Counterprogramming Allegations Display Campus Divisions over Palestine, Israel

Events held at Swarthmore, such as Former United States Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s talk, have been accused by students of being a counterprogramming effort by the college. Protestors at the talk cited the support of the event by the Provost’s Office as evidence that the administration is working to quell pro-Palestinian voices. The Phoenix obtained video of Vice President for Student Affairs Stephanie Ives and President Val Smith discussing the topic of counterprogramming at a “Swarthmore In Your City” alumni event that occurred back in November 2023, before the Student Palestine Coalition (SPC) sit-in resulting in disciplinary action. The audio – included in the online version of this article – has been cited as further evidence of counterprogramming. The audio is transcribed and edited for clarity below.

“The rallies on campus have been Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) rallies, so we are creating counterprogramming, meaning other spaces on campus specifically for Jewish students and anyone else who is upset about [the SJP rallies], to give them spaces to come together as a community — we are trying to be more forthright in creating safer spaces for students when distressing campus activism is happening,” Ives said.

In a statement to The Phoenix, Ives clarified her comments on counterprogramming at the alumni event.

“At an event in the fall, President Smith and I were asked what the college is doing to support Jewish and pro-Israeli students during pro-Palestinian protest activities. Our response confirmed that programming had been offered by the Interfaith Center and the local Chabad to give Jewish and pro-Israeli students a place to be in community with one another if the protest activity upset them,” Ives said.  “This statement has been misinterpreted to mean that ‘the administration’ was acting in bad faith to create programs that would challenge or undermine pro-Palestinian events. This is absolutely false.  In fact, I and other members of the administration have been attending as many of the events hosted by faculty and students across the political and ideological spectrum as possible in support of free expression and in the spirit of learning from others.”

Associate Professor of Economics Syon Bhanot, the organizer for both talks, reiterated that he invited Ambassador Kurtzer to campus with no input from the administration.  

“People will think I’m lying or that I’m in some cabal with the administration. Conspiracy theories can flourish… You know, I’m not part of the administration. I have no interest in the administration, and I have no desire to be part of the administration here on campus,” Bhanot said. “What I’ve basically been accused of by some students is that we’re in cahoots and the administration is supporting this.”

Associate Professor of English Sangina Patnaik explained that she attempted to reach out to Ives about her comments on counterprogramming on campus. 

“I reached out to Stephanie Ives when I heard last fall that she had requested that ‘we’ — which I assumed to mean the college — counter-program in response to pro-Palestine rallies on campus. She replied that such programming was intended to support Jewish and pro-Israeli students. At the time, I emailed back to say that it seemed imperative to recognize that U.S. Jews are feeling many ways about the violence in Gaza such that they can’t be conflated with pro-Israel students in the way that she suggests,” Patnaik said. “Many people are upset — not just students who are upset about the protests but also students who are mourning the dead and afraid for the people they love — and we need to support them, too. I said that it seemed important to be clear both internally and externally that we are offering support services for all students. I never received a response.”

Patnaik, who helped to organize the “South Africa to Gaza: World History and the Politics of Accountability” series, also shared that the Provost’s Office had declined to fund the series. The series invited an array of speakers on campus to provide insight into the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) deliberation on the genocide case against Israel. It was sponsored by eleven academic departments as well as the Aydelotte Foundation, The President’s Fund for Racial Justice, Swarthmore College Libraries, and the Intercultural Center.

“It was disappointing since the Provost’s Office typically provides funding for lecturers who faculty bring to campus,” Patnaik said. “Meanwhile, emails I received about Ambassador Kurtzer’s event stated that it was ‘supported by’ and ‘organized with’ the Provost’s Office.”

In a statement to The Phoenix, the Provost’s Office explained their decision to decline to provide funding for the series. Acting-Co-President and Provost and Dean of Faculty Tomoko Sakomura explained that the Provost’s Office believed that the series’ funding from multiple departments and centers, including the President’s Fund for Racial Justice, “was well-suited for the initiative and importantly, may have been able to fully support the requested cost in a way that the Provost budget could not.”

However, representatives from SJP found Ives’ comments as an example of the administration targeting the group. The college initiated code of conduct investigations against members of the group for their protest activities last fall.

“This language of ‘distressing student activism’ is crazy. We are literally just saying that our city, our state, our government, and Swarthmore as an institution is funding a genocide — is funding the bombs that are being dropped on Gaza,” the representative from SJP said. “It’s not even just in that one statement. It’s also the fact that warnings were issued threatening student activists to disengage from any form of activism… there have been so many verbal threats made from administration to student activists advocating for Palestine telling them to stop what they are doing…This video, just like so many of their words, proves that they’re trying to appease and appeal to Zionist pressures on and off campus and are actively trying to suppress anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine students.”

The Provost’s Office provided funding for the “Israel, Palestine, and the Old-New Middle East ” talk on March 20 by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer and a lecture by the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Jon Alterman on “An Array of Bad Options: U.S. Policy In Gaza, Israel, Iran, and The Changing Middle East” on March 28. 

“What that statement [by Ives] means is that the administration is taking it upon themselves to create a space that promotes a counter-narrative when they see a student body that is advocating against genocide,” a representative from SJP said in response to the video. “It’s ‘How do we create a space for people that don’t want to acknowledge a genocide or if people want to spread misinformation and propaganda that goes against what is happening in Gaza right now?’ They can do that safely within that space, away from students participating in this activism.”

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