free speech, but in intimidating, destroying it.”

In the meantime, the Connecticut College campus will host an evening of diversity-themed monologues on April 18. Sponsored by the school’s Diversity Committee and written and enacted by students, “The Color Brave Monologues” is advertised as coming on the heels of campus conversations about racism, equity and inclusion, to “help members of the campus community establish solidarity around the issues they are discussing.”

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