Two teachers were suspended indefinitely from Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia for supervising a club that invited a Palestinian speaker to campus.
Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa were called into a meeting by head of school Craig Sellers and were told they would be suspended indefinitely for disobeying a supervisor and for taking a “single-minded approach to a complicated issue for the community,” according to Mark Schwartz, the attorney for both teachers. Schwartz was not allowed to attend the meeting.
Eure and Helwa were banned from campus and their emails were deactivated, Philly.com reported on Feb. 13.
Sa’ed Atshan, a pacifist, Quaker and a Swarthmore College professor had been invited to speak by the Peace and Equality in Palestine Club. After learning about the event, several parents and students allegedly complained to the administration citing Atshan’s views on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) movement—a nonviolent means of applying economic pressure on Israel to end its human rights violations.
According to Schwartz, the school had approved the Palestinian speaker’s attendance and an honorarium before they canceled the event and suspended the teachers.
His clients seek to return to work Friends’ Central School, have their legal expenses paid for and for the school to apologize to Atshan and re-invite him to speak at the school.
As of press time, Schwartz has not received a response to his clients demands.
On Feb. 13th, the school released the following statement:
As a Quaker school, we have long-standing expectations for all members of our community – especially for our teachers, who have the responsibility of guiding young minds. There are very real concerns about the conduct of Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa for their disregard of our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace, and integrity. As of today, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa are on indefinite paid administrative leave while a more extensive review is conducted.
This wasn’t the first time that Eure and Helwa had encountered a backlash from the school for supporting Palestinian human rights. Last September, just after the Peace and Equality in Palestine Club posted its mission statement, the school took it down within six hours. This time, however, in response to the speaking event cancellation, the students fought back. About 65 students walked out of a weekly meeting in protest. Also, they later organized a meeting to discuss their concerns with teachers and then marched to the school gym carrying signs that read, amongst other things, “My Voice Will Not Be Silenced.”
While the suspension of Eure and Helwa is the most recent example of silencing Palestinian voices in an academic setting, it is by no means unique. For instance, in 2014, Columbia College in Chicago canceled a class section on Palestine taught by Professor Iymen Chehade citing lack of enrollment as their pretense. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that not only was the section filling up, there was a waiting list to get in. The school claimed that it had received complaints from a student about bias after Chehade screened a Palestinian documentary depicting life under occupation. The administration wouldn’t disclose the name of the complainant and insisted that Chehade take a more “balanced” approach to the conflict. After much protest and an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures, Columbia College reinstated two sections of the class for the following semester.
Similarly, in the summer of 2014, during Israel’s onslaught against the besieged Gaza Strip, Professor Steven Salaita was fired, from a position he hadn’t started yet at the University of Illinois. The university cited the professor’s tweets opposing Israel’s attack as the reason for his termination. Salaita was never reinstated but his termination drew sharp condemnation on an international scale and resulted in a lawsuit against the university.
Such regulation of speech is common according to Rima Kapitan, a Chicago civil rights attorney, especially as it pertains to Palestine and Israel. Because such regulations are usually based on subjective evidence, such as the student complaints referenced herein, they are especially subject to abuse.
Administrators tend to use civility regulations “to selectively go after unpopular professors and students, dissidents, whistleblowers, non-conformists, and others who are perceived as threats to the establishment, whether by virtue of their identities or speech,” Kapitan said.
In the case of Israel and Palestine, abuses by administrators become even more obvious because anyone who seeks to expose students to Israeli human and civil rights violations against Palestinians is deemed inherently uncivil.
In this case, the Friends’ Central Schools’ statement that the suspended teachers took a “single-minded” approach to this issue is nothing more than a call for “balance” and an attempt to curtail speech about Palestine. It also creates the illusion of symmetry between the colonizer and the colonized.
Kapitan said it is never required in other contexts to balance the viewpoint of the oppressed with that of the oppressor. Would a speaker against racial segregation, for instance, need to be balanced with speakers in favor of Jim Crow laws? Of course, not. Likewise, the same standard should apply to equality for Palestinians.
Schwartz told Palestine in America, shortly after the suspension of the teachers, students covered Seller’s door with Post-its expressing their outrage and demanding the teachers’ return.
Schwartz emphasized that many in the community, including many in the Jewish community, are outraged by the school’s cancellation of Atshan’s speaking event and view Sellers as an “autocrat.”
Palestine in America reached out to Sellers for comment but has received no response.