Pitzer’s bannered and flaunted arboreal symbol, an emblematic chaperone of the beautiful proverb, “Provida Futuri,” is all too often fertilized by distorted evidence and administrative incompetence. On Tuesday April 6, an executive decision was made and the Free Wall message, “from the river to the sea,” a message accompanied by a painted heart and Palestinian flag, was painted over in an act of suppression.
The college’s administrative “decision to paint over student expression in support of Palestinian freedom is an act of censorship and viewpoint discrimination, in violation of Pitzer’s obligation to respect free speech,” wrote Palestine Legal Senior Staff Attorney Meera Shah in an email. “Pitzer has a repeated history of discrimination and speech violations against Palestinians and their allies.”
In point of fact, this is par for the course for the college of intercultural understanding and social responsibility.
Consider, for example, that an Israeli Professor called a Palestinian student a “cockroach” in 2013. Or, in 2015, as Shah detailed in her response, “when the administration threatened students with [biased] complaints for their display of a mock apartheid wall, to 2018 when the Board rescinded a student decision not to spend their fees in support of the Israeli occupation.”
And, more recently, in 2019 when former President Melvin L. Oliver vetoed the student senate’s decision to suspend Pitzer’s direct enrollment program with the University of Haifa in Israel. The democratic referendum occurred, in part, because of the Israeli University’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians.
While the Pitzer-Haifa program remains, the Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) relaunched their “academic boycott campaign to suspend” the study-abroad partnership earlier this year in March.
In light of these events, the latest Free Wall incident is especially disheartening and egregious because there is a modicum of competence expected from those who spearhead our collegiate enterprise.
“It is disturbing to me that a statement that makes a general call for Palestinian freedom was somehow interpreted as threatening enough to be censored without any transparent process,” wrote Pitzer Professor of English and World Literature Brent Armendinger in an email.
Imagine an alternative scenario, as Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and History Dan Segal prompted in an interview, where the administration decided to paint over the message “Black lives matter” and deemed the expression offensive in virtue of its anti-white sentiment.
Would this hypothetical case study inspire confidence in the administration’s ability to discern? Methinks not. And for good reason.
“If the Office of Student Affairs said to censor that speech because it’s anti-white, we would see that that office is inept and has been taken in by white racists,” Segal said. “What happened here was the office was taken in by a Jewish supremacists instead of a white supremecists, taken in by a Zionist.”
While an apology was issued by Pitzer’s Vice President of Student Affairs Sandra Vasquez, and sent to the student body via email on Tuesday April 11, the apology was hardly worth the name according to Segal, who said the apologetic email adopted a “mistaken use of the term.” He instead called it a “fake apology,” citing the message as a “masterful piece of indirect and unforthcoming and thus antidemocratic communication,” because the so-called apology avoided “any honest acknowledgement of what was done.”
Current Pitzer sophomore and Palestinian student Luther Khoury (hereafter referred to as ‘Lue’) shared a similar sentiment.
“The email was bullshit: it wasn’t thoughtful, it wasn’t sincere – it wasn’t even correct,” Lue said. “They completely ignore that they covered up writing that said ‘free Palestine’ with a [painted] heart, which is clearly a message of love not hate. I find it offensive how this institution does land back acknowledgements, but when my people call for our land back that’s called anti semitism.”
Lue explained that the college is performative and that students are frustrated, citing the performativity as “one of the reasons why there have been so many students of color transferring out of this institution.”
As an artist and a musician, Lue was drawn to Pitzer because of its community and its advertised core values, the same values he explores in his work.
“I’ve been doing a lot of art about social justice, about the feelings of otherness, about race and neurodiversity and gender diversity,” Lue said. “One of the reasons why I came to Pitzer was I felt like this was a place that I could have some interpersonal affect as well as, hopefully, systemic affect.”
Given his former high school experience at Catlin Gabel, an independent school located in Portland, Oregon, where he felt that his free speech and advocacy work were frequently challenged, Pitzer’s Free Wall was an especially important draw.
“Seeing the Free Wall was honestly the reason why I came here, because my free speech had been compromised multiple times regarding Palestinian advocacy and advocating for human human rights,” Lue said. “I hoped that that wouldn’t be the case here, which it has been.”
Following the college’s latest suppressive display, Lue seriously considered leaving Pitzer behind. He has, for now at least, hardened his heart and decided not to — despite feeling unsafe — because he is impelled to stay.
“I sometimes feel like if I leave many people will never meet a Palestinian and they will leave this institution with a gross misconception of my people, of our culture, of our struggle,” Lue said. “I know that it’s not my responsibility to educate ignorant people. But it does feel like my purpose.”
With that, there are a couple features of this event left to be clarified.
First, an email was sent to Pitzer’s Interim President Jill Klein. However, she has not responded to The Outback’s request for comment. An additional email was sent to Pitzer Associate Professor of Economics and Chair of the FEC Menna Bizuneh, but she declined to comment.
And, secondly, a perusal of the comments posted to Jake Chang’s Free Wall coverage in The Student Life illuminates a simple confusion: the “beautiful sentence” (to borrow Segal’s phraseology), “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea,” is not necessarily, as commenter Jon Raz wrote, “a phrase that is rooted in rhetoric about Jewish genocide.”
For Raz and those who share the opinion, learn to discern. To be sure, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have deployed the slogan to accompany their terrorist atrocities. But any suggestion that “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” is, by definition, a call for Jewish genocide fails to appreciate the larger Palestinian civic movement.
As an invitation to self-interrogation, one should ask if the right to exist argument employed by Israel should also include the right to annex and illegally occupy the West Bank? Again, methinks not.
Still, let it be said that intellectual and moral infirmity must be challenged whenever and wherever possible. So, regardless of who utters or promotes any pro-Palestinian message, be sure to discriminate according to the merits of the expression’s use and not merely because someone appears to be on your side.