In support of academic freedom

6 mins read

One of our community members, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan, has recently come to local and national attention. In brief, Atshan had months ago been invited to give a talk at Friends’ Central School — an elite Quaker college-preparatory school in Greater Philadelphia — at the request of teachers and students who expressed interest in learning about peaceful activism in the Middle East. However, Atshan never received the chance to share his wisdom. Just two days before the scheduled event date of Feb. 10, he was informed that his invitation had been rescinded. We at the Phoenix stand with our professor and support Atshan in sharing his work and extensive knowledge on the Middle East. We condemn the decision of the Friend’s Central School in thwarting a possibility for the valuable discourse sought by their students and faculty members, and in joining a sweepingly large conglomerate of American institutions that silences peace-activist speech.
Some parents complained to the FSC administration about Atshan, who is a queer Palestinian Quaker, simplistically referring to him as “anti-Israel.” Those of us who have taken courses with Professor Atshan know that he explicitly problematizes and rejects such labels. He reminds us that it is important to affirm the fundamental dignity of Palestinians and Israelis. Atshan’s scholarship and activism emphasize the need for equality, coexistence, and peace for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article also referenced the Pro-Israeli websites who refer to Atshan as a “leader in the Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) movement against the state of Israel. While he does support nonviolent activism to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, Atshan is not actually a leader in the peaceful BDS movement. Professor Atshan did not even plan to talk about BDS at CFS. He had prepared a hopeful and autobiographical reflection aimed at a teenage audience on the power of pacifism, justice, and love.  Guided by a desire to pacify emotions and ensure sustained donations, the Head of the School, Craig A. Sellers, ultimately called off the talk.
We at the Phoenix, in recognition of the democratic value of free speech, ethical conduct, and proactive dialogue, support Atshan at a time when he is on the receiving end of misinformation and silencing. However, we also want to shine light on the paradox of repression that is occurring in the form of mass support. We stand firmly in solidarity with the 65 students of Friends’ Central School who walked out of a school-wide meeting last Wednesday to protest the talk cancellation. Other students bravely stood and read a statement, and 40 students organized a facilitated conversation to discuss their concerns as a community. FCS has also received countless emails and phone calls from FCS alumni, groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Quakers from around the world, and many others, to express their opposition to the cancellation of Atshan’s talk.
Two school teachers involved in initially inviting Atshan to campus — English Teacher Ariel Eure and History Teacher Layla Helwa  — were suspended and put on administrative leave when they supported the students in protest. We find it important to note that both teachers are queer women of color, and have so easily been dismissed and silenced for their peaceful actions. They are banned from school premises, their email accounts have been disabled, and the locks on their doors have been changed. A member of our editorial board witnessed firsthand that students have covered their classroom doors from top to bottom with fluorescent sticky notes with words of encouragement, love, and support.
With the same integrity that we encourage open dialogue, we also acknowledge and respect the decision of both Atshan and these teachers for refusing comment at this moment. Mainstream  media in the United States indeed has the capacity to twist the intentions of words, and for those who embody historically marginalized identities,  fear of speaking on issues that are politically contentious or whose conversations are steered by powerful lobbying and political groups is grounded in the very real possibility of unlawful retribution and violence.
As members of a Quaker institution, we are particularly disappointed in Friends’ Central School for choosing potential monetary support over the Quaker value of tolerance and collaborative decision-making. In a recent email to the CFS community, Sellers acknowledged that, “There was a fundamental breakdown in process. We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue.”


  1. Just wondering, would you all support a pro-Israel speaker like Ben Shapiro coming to Swarthmore’s campus in the name of “academic freedom?”

  2. No Palestinian supporter should ever speak against about academic freedom, seeing as how one of the Palestinian strategies for years now has been to deny academic freedom to Israelis and anyone who doesn’t hate Israel. They call it “academic boycotts.” What hypocrisy!

    • Your depiction of a “Palestinian strategy…to deny academic freedom to anyone who doesn’t hate Israel” is misleading and untrue.
      In fact, to quote the original call for BDS, “To end this complicity in Israel’s violations of international law, Palestinian civil society has called for an academic boycott of complicit Israeli academic institutions.” In other words, rightfully following BDS is not to bar all Israelis, Jews, or those who “don’t hate Israel” from speaking, but to instead symbolically steer away from booking academic institutions and representatives who are explicitly sponsored by the State of Israel.

      • Reflect on your experience in Atshan’s class. Do you really think he offered an unbiased perspective, or did he have an agenda?

  3. Always found Sa’ed to have balanced views and am very glad he is now teaching at Swarthmore. The college could hardly have a better representative of its ideals and focus on social justice

  4. I second the above comment. Hard to believe the writers of this article are really for academic freedom and not just for academic freedom when they agree with the positions. Also, the obscurantism about BDS in this article is silly. Atshan is a very active supporter of BDS. In fact, he routinely says that he wants a one state solution.

  5. It is so sad that so often a top-down intervention on schools and campuses prevents speakers express and discuss narratives of Palestinian resistance. It is as though such narratives are threatening to the power structures that sustain the hierarchies of the status quo.

  6. Hi Phoenix! Great editorial. Thank you for standing up for your professor and providing a thoughtful commentary on the situation at FCS.
    You have a typo in the second sentence. ‘An elite… schools’ also I believe that Swarthmore is historically, but not currently Quaker. I.E. – not under the care of the Swarthmore Meeting. Contrast to Haverford College that is currently Quaker.
    All the best, a fellow Swattie.

  7. I am incredibly grateful for Professor Atshan and all that he brings to the classroom, the College, and the world. He brings incredible nuance, understanding, and empathy to every discussion, something that can sometimes be very difficult and always is very admirable. He has had such a positive impact on so many students, the Peace & Conflict Studies Program, and the College as a whole. As a student at Swarthmore College, as a Peace & Conflict Studies major, and as an advisee of Professor Atshan, I know that my education (and truly my life) would be so much sorrier without him in it.

  8. Anyone who condemns Professor Atshan as a “leader in the BDS movement” or “anti-Israel” has not truly engaged with his classes, opinions, or work in depth. I have taken multiple classes wth Professor Atshan, and have engaged at length with his personal views on the Occupation. There is no scholar I trust more to bear the great responsibility of teaching students about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I wholeheartedly believe that Professor Atshan represents a kind of fairness and humanization that we all should aspire to be more like. I look forward to continue being inspired by his hope, optimism, and wisdom. Thank you Professor Atshan, I would not be the same without you.

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