Jewish students allegedly complained before wall was rejected
A liberal arts school in California has gone the way of a gated community, rejecting permission for a political demonstration on the basis of its “aesthetics.”
The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Pitzer College, part of the Claremont consortium, displayed a mock Israeli apartheid wall on March 31, three weeks after its permit was denied.
Set up to kick off “Apartheid Week” at Pitzer, the wall was intended to raise “awareness about Palestinian suffering and the realities of the Israeli occupation,” the SJP chapter said in a press release.
Though the release implied the wall would be taken down at the end of the day, the chapter told The College Fix in an email it stayed up until April 2.
Despite administration warnings that putting up the wall without permission would result in “consequences,” the school confirmed to The Fix it has not punished the chapter.
According to a March 30 letter to Pitzer President Laura Trombley from Palestinian Solidarity Legal Support, Pitzer Dean of Student Affairs Brian Carlisle tried to talk the SJP chapter out of setting up the wall.
He told its members in a Feb. 16 meeting that “someone” may try to vandalize or “burn down” the wall, according to the letter. Carlisle also warned the group that if someone submitted a formal complaint claiming the wall was “discriminatory,” members or the entire club may find themselves mired in a lengthy judicial proceeding.
Why is the ‘Aesthetics Committee’ judging this?
After the chapter submitted the wall proposal to the Campus Aesthetics Committee, as Carlisle directed them to do, the committee rejected it March 9 with no formal explanation.
The committee was established in 2003 to oversee the school’s “Public Art Policy.” According to its bylaws, the committee “will receive for review and possible approval unsolicited proposals for paintings, murals, sculptures, or installations from students, faculty, staff, alumni and other persons or groups that are in any way affiliated with the campus.”
The chapter, which reached out to the Palestinian legal group for help, told The Fix that it believed the committee’s rejection “was heavily influenced by the political message of the wall.”
It claimed committee members told the chapter after the denial that “that they were unsure why our proposal had been brought to them in the first place and felt uncomfortable making a decision.”
According to the chapter’s release, Pitzer warned the group again on March 27 that putting up the wall “would be in blatant defiance of College policy.”
‘We intend to do whatever is necessary’ to secure SJP’s rights
The Aesthetics Committee doesn’t have the jurisdiction to prevent students from exercising political expression, according to the Palestinian group’s letter to Pitzer.
“Based on the examples of ‘past and current art and murals Pitzer College’ … all of the projects under the Committee’s purview appear to be permanent or semi-permanent art displays affixed to campus infrastructure,” the letter said.
It said the wall project was, in fact, governed by the school’s Demonstration Policy, which doesn’t require “advance approval” for political demonstrations. The policy requires only that demonstrations not cause “material and substantial interference with education activities.”
The letter hints that the Palestinian legal group would sue Pitzer if it tried to stop the wall’s installation: “We intend to do whatever is necessary to ensure respect for the rights of the SJP students.”
If Pitzer really does “embrace a compelling interest in unfettered inquiry and the collective search for knowledge,” Liz Jackson of the Palestinian group said in the chapter’s release, “there can be no ‘Palestine exception’ to this policy” under California law.
Wall would make Jewish students ‘uncomfortable’
The chapter learned by word of mouth “on or before” Feb. 15 that the Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance had complained to the Aesthetics Committee about the proposed wall, claiming the wall “would make Jewish students on campus uncomfortable,” the Palestinian group’s letter said.
Though it doesn’t have a copy of the alliance letter, the chapter said it knows of its contents because it was discussed during a student senate meeting and mentioned in the senate’s Feb. 15 committee reports.
On the eve of Apartheid Week, without mentioning the nascent wall itself, the alliance said on Facebook that it favors a “two state solution” but called the SJP chapter “ignorant” for playing down “the struggles that some Jewish students face on campus.”
The alliance said it was “legitimate” that some Jewish students see SJP’s actions during Apartheid Week – including holding two events on Passover itself – as evidence of “cultural and religious insensitivity.”
And… nothing happened
Despite the contentiousness of the situation, it seems that the wall staging concluded with little incident.
“Many people told us how much they learned from the wall and congratulated us on not being bullied by the administration,” the chapter told The Fix. “Some students were certainly not so happy with the wall but the reaction seemed to be mostly positive.”
“The College firmly supports the individual and collective rights of students to engage in freedom of speech and peaceful assembly,” Carlisle, the dean of student affairs, told The Fix. “As such, the wall was allowed to remain in place.”
Carlisle said there are currently no disciplinary charges against the chapter or any of its members.
Neither Claremont Colleges Hillel nor the faculty adviser for the Aesthetics Committee responded to Fix inquiries. The Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance did not respond to Fix inquiries.
College Fix reporter Curtis Chou is a student at Northwestern University.
IMAGES: Pitzer SJP, Pitzer College’s Flickr page