Swarthmore Faculty on Academic Freedom and the Gaza Crisis

Drafted: December 11, 2023

As faculty members at Swarthmore College, we are deeply concerned about the erosion of academic freedom in the United States, particularly in regards to the ongoing crisis in Gaza. Over the past few weeks, we have learned that our administration has made several attempts to discourage, intimidate, and/or silence pro-Palestine speech on campus. According to reports by students and faculty, college officials have warned specific students about their activism via personally-directed emails; they have selectively enforced rules concerning flyering, postering, and/or demonstrating on campus; they have privately requested that specific instructors refrain from moving their classes to the site of an ongoing sit-in, even if they do so at the request and/or with the unanimous consent of their students; and they have reassured alumni that the college will pursue “counter-programming” in response to support for Palestine. These deterrence measures have the effect of frightening faculty and students alike from engaging in legitimate and non-violent freedom of expression, and they have set a worrying precedent for future events and conflicts.

We are alarmed by the use of such tactics at a time when academic institutions should reaffirm their commitment to free speech. Speaking to the renewed debates about academic freedom since Oct. 7, Princeton professor Keith Whittington has recently suggested that colleges may either “reaffirm their core principles on free speech and academic freedom,” or “bow to political pressure and double down on an ethos of safetyism and a machinery of speech surveillance and suppression.” In its latest statement, the American Association of University Professors has similarly insisted that college officials “resist demands from politicians, trustees, donors, students and their parents, alumni, or other parties to punish faculty members for exercising [their academic] freedom.” We therefore urge our administration to refrain from joining a nationwide campaign, reminiscent of McCarthyism, against colleges and universities that aims to crack down on thought, speech, and actions that are critical of Israel.

All members of our campus community must be able to freely express themselves during such a pivotal moment in history. The suggestion that the classroom is not a political space or that the College is a neutral institution that is in some way hermetically sealed from our broader geopolitical context contradicts the College’s commitment to rigorous scholarship that engages with the most pressing contemporary issues. This fantasy also obscures the College’s ongoing complicity with U.S. militarism. Public protests and sit-ins can be generative spaces for deliberating about issues of justice, ethics, and policy, and for reminding us that our pedagogy is inextricably embedded in a wider material reality. In the present context, they are particularly important for giving students room to voice their sincere concerns regarding the Israeli military assault on Gaza and their desire for better understanding this world-historical event. 

This moment calls for moral and intellectual courage. The scale of destruction and human suffering that is currently unfolding in Gaza has almost no precedent in Palestine/Israel. According to U.S. military historian Robert Pape, Gaza will “go down as a place name denoting one of history’s heaviest conventional bombing campaigns.” An investigation by +972 magazine has found that Israel’s use of both artificial intelligence and unrestrained airstrikes on civilian targets have turned Gaza into a “mass assassination factory” that has resulted in “one of the deadliest military campaigns against Palestinians since the Nakba of 1948.” An Israeli newspaper found that the ratio of civilians killed in Gaza is “significantly higher than the average civilian toll in all the conflicts around the world during the 20th century.” More children have been killed in Gaza than the annual totals for children killed in all of the world’s conflict zones for the past three years. These realities and the justifications presented for them by Israeli leaders have led hundreds of scholars, lawyers, and U.N. experts to warn about the Israeli government’s intent to commit genocide against the Palestinian people. All of this has unfolded with unconditional support from the Biden administration, which recently stood alone in vetoing a ceasefire resolution at the U.N. Security Council that was backed by more than 100 countries around the world.

In light of these catastrophic circumstances, we urge the college administration to protect the academic freedom of both students and faculty and to abstain from any intimidation or threats of disciplinary action against them. The statements from administration and faculty alike constitute an archive that, in the years to come, will reflect our institution’s stance in this pivotal moment. It is our conviction that Palestine cannot be an exception to academic freedom.

Signed (list organized alphabetically and by rank):

  1. Khaled Al-Masri, Modern Languages & Literatures–Arabic
  2. Farid Azfar, History
  3. Peter Baumann, Philosophy
  4. Betsy Bolton, English and Environmental Studies
  5. Megan Brown, History
  6. Pallabi Chakravorty, Dance
  7. David Cohen, Physics & Astronomy
  8. Lara Cohen, English Literature
  9. Anthony S. Foy, English Literature and Black Studies
  10. Farha Ghannam, Sociology & Anthropology
  11. Brian Goldstein, Art & Art History
  12. Alexandra Gueydan-Turek, Modern Languages & Literatures–French
  13. K. David Harrison, Linguistics 
  14. Steven Hopkins, Religion
  15. Nina Johnson, Sociology & Anthropology and Black Studies 
  16. Edwin Mayorga, Educational Studies 
  17. Maya Nadkarni, Sociology & Anthropology
  18. Chinelo Okparanta, English Literature
  19. Lei X Ouyang, Music and Asian American Studies 
  20. Sangina Patnaik, English Literature 
  21. Christy Schuetze, Sociology & Anthropology
  22. Lisa Smulyan, Educational Studies
  23. Jonathan Washington, Linguistics
  24. Sabeen Ahmed, Philosophy
  25. Thamyris Almeida, Latin American and Latino Studies 
  26. Alejandra Azuero-Quijano, Sociology & Anthropology
  27. Mike Wilson Becceril, Peace & Conflict Studies 
  28. Adrienne Benally, Environmental Studies
  29. Paloma Checa-Gismero, Art & Art History
  30. Varun Khanna, Classics and Asian Studies 
  31. Roseann Liu, Asian American Studies and Educational Studies 
  32. James Padilioni, Religion and Environmental Studies
  33. Prea Persaud, Religion
  34. Jennifer Phuong, Educational Studies
  35. Salvador Rangel, Sociology & Anthropology
  36. Moriel Rothman-Zecher, English Literature
  37. Ahmad Shokr, History
  38. Benjamin Smith, Modern Language & Literatures–Arabic 
  39. Tracey Mia Stewart, Music
  40. Suzy Thornton, Mathematics & Statistics 
  41. Vivian Truong, History 


  1. I’m one of a large segment of the faculty that was not asked to sign this letter nor even shown it in draft form. Please note that this letter does not speak for the whole faculty. In fact, there are many faculty members who would not sign this, because they disagree with many aspects of it. It also misrepresents many of the conversations/guidance given to us on this topic at our most recent faculty meeting.

  2. It needs to work both ways. No more harassment of professors, invited lecturers and students who support Israel. And no more destruction of posters of Israeli and American hostages held by Hamas.

  3. As a new alumna, I commend these faculty members for their solidarity and conviction. I urge other members of the faculty with the power and privilege to speak out on *the* issue of their time to join in solidarity and add their names.

  4. It is terrible that the authors of this statement have misled the colleagues who were pressured to sign it. It is insane to argue that Swarthmore is hostile to Palestinian advocacy. In fact, pro-Israel communities are the silenced minority on campus.

    Some members of SJP celebrated the Oct 7 attack and openly support Hamas and killing Israelis. They have boasted about violating policies related to protest activities on campus which have created a hostile environment for many community members. Students have gone to the administration after professors coerced them to attending the Palestine sit-in during class time. The protestors have completely shut down the offices of staff in Parrish Hall with no end in sight. Protestors have also tried to shut down alternative forums for expression on Israel and Palestine.

    It is sad that the faculty who signed this statement expressed no concern for or commitment to the wellbeing of Jewish students. The good news is that the extreme opinions here represent merely a fraction of the Swarthmore faculty and the vast majority of professors at Swarthmore care deeply about all members of the community and do not agree with this shameful statement. Inevitably, once the record is made clear, a number of individuals who signed this statement will regret having done so.

    • Hey, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but there is an ongoing genocide of Palestinians happening. 20,000+ Palestinians have been murdered by the Israeli apartheid state and Swarthmore’s almost 3 billion dollar endowment is currently invested in that very same occupation that is genociding, displacing, and ethnically cleansing the Palestinian people. That is what should sadden and infuriate you. Not a peaceful sit-in held by students participating in their First Amendment right. It is absolutely disgusting that you choose to hide behind false accusations of anti-semitism to silence and repress Palestinian students and their allies on campus. And the fact that you’re openly threatening faculty who are courageously standing against apartheid is crazy. Have some shame.

      • Fatima–
        What saddens me is your bullying of Jewish students on campus. Yours is not the only viewpoint and I, for one, do not agree with the inflammatory way you have addressed the original post above. This is not an open hearted or acceptable way to communicate with a classmate.

    • Me when peacefully protesting against a settler-colonial genocidal apartheid state has “created a hostile environment for many community members” ),,,,,,,:

      Being pro-Palestine is not being anti-Jewish. Conflating Zionism with Judaism is what “Israel” wants you to do so that you can’t criticize the crimes against humanity that they are consistently committing. I implore you to educate yourself.

      • I don’t think you can get to decide whether a person feels they are in a hostile environment or not. I implore you to educate yourself.

      • Zionism is simply the belief that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland. That homeland is Israel. If you are anti-zionist, that means that you do not think that Israel has a right to exist and that is anti-Jewish.

  5. I agree with most of this letter, but I find some things to be confusing/contradictory.

    “Academic freedom” and “freedom of speech” are two different and related things, each of which have different limits, but limits nonetheless. Most of what this critiques are limits on student and faculty “freedom of speech,” not really academic freedom (a term generally associated with research.) This distinction matters because the limits of academic freedom and speech are different .

    I do think the administration has violated the free speech principles for students it has outlined in the Code of Conduct. As a private institution, we are not held under the First Amendment. However, even if we were held under the broader speech protections of the First Amendment, there are certain times activism on this campus has crossed this line, so a carte blanche to abstain from disciplinary action is inappropriate.

    Free speech does not include the ability to shout down other people; the 1A does not protect the heckler’s veto. Free speech does not mean you can interrupt a speaker’s talk with shouting and chanting and then chase him out afterwards.

    Frankly, I wonder how much of this letter is “free speech for me but not for thee.” After the sentence they quote of the Whittington article, which I also agreed with, Whittington writes, “They can embrace a posture of institutional neutrality and quit picking which political causes they will or will not endorse.” Do people support Val Smith never making public comment on Israel/Palestine again? I do!

    How many of the faculty and students supporting this letter would be fine with bringing Barak Mendelsohn back for a discussion? How about Bezalel Smotrich? Because freedom of speech does not go just in the way of the views you support. I’d argue freedom of speech is the most important to defend for people whose views you find disgusting and abhorrent, as I do for the aforementioned speakers.

    There is no free speech exception for speech that makes people horrified, disgusted, and even traumatized, for the most part. For the 1A, there is not free speech exception for “hate speech,” which is not a constitutionally recognized concept. Search up Skokie and Brandenburg. Even advocating for genocide is allowed under the 1A and most campus speech codes, contra to Elise Stefanik.

    Before you argue we have limits on speech for harassment prevention, see the 1999 opinion in Davis, which says “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit” and must be targeted to individuals. There is a difference between bringing Bezalel Smotrich to campus for a talk versus repeatedly shouting slurs at people wearing keffiyahs. Only of them is harassment — care to guess which one?

    Are we ready for “the college administration to protect the academic freedom of both students and faculty and to abstain from any intimidation or threats of disciplinary action against them.” and ensuing changes we need to free speech? Are we ready to not make Palestine not the “exception for academic freedom”? Academic freedom and free speech are two way streets; dialogues not monologues.

    I certainly am ready, and I sincerely hope the letter writers and their supporters are as well, but I have my doubts. Hoping for something better, though.

  6. These faculty have not only exaggerated and misconstrued the administration’s handling of their handbook-violating efforts to relocate their in-session classes, they are also playing a role in undermining the basic civic discourse expected of educated persons. Those rules and norms they wish to bust are the very guardrails that prevent obvious overreach and politicization, which can (and will) run the other way eventually. Then they will want the rules selectively enforced again; the current torching of their credibility and good faith will deeply undermine those future conflicts we are all but certain to face. Yes, dear authors, you have the right to speak your mind; and everyone else does too, which includes criticizing your arguments, and pointing out the obvious duplicity.

  7. Gaza is currently ruled by a small minority of violent men. There are has not been an election since 2006. There is a lack of free speech in Gaza, and some are even hung when seen as ‘collaborators of Israel.’ They steal international aid from the people of Gaza and use it to attack Israel constantly. For all the people calling for a ceasefire, Hamas has never followed ceasefire orders ever. There has not been a year where rockets weren’t fired into Tel Aviv. If Israel stopped fighting, Hamas would only keep attacking and would hinder the rebuilding of Gaza. There will only be peace and the lives of the Gazans will only improve once Hamas is out of power. If you truly care for their lives call on Egypt to take refugees. Just remember that Egypt was also a collaborator in what people call the ‘open air prison.’ Gaza was not always that way. There used to be free movement between the strip and Israel until came the Intifadas and their waves of violence. And when Hamas came to power things became even worse. It is an undisputed fact that it is the Jewish people’s homeland. There is archeological evidence, written history, and there have been genetic tests done on Jews from different parts of the world showing links in their DNA. From the river to the sea their are 7 million Arabs and 7 million Jews and they aren’t going anywhere so the conflict is going to have to be solved by compromise and Hamas isn’t willing to do that. Israel is. Just remember that Israel is the only country to ever give the Palestinians any land. The Jordanians didn’t, the Egyptians didn’t. And let’s address that term Palestine. No one called themselves Palestinians before the 1960s. The flag was created in the 60s and so was the PLO. When the Jews started returning to their ancestral homeland in the lates 1800s it was a sparsely populated area of Arabs ruled over by Istanbul. When it came time to split the land the Jews accepted and the Arabs attacked. (The deal was very fair, most of the land the Jews got was desert. The Arab state got a majority of the arable land.) Palestine is the colonial name for the area, a name given by the Romans and later used by the British. No person who lived there ever fervently identified as a Palestinian before the 20th century. I am not opposed to there being a Palestinian state, but the claim that Israel was this colonial force that came in and destroyed a Palestinian nation and culture that had been there for 1000s of years and needs to be taken out by any means necessary is a false narrative that leaves no room for negotiation. You can be critical of Netanyahu, I very much am, but calling out From the River to Sea and Resistance is Justified helps no one. Just remember that if Hamas put down its guns the lives of Gazans would only improve, if Israel did there would be a second Holocaust. The most best thing to now is to call on Egypt to let in refugees and to pray for a better future for the people of Gaza.

  8. “The suggestion that the classroom is not a political space…contradicts the College’s commitment to rigorous scholarship that engages with the most pressing contemporary issues.”

    The fury over the conflict between Israel and Hamas has blinded these faculty members from the core mission of of Swarthmore “to provide learners of diverse backgrounds a transformative liberal arts education.”

    If the classroom becomes political space, then how can students intellectually or politically differ from these Professors without fear of receiving a bad grade? Does mimicry lead to rigorous scholarship?

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