A firestorm of controversy has erupted on the normally quiet campus of Connecticut College in New London over a philosophy professor’s Facebook post that many are claiming was racist toward Palestinians.
The professor, Andrew Pessin, said the entire event has been taken out of context and that the outcry is not about his alleged racism, but is a concerted effort to attack his reputation because of his pro-Israel point of view.
UPDATE 10:55 a.m.:
The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Connecticut college, as well as the history department have issued statements to the college community condemning hate speech, and raising the issue of censorship on college campuses.
The "CCSRE would like to clearly state that we do not condone speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality," an email read.
From the history department:
To the Campus Community,
The history department would like to clearly state that we condemn speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality. In response to the many events that transpired on campus prior to and during spring break regarding a Facebook post by a member of our faculty, we join the CCSRE in condemning hate speech.
The history department would like to note the particularly salient tactic of dehumanizing language as a means to justify brutality and lull otherwise "well intentioned" people into silence and, effectively, complicity in racism, sexism, discrimination, colonialism and the numerous genocides throughout human history.
We make this public statement with particular attention to those students, staff, and faculty whose identities and affiliations position them as the targets of such speech. We feel a public statement is essential to supporting the well-being of various members of the Connecticut College community, their right to educational opportunity, and their right to work in a non-hostile environment. We will continue to play our part in creating spaces for productive engagements around inclusive excellence. We look forward to collaborating with others to help move the College forward in achieving our goal of full participation.
Original story continues below:
Pessin posted a message on his Facebook wall last August wherein he referred to the “situation in Gaza” as “a rabid pit bull chained in a cage” that, when set free, “comes roaring bounding out, snarling, going for the throat.”
At that time, Israel was fighting Hamas in Gaza in a seven-week battle that left thousands dead or injured, most of them from Palestine.
Pessin’s post went relatively unnoticed until a student saw it in February and reached out to Pessin, saying his post offended her. He told WNPR that he apologized, and removed the post.
But Pessin said that students on campus and at least one other faculty member launched a campaign attacking his comments and calling on the college to denounce his views.
Below is a screen shot of Pessin's Facebook post.
The college has been ambiguous in its response, according to a petition on Change.org launched by student Ayla Zuraw-Friedland. She is also the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, The College Voice.
A letter from college President Katherine Bergeron noted that the controversy “raised important questions about the nature of free speech,” but it did not address the nature of Pessin’s post.
Two weeks after he apologized and removed the post, The College Voice printed three letters attacking Pessin’s views. They pointed to the “dehumanizing language” used, and how it could be a precursor for violence or oppression against Palestinians.
In the comments under Pessin's initial Facebook post, a person named Nicole commented that the “dogs” need to be put down, and Pessin wrote “I agree” underneath.
A few days after the letters were published, Pessin again apologized, this time in The College Voice. He said that the entire situation has been taken out of context, and that he has no racist tendencies. He wrote:
It’s essential for me also to remark that I in no way hold and do not condone the terrible racist views that have been ascribed to me on the basis of the language of this post.
Pessin said that his reference to Gaza was meant to be about Hamas, and not the Palestinian people. He admitted that he is pro-Israel, but that he supports a two-state solution. When asked if he thought that Hamas needed to be put down, or killed off, as alluded to in his response to a comment, he said “of course not.”
“I want them to be defeated,” Pessin said. In a later email, he clarified his position:
I am not dehumanizing anyone, not even members of Hamas. The blockade/cage metaphor is about restraining the violence of the organization; and… I accord members of Hamas the same humanization respect I accord anyone else. In fact it's because I do that that I hold them morally accountable for their actions.
The petition on Change.org notes that the petitioners “do not believe censoring Prof. Pessin to be the answer.” It reads:
That we are in disagreement with his opinions does not mean we wish to silence them... But if he has his right to free speech, we have our right to disagree with him.
But petitioners say they are being silenced on talking about this issue. They also claim there has been “backlash against students who have publicly identified Prof. Pessin’s racism…”
However, Pessin said that his supporters are feeling bullied and unable to express their support for him.
Comments under one of the letters on The College Voice support Pessin, with one person calling the attacks against him a “witch hunt.”
On the anonymous social media site Yik Yak, both anti-Semitic comments attacking Pessin and anti-Arab comments attacking the student who found his Facebook post can be found.
Pessin has taken a medical leave of absence and will not be teaching for the rest of this semester. He said he intends to return to teaching after this school year.
The college is holding an all-campus forum on Wednesday, March 25 from 4:30 to 6:00 pm at the Palmer Auditorium to discuss this issue. All other campus events are canceled during this time.