Swarthmore Middle East and North Africa Faculty Statement on Violence in Palestine/Israel

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 


    • “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.” How can a student disagree with one of these professors and hope to get a good grade in their class? Is mimicry part of a robust liberal arts education?

  1. President Smith’s letter acknowledged the 1400 Israelis and foreign citizens who were murdered and several hundred more who were raped and kidnapped by Hamas. Nothing more or less. The MENA faculty ignore this simple fact in their desperate search for moral equivalence, similar to Putin’s tirade on the eve of invading Ukraine.

    There are never two sides to murder, rape and kidnapping, yet these professors are blaming the victims, most of whom have nothing to do with the Israeli government or policy. Do you deserve to be murdered, raped or kidnapped for living in Trump’s America from 2017-2021?

    Like the governments of many MENA countries, Hamas is holding the Palestinian cause and people of Gaza hostage. Jihadism and violent resistance are not Quaker values. Wahhabism is not a Progressive value. Swarthmore would not exist under Hamas rule and speaking with moral clarity against Hamas is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s about basic human decency.

  2. The letter by eight Middle East and North Africa (MENA) scholars at Swarthmore seriously misreads the President Smith’s statement. Look again the president’s statement, and compare it to the tendentious and inaccurate caricature by Professor al-Jamil and colleagues:

    1) President Smith wrote, “Words cannot capture the grief many of us are feeling in the wake of this weekend’s horrific attacks by Hamas against the people of Israel and the resulting violence that is inflicting pain and suffering on innocent Israelis and Palestinians. I hope you will join me in holding in the light all of the victims, their families and loved ones.”

    MENA scholars responded, “… our historically Quaker institution appears to be assigning unequal values to different groups of people rather than showing equal concern for all human beings.”

    * These scholars patently ignore the very words used by President Smith when she invoked “innocent Israelis and Palestinians… all of the victims, their families and loved ones”

    2) President Smith wrote, “[N]o individual office, department, or student group speaks for, or on behalf of, the College. For those of you who engage on these issues, I implore you to honor our shared commitment to peace, equity, and inclusion.”

    MENA scholars responded, “… our college’s official stance on Palestine/Israel contributes to rising anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.”

    * Once again, the MENA scholars blatantly ignore President Smith’s actual message. She explicitly disavows any unitary and official College stance on the Palestine/Israel conflict.

    3) Finally, President Smith wrote, “As we move toward an uncertain future, I urge you to treat each other and those affected by this violence with grace, compassion, and empathy.”

    MENA scholars responded, “We therefore call upon the administration to refrain from engaging in any further one-sided discourse.”

    * The MENA scholars evidently cannot grasp the meaning of grace, compassion and empathy. Embodying these virtues would help all sides transcend the prevailing one-sided discourses (based on simplistic oppositions between perpetrators and victims, oppressors and the oppressed). But there is a more dire possibility. The MENA scholars may know full well what compassion and empathy mean, but they reject such values because they undercut their own one-sided partisan account of what caused the current violence.

    During my college years at Swarthmore (class of 1981), I internalized the Quaker ethos of searching for zones of consensus even in the most bitter conflict. President’ Smith’s wrote her statement in that spirit. Sadly, the MENA scholars’ response just pours more fuel on the fire.

  3. This statement misreads President Smith’s letter. The letter alludes to the attack by Hamas on Israel, but it’s not really about the attack. It’s a direct response to the celebration of civilian deaths by some Swarthmore students. Antisemitism runs rampant at Swarthmore, at President Smith felt compelled to address it.

    This letter was sent in the wake of a massive poster campaign, in which QR codes were plastered on every campus bulletin board directing students to a letter openly celebrating Hamas’s killing of 1400 Israelis. If a QR code were posted on every campus bulletin board celebrating Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians, I’m sure President Smith would fully condemn such actions.

    The statement by the MENA faculty argues that in the wake of this Hamas attack, we need to understand the context of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip. However, the statement fails to situate President Smith’s letter in the context of Swarthmore. It pretends that President Smith’s three-paragraph letter was meant to be an authoritative analysis of 75 years of history. The letter was meant as a response to antisemitism: nothing more, nothing less.

  4. The replies by Paul Brodwin and Charles Grabois offer welcome clarity regarding the context and the limitations of what President Smith’s statement is about. It reflects an appropriate condemnation of one particular appalling act of mass murder of civilians in response to an outpouring of misplaced support for it. It does not endeavor to delve into the historical background that has led to this catastrophic situation, nor to discuss the possible ramifications of the Israeli response. It does appropriately express concern for the lives and safety of both Israelis and Palestinians. The legitimacy of the Israeli response and of its policies toward the Palestinians, both highly disturbing and contentious, is not the subject of this statement

  5. As a member of the Swarthmore Community, I’m proud to see yo stand up for what is right. Ignore the genocide deniers in the comments.

  6. The MENA “ scholars “ letter is canned propaganda claptrap jargon. Swarthmore needs actual scholars on its faculty, consistent with Swarthmore’s previous ( but not current ) reputation.

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