As scholars of the Middle East and North Africa at Swarthmore College, we are deeply disappointed by the public letter issued by President Valerie Smith on Oct. 10, 2023 titled “Violence in the Middle East.” In the letter, Smith denounced the “horrific attacks by Hamas against the people of Israel” that took place a few days earlier yet ignored decades of systematic violence, dispossession, and apartheid to which Palestinians have been subjected by the Israeli state and military. Such violations have been extensively documented by major human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem. The president’s one-sided condemnation and failure to mention the Israeli occupation of Palestine stands in stark contrast to her unequivocal denunciation of the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine in 2022. This double standard effectively contributes to the dehumanization of Palestinians in American public discourse. We are heartbroken that our historically Quaker institution appears to be assigning unequal values to different groups of people rather than showing equal concern for all human beings. We are devastated by the loss of life in Palestine/Israel and believe all unarmed civilians should be protected.
The letter was reproduced in the ‘Minding the Light’ newsletter — which students, faculty, staff, and alumni received on Oct. 19 — even after it was widely reported that Israel was committing war crimes against Palestinians. At the time, more than 3,000 Palestinians (including 1,000 children) in Gaza had been killed by Israeli bombardment, with the full backing of the Biden administration. Meanwhile, the Israeli army had ordered more than one million Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza and blocked the delivery of food, water, medicine, and fuel to the entire population of the strip. This is a cruel act of collective punishment that human rights groups and humanitarian organizations describe as a clear violation of international law. All of this happened in the context of a brutal, sixteen-year siege that has effectively turned Gaza into what human rights groups have routinely described as an open-air prison. According to the U.N.’s humanitarian office, attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers following the Hamas incursion resulted in the deadliest week for Palestinians in the West Bank since the office began reporting fatalities. In the lead-up to Israel’s current military assault, Israeli politicians, journalists, and public figures had openly made calls to destroy Palestinian society — including the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s declaration on Oct. 9 that his army is “fighting human animals” in Gaza. For these reasons, human rights advocates, lawyers, scholars, and U.N. experts have warned about the Israeli government’s intent to commit ethnic cleansing and/or genocide against the Palestinian people.
As scholars of the Middle East and North Africa, we are concerned about the global rise of racism, including antisemitism. We believe that our college’s official stance on Palestine/Israel contributes to rising anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. As reported by many news outlets, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims have drastically increased in recent years. Just last week, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was stabbed to death in his home in Illinois.
We reject the national climate of intimidation and censorship from donors and outside forces that aim to restrict the ability of faculty and students to engage critically with the realities of the Middle East and its diasporic communities. We are committed to advancing rigorous knowledge production about the Middle East and to ensuring that our classrooms remain welcoming places to students of all backgrounds. We therefore call upon the administration to refrain from engaging in any further one-sided discourse. Every member of our community should feel that they belong and that they are equally valued at Swarthmore.
Tariq al-Jamil, Associate Professor of Religion
Khaled Al-Masri, Associate Professor of Arabic
Sa’ed Atshan, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Anthropology
Megan Brown, Associate Professor of History
Farha Ghannam, Eugene M. Lang Research Professor of Anthropology
Alexandra Gueydan-Turek, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies
Ahmad Shokr, Assistant Professor of History
Benjamin Smith, Assistant Professor of Arabic