David Boonin: Letter to the Editor

Editor’s Note: David Boonin is a member of the Swarthmore Borough Council.

To the editor,

As a local elected official, several residents of Swarthmore voiced concern to me about the pro-Palestinian encampment at Swarthmore College. I was hearing that Jewish students were being made to feel uncomfortable. I needed to see things for myself, as a private citizen and long-time advocate of free speech and the rights and freedom of all.

My pre-visit view was that a Quaker school is a perfect place for an anti-war protest. I supported their general concept of divestiture by the college from war profiteers, but not necessarily anything on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) list. As for the discomfort Jewish students, my pre-visit opinion was that every human being should be uncomfortable with most of Bibi Netanyahu’s military policies in Gaza and the West Bank.

Upon arrival, I found a tranquil mood at the encampment. I did not like the use of the word genocide on one of the signs. A protester engaged me and I shared my general support and my disagreement with the term genocide. I suggested civilian massacre; even murder. I felt unheard. We agreed to disagree on this nomenclature issue.

I mentioned being a long-time advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East. By now, two other protesters had joined the conversation. The conservation devolved. They wanted a single-state solution, with a monocultural self-ruled Palestinian state. When I asked where that single-state would be, they stated, “From the river to the sea.” They understood that this was more than a trope. They understood that this meant the elimination of Israel, yet somehow did not consider this to rise to genocide. As reprehensible as Bibi’s policies are, I told them that this circa 1960s “river to the sea” concept is much more genocidal than what is occurring in Gaza and hateful to many in their community. This is where being anti-Israeli governmental policies becomes antisemitism. This is hate speech.

If this is a typical discourse with a would-be supporter, then hate is replacing the quest for peace on the college’s campus. Based upon this limited interaction, I believe that the college needs to do more to protect Jewish students and employees and to require zero tolerance for any hate by all.

David Boonin


  1. Thank you for writing this letter and expressing the frustration of those who try to engage in constructive dialogue with people on the pro-palestine side. They do not want peace between Israel and its neighbors, they just want Israel gone.

    • It is absolutely mind-baffling to describe a civil conversation – one in which no one was physically harmed or even personally threatened – as being worse than an ongoing, indiscriminate genocide of well over 30,000 people. This comment is so detached from any form of reality that I seriously question whether you are someone who genuinely enjoys watching humanitarian crises unfold, or just another internet troll.

  2. The word “peace” is noticeably missing from the slogans. This is further evidence of just how divorced Swarthmore is from its Quaker ‘roots,’ which are well and truly withered and dead by now. The existence of a Peace and Conflict studies program is nice, but it’s not having much impact. For evidence of real impact, look only to the composition of the board of managers: mostly people in high finance and adjacent industries (e.g., big law firms). Maybe it’s time to re-think the mission.

  3. It’s quite unproductive to throw around accusations of hate speech based on paraphrased interpretations of conversation. For instance, genocide denial is also a form of hate speech, and people could throw these accusations right back at you, and all hope of productive discourse would evaporate. And about that, according to the Wikipedia entry on “Allegations of genocide in the 2023 Israeli attack on Gaza,” we find that, “In an interim ruling, the International Court of Justice found Israel was operating under plausible intent to commit genocide and ordered Israel to observe its obligations under the Genocide Convention by taking all measures within its power to prevent the commission of acts of genocide, to prevent and punish incitement to genocide, and to allow basic humanitarian services into Gaza.”

    So officially, according to the International Court of Justice, we’re at “plausible intent to commit genocide.” It’s not really a minor quibble. It’s important enough of an idea to take to the International Court for Justice. Terms like apartheid and genocide mean something, and they carry with them a heavy weight and moral obligation for the international community to stand up to anyone perpetrating them.

    The people who are definitely not committing genocide are protestors demanding divestment. Whatever you allege about the opinions of individuals you encountered on your campus tour, the SPC organization has demanded that “Swarthmore College divests all of its finances, including its endowment, from companies that profit off of the Israeli apartheid regime.” They’re protesting Swarthmore College’s administration and have issued specific demands that the administration can either address or ignore.

    Early in your piece you stated, “I supported their general concept of divestiture by the college from war profiteers, but not necessarily anything on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) list.” That sounds like there is some common ground that you could perhaps build on. Regarding that, what do you think the administration should do? The ball is in their court right now.

    And when you instead ignore the content of the protestors’ demands and counter with your own opinion of what the administration should do, that “the college needs to do more to protect Jewish students and employees and to require zero tolerance for any hate by all,” what exactly are you calling for? Have you seen the scenes coming out of other colleges and universities that resulted in calls for “zero tolerance” of the protestors there? Do you want an outcome akin to the NYPD storming the campus and making mass arrests as we saw at Columbia? Do you want “counterprotestors” to attack the encampment with fireworks and pepper spray as we saw at UCLA?

    You made some attacks against Netanyahu. What do you think, should Swarthmore College invest in companies that arm and support his regime, or not? Take Northrop Grumann for instance. They’re on the Quaker-founded AFSC’s divestment list (https://investigate.afsc.org/company/northrop-grumman). Their rationale: “It manufactures multiple weapon systems used by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians, and was instrumental in developing ICE’s deportation machine.” They provide extensive documentation about this in their entry.

    American Friends Service Committee opposes all forms of state violence, and their divestment list, which includes everything on BDS and much more, reflects that. Would it be so bad for a school that touts its Quaker values to divest according to a Nobel Peace prize winning, Quaker-founded social justice organization’s criteria? Here’s the Holocaust Museum’s entry about Quakers, which includes information about the AFSC’s activities in World War II, so you can get an idea of what this organization is about and what it has always been about: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/quakers.

  4. Ben – I find lots to agree with in your response to my LTE. However, there was nothing paraphrased about the protestors demanding a single Palestinian state from the river to the sea. That is where I said things devolved from a constructive dialogue into hate speech.

    • OK. We disagree about that being hate speech, even if we agree constructive dialogue is unlikely when operating from such disparate basic premises regarding the merits of a two-state vs. one-state solution. We probably disagree also on claims of genocide. I am not going to call you a genocide denier or accuse you of hate speech because of that though. I give you the benefit of the doubt that’s not your intention (there are certain GOP Senators I do not give that same benefit of the doubt, by the way). Same with the protestors. I give them the benefit of the doubt that their usage of that slogan is not rooted in hate, but rather a set of beliefs about the history of Palestine.

      I am probably, if I had to guess, a lot more left-wing than you. I quite despise cops beating protestors, administrators threatening and suspending students, and militaries conducting air strikes that result in civilian casualties, including even food relief workers. I disapprove of inequality and apartheid, which is what I see when I look at Gaza. I see devastating poverty and apartheid conditions. Maybe you see it differently.

      Regardless, I would hope that with sufficient political will all Palestinian and Israeli people could peacefully coexist (can you imagine how powerful that would be?), but absolutely no solution–neither one-state nor two-state–is going to emerge from the current trajectory of things. I believe that, at a fundamental level, campus protestors are calling for a change in the status quo precisely because the status quo is so clearly a failure. And it’s US-made planes carrying out those air strikes.

      • We are closer than you think. There are many nuances that need to be addressed and words matter. Some phrases drive people further apart, rather than building bridges to concensus. Hopefully, we can all agree that Hamas’ actions on October 7 and Israel’s lack of regard for civilian life are both counterproductive to finding sustainable peace.

  5. Protesters on both sides of this issue have a sense of moral clarity that doesn’t exist. In this case, there’s an insistence on the idea that Israel is a villain, while Palestinians are heroes. And, among plenty, vice versa. Reality is, of course, much more complicated. This conflict is about a swath of territory that many groups have had competing claims to for well over a millennium. It’s about the right of one particular insular minority to self-determination that, for some unknown (but not really unknown) reason gets elevated as the root of all evil. It’s about the right of another group to live with dignity and self-determination. And it’s about the existence of antagonistic forces on either side that have no regard for the humanity of the other.

    Unfortunately, many left-activists here have taken the position that the issue isn’t suffering. Rather, the issue is that the wrong people are suffering. The attitude here very much reflects that. And while students should maintain sharp moral compasses, they should also take a second to listen. There’s a tendency for people on each “side” not to do enough of that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading