More on the astonishing case of the Barnard College administration taking down a pro-Palestinian banner two weeks ago. A great deal has been published about the case, including on our site this morning. Here are three more selections, followed by the entirety of a calm and forceful letter from Katherine Franke, director of the center for gender and sexuality law at Columbia Law School, to the Barnard president over the matter.
First, two members of Students for Justice in Palestine, Shezza Abboushi Dallal and Feride Eralp, wrote in the Columbia Spectator that Barnard had responded reflexively to pro-Israel student’s complaints:
[Hillel’s Seffi] Kogen [who complained to the Barnard administration] and others accuse SJP of attempting to “erase Israel off of the map.” It is important to remember that real “erasure” requires bulldozers, tanks, white phosphorus, reserve armies, and concrete walls that divide communities. We attend a university that is invested in a myriad of companies, from G4S (a private security company), to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Caterpillar, that provide Israel with these tools of erasure…
The fact that Barnard has silenced SJP in this unprecedented way in response to “discomfort” does not bode well for the future of critical thought on this campus.
Two days ago, Barnard president Debora Spar explained her decision to remove the banner:
Because Barnard is a small college, with only a few buildings and one main entrance. Barnard Hall is both the first building you see on entry and, of course, the building that bears our name, along with our official signage and seal. Traditionally, Barnard has allowed student groups to use the spaces on either side of the Barnard banner to promote upcoming events. It was never our intent to use that space to advocate for any political position or opinion. Yet, by Tuesday morning, it had become clear that this banner’s placement on the main building had inadvertently created the appearance of official Barnard endorsement. And once this perception was afoot on our campus and in our community, we felt compelled to remove the banner and to halt the hanging of all banners on this site.
I wish we had had the opportunity to notify the leadership of SJP before the banner’s removal on that Tuesday morning. I wish the issue of endorsement had not arisen so powerfully in the context of an already-heated debate. I feel for students who see our decision as an attack on their views and community. But this is where we find ourselves right now, and from where we must move forward.
Last week, Jerry Haber wrote at Magnes Zionist:
To my fellow Jews I say right now – Palestine never went away and is not going away. Palestine remembered is Palestine forever…
After all, the primary victims of the Zionist movement have been the Palestinians – so if sensitivity is required, then sensitivity for the weaker and more aggrieved party is in order, isn’t it?
Now here is Katherine Franke’s letter to President Spar, of March 24. I particularly recommend Franke’s relating the incendiary debate over feminism and pornography when she was an undergraduate, and the ways that banners helped her to make up her own mind about those questions.
Dear President Spar:
As a Barnard alumna (’81) and a member of the Columbia/Barnard community I write you to express my disappointment with the way the Barnard administration mishandled objections raised to the hanging of a banner on Barnard Hall by Students for Justice in Palestine. Barnard can, and should, do better than merely shut down one viewpoint that unsettles some members of the Barnard community. Rather, the College missed an opportunity to distinguish itself as a leader in transforming a polarized political standoff into an academically and intellectually rigorous inquiry into the historical and political roots of the competing claims for justice, belonging and identity that structure the strong sentiments surrounding this issue. The decision to censor one viewpoint, by pulling the SJP banner, was a regretful mistake in my view.
As I understand it, students who are members of SJP followed the college’s procedures for obtaining permission to hang a banner from Barnard Hall. After the banner was hung your administration received complaints from some students who indicated that the banner made them feel “uneasy and uncomfortable” and that they feared that the placement of the banner adjacent to the official Barnard College banner indicted that the College endorsed the message conveyed by SJP’s banner (whatever that might be). Ceding to the objections raised by LionPAC and others the banner was removed i) without notifying the SJP students, and ii) for no reason other than that it offended some Barnard students and might convey official endorsement of its message. You subsequently met with the Barnard SJP students and thereafter issued a statement i) apologizing to the SJP students for removing their banner without notifying them of your intention to do so, and ii) indefinitely suspending the right to hang banners from Barnard Hall for all students. You have subsequently described the SJP banner as “incendiary” in nature.
Let me explain why these events and your response disappoint me greatly. First, since my days as a student at Barnard I have treasured the way in which the College has served as a forum, both inside and outside the classroom, for students to explore a wide range of ideas, political perspectives, and conceptions of justice. In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was an undergraduate student at Barnard, the campus was alive with fierce debate about pornography and disagreement about how to conceptualize the relationship of sexuality to gender-based inequality. The Barnard campus was covered with banners, flyers, posters and other text-based advocacy giving voice to a range of views on these hotly debated questions. These disagreements were at times expressed by labeling one’s opponent “sexist,” “insensitive” or “hateful,” and advocacy often took the form of banners hanging from Barnard Hall. These banners offended the political sentiments of some students while giving voice to the views of others – it would be more than fair to describe this hotly contested political debate as “incendiary.” To be honest, I had no idea what to make of this issue when I was first confronted with it by other Barnard students, but the fierce campus debate helped me formulate my own opinion.
You’ll recall that this campus debate culminated in the Scholar and the Feminist conference of 1981 when then-President Futter confiscated conference materials that some students found offensive. Looking back on this incident I think most would agree that this was a misstep on the part of President Futter, insofar as it undermined important principles of academic freedom and debate.
When I learned of the removal of SJP’s banner from Barnard Hall I could not help but relate this decision to ill-conceived efforts by Barnard administrators in the past to accede to student demands for censorship when they were confronted with ideas that made then uneasy or uncomfortable. Invocation of “discomfort” as a justification for censure or to turn away from new or unsettling ideas actually runs contrary to the fundamental precepts of academic inquiry. Central to our mission as educators is an interrogation of the safety and comfort to be found in settled notions of truth and justice.
Second, any concern that the presence of the SJP banner affixed to Barnard Hall might convey the College’s endorsement of SJP’s political viewpoints strikes me as incredible at best and pretextual at worst. The banner in question was clearly hand-made and contained the student group’s initials prominently displayed in the bottom right. No reasonable person would draw the conclusion that the banner was anything other than a form of student speech. It defies credulity that after hanging hundreds, or likely thousands, of student banners from Barnard Hall – a public forum used by student organizations for many years – only now has it come to the administration’s attention that there is some risk that the location of these banners might implicate the College’s endorsement of their content. Rather than credible concern about official endorsement of SJP’s message, what motivated objections to the banner’s placement was a demand that the College affirmatively distance itself from SJP’s views by removing the banner. And this is exactly what the College has done – at once censoring SJP-student speech and endorsing the viewpoint of those who were uneasy or uncomfortable with SJP’s viewpoint.
Third, I find it troubling that your apology to the SJP students was only with regard to the absence of notice they were afforded before their previously approved banner was removed from Barnard Hall. By using this controversy as an opportunity to revisit the entire “banner policy” you imply that approval for the SJP banner was improvidently granted. Of course this has communicated to SJP students and others who are sympathetic to their project that their views, indeed their participation in the political and intellectual life of the Barnard student body, are not welcome. The fact that this message has been officially communicated by the College’s president transforms this message into an official policy of disenfranchisement.
Fourth, the decision to revoke for all Barnard students the privilege of placing banners on Barnard buildings as a response to this incident in effect shifts the costs of unpopular speech to the entire student body, thus risking a backlash against the SJP students for “ruining it for everyone.” Of course this kind of overreaction is not unprecedented as a cynical way of nesting an unpopular or illegal decision within a larger policy change (I am reminded of the decision by the city of Jackson, Mississippi to close all of its public pools rather than be forced to racially integrate them).
Lastly, Barnard’s administrative and academic leadership could have seized this incident as an opportunity to learn more, not less, about the history, politics and legacies of injustice that give meaning both to the SJP banner and to the students who found it objectionable. For instance, rather than removing the banner and closing down a forum for student speech, the administration could have, for instance:
– Created a forum for the SJP students to elaborate and explain their choice of image. (Your public statements on the dispute surrounding the removal of the banner suggest that you have adopted a reading of the image consonant with that advanced by LionPAC – however this image, like any image, is available to multiple meanings). At such a forum the SJP students could explain whether they intended the image to represent a denial of the existence of the state of Israel or whether they instead saw it as a representation of historical, pre-British mandate Palestine, or more abstractly as an affirmation of Palestinians’ right to a homeland? How do these notions relate to one another, if at all?
– Stimulated a thoughtful discussion of the image on the SJP banner and interrogated whether it should be overdetermined as necessarily anti-semitic in nature. Related to this would be a careful examination of whether it is legitimate to treat all criticism of the state of Israel and/or all criticism of political Zionism as anti-semitic in nature.
– Treated this student conflict as an occasion for generating a critical discussion of the power of maps as a form of political power implicated in the production of knowledge about people(s), place(s) and notions of belonging and dispossession. Critical geographers on the Barnard and Columbia faculties could have used this image alongside the state of Israel’s refusal to recognize or announce any formal borders as an opportunity to transform an unfortunate conflict into a learning experience for the entire community.
I understand that you plan to convene student leaders after the break to discuss this matter further. I would welcome the opportunity to contribute to those discussions and to explore means by which this unfortunate incident might be transformed into a more principled discussion of uncomfortable ideas that befit and honor the high standards of academic inquiry and freedom for which BarnardCollege is well known.
Katherine M. Franke