Williams College, a reputable liberal arts institution in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has roared into the news for the wrong reason.
Late last month, the student council, known as the College Council, took political correctness to an absurd and unacceptable level by voting to reject a request from a pro-Israel group, Williams Initiative for Israel, to be officially recognized as a registered student organization.
The motion was passed by a margin of 13-8, with one abstention, despite the fact that Williams Initiative for Israel had complied with the bylaws of the College Council, The Williams Record, a campus newspaper, reported.
Williams Initiative for Israel 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.” This mission statement was not good enough for the pro-Palestinian members of the College Council. They were upset that the pro-Israel club did not take a position on two key Arab-Israeli issues — Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been in effect for the past 12 years, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which began during the 1967 Six Day War.
If the College Council had granted Williams Initiative for Israel official status, it would have been eligible to receive funding and administrative support from William College.
In the wake of its egregiously wrong-headed decision, Maud Mandel, the president of Williams College, accused the College Council of playing partisan politics. Having read the transcript of the heated debate on the motion, she explained, she had come to the only possible conclusion: College Council’s one-sided decision was “made on political grounds.”
She is right, of course. Shamelessly disregarding the hallowed credo that institutions of higher learning should be havens of free speech, College Council politicized a straightforward issue and twisted it grotesquely out of shape.
Much to her credit, Mandel announced that Williams Initiative for Israel will still be able to operate on campus and access all services available to student groups. But as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted in a statement on May 15, Mandel should grant club status to Williams Initiative for Israel and take steps to combat “viewpoint discrimination.”
“Student governments should encourage more students to speak and debate ideas rather than hamper their ability to do so,” said its senior program officer, Sarah McLaughlin. “President Mandel must immediately remind the College Council and the entire campus community that viewpoint discrimination is wrong — especially at a campus committed to free expression.”
In the wake of this controversy, Williams College gave Williams Initiative for Israel official status, bypassing the College Council.
The mistreatment meted out to Williams Initiative for Israel is not, unfortunately, unique. Under the influence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Israel is being increasingly demonized at American universities.
Due, in part, to the short-sighted policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, liberals and progressives regard Israel as a rapacious colonial power that is relentlessly expanding its settlements in the West Bank and suppressing the yearning of the Palestinians for statehood.
Some critics of Israel would be content with a two-state solution. Still others cannot accept Israel’s existence and legitimacy, regardless of the political complexion of its government.
These are issues that can and should be discussed rationally. But when extremists shut down debate, as was the case at Williams College, no such discussion is possible and the principles of free speech are shattered, much to the detriment of both sides.