Amid violence in Israel and Palestine, students have expressed discontent with the administration of Wellesley College regarding their efforts to protect and maintain the safety of all students on campus.
As of Nov. 25, more than 14,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7. In Israel, the official death toll stands at 1,200, according to live updates from Al-Jazeera.
According to an article from the New York Times, experts claim that the rate at which people are dying during Israel’s assault has few precedents in this century, citing both the scale of attacks and nature of the weapons used as reason for the massive civilian deaths. People are being killed in Gaza more quickly than in even the deadliest moments of U.S.-led attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which were themselves widely criticized by human rights groups.
On Oct. 20, President Paula Johnson published an email announcement to the Wellesley College community titled, “My reflections in this painful time”, in which she addressed tensions on college campuses surrounding the violence in Israel and Palestine.
Johnson then shifted the focus of her announcement to an email sent out by students that worked in Residential Life to students living in Munger Hall which took a firm stance against Zionism. In her announcement, she assures the campus body that these students were disciplined for their actions.
“It recently came to my attention that a small number of student residence hall leaders from one dormitory sent a letter to their housemates in their capacity as resident assistants that expressed views on the Israel-Hamas conflict. Our Student Life team met with these students and talked about their role and responsibility to support all students. They have since sent an apology to all students in the residence hall. That these young leaders were able to learn from this episode gives me hope.”
In the following week, outside media sources reported on the issue and information circulated online. President Johnson sent out another announcement on Oct. 25, titled, “Focused on our students’ safety”.
“I know some parents are concerned about the well-being of their students because of recent posts online. …While we embrace freedom of expression for everyone in our community, which is critical to a liberal arts education and to a democracy, I want to be clear: Wellesley College condemns antisemitism, Islamophobia, and any other form of hate. …. We also condemn the public targeting of our students online, and we are doing whatever we can to protect them from such targeting.”
Kyle Morris, a reporter who covers politics for Fox News Digital, published “Elite women’s college RA sent email threatening Jewish, pro-Israel students: ‘No space … no support’” on Oct. 27th. In this article, he named the residence hall, the student who sent the email, and directly quoted the email sent to the other students living in this dormitory despite the President’s announcement not providing any of this information.
The Wellesley News reached out to the students involved in this incident for a request to comment anonymously, but the students declined to comment or did not comment, fearing that it would further jeopardize their safety.
Wellesley Al-Muslimat, a student-run organization dedicated to supporting Muslims on campus, posted a statement on their public Instagram account in response to President Johnson extending an invitation to a webinar for Jewish students and their families over Zoom on Nov. 5th, potentially in response to the email incident in Munger Hall.
In her invitation to this webinar, President Johnson wrote, “Dear families of Jewish students at Wellesley, Please join me for an update about how Wellesley is addressing the climate for Jewish students on campus in these challenging times.”
Wellesley Al-Muslimat, also known as ALM, called for Wellesley College and President Johnson to “extend EQUAL safety, support, and resources to ALL students.”
“This discriminatory approach deliberately neglects the safety of the ENTIRE student body, particularly those facing an alarming surge of Islamophobia, racism, and doxxing. This unilateral communication sends a chilling and deeply divisive message that some students are given precedence over others, leaving the broader student body feeling marginalized, disregarded, and unsafe,” they wrote in their statement.
Wendy* said, “I heard about the webinar from a friend, and it was met with a lot of disbelief. How could you extend campus safety to only one group especially when other groups are suffering and worried for their safety? As a Muslim student, I feel invisible on campus and invisible in the world.”
She continues, referring to the media coverage of antisemitism on Wellesley’s campus. “Our purpose is not to diminish any antisemitism happening on campus. We reject that, and there is no tolerance for it. … No one is saying the email should not have been sent. However, the only issue with it is it’s not equitable at all.”
Wendy also brought up a forum that was being planned for a later date in which Dean Horton and President Johnson would meet with Arab and Muslim students on campus to discuss their experiences.
“The Dean told students that this email was sent to students in response to parents asking for it. That to me is not an excuse when I have my family telling me that I should not protest, use my voice, or visibly show my support because it will get me in trouble. [Parents] can reach out to admin because they know that admin is going to have their back.”
Wendy pointed out that the statement from ALM has also garnered attention from Wellesley alums, “So many alums, including Jewish alums, are reaching out to us, telling us how disgusted they are with how selective Wellesley is.”
Because of the statement, a group of alums wrote an open letter to college leadership advocating for student safety, specifically in regards to the rising anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and Islamophobic incidents on campus. In the letter, which was sent to President Johnson, Wellesley College Administration, and the Board of Trustees on Nov. 15, Wellesley alums claim that the College has responded with hostility towards students who have exercised their rights to free speech by advocating for Palestinian liberation. The letter states, “The full list of disturbing incidents … indicate an institutional bias against perspectives that criticize Israel’s well-documented human rights violations as well as a bias against any efforts attempting to center Palestinian perspectives, history, and/or context.” Until their demands are met, these alums have promised to halt all financial and other forms of contribution to the College. Around 950 alums have signed the letter.
Wanda*, a Muslim student, commented, “I feel like the administration wants to normalize selective advocacy and selective empathy and in the process, is silencing Muslim and Arab student voices and anyone who advocates for them.”
“Many students on campus are pro-Palestinian but fear speaking out because of the many tactics administration has used to condemn and humiliate students. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Will I be the topic of the next email?’ I did not know about what happened in that residence hall until the President sent that email. Administration can say that they were just trying to address ‘campus climate’, but the fact that that’s the only part of the campus climate they were trying to address tells me that’s not true.”
She further stated that the administration’s statements and student actions have contributed to an unsafe environment on campus, especially for those student leaders who the President referred to in her announcement.
“We have students on this campus who are feeding our business to news outlets, very biased news outlets at that. The only reason students feel empowered in doing that is because administration has not released an email on it. … People are getting doxxed. Someone on Twitter said they were going to burn down Wellesley. I know [admin] knows but they are not saying anything.”
On the upcoming forum where Muslim and Arab students could share their experiences with the President, Wanda expressed, “To be acknowledged by the administration is the bare minimum. I am not going to be grateful that they are listening to me, especially when they went so far out of their way to not listen to us.”
Wanda also spoke to a professor about the teach-in held to educate students on Israel and Palestine. “I was talking to some faculty members about it and expressing my concern, and a faculty member said that the only reason it was held in a small space and [publicized] at the last minute is because admin waited to see how other schools reacted. Were you not going to educate us before?”
Wendy wanted to address how students are feeling at this time. “My focus has been gone. I feel like we are at the forefront of fighting for recognition. Both of those burdens feel so heavy. At one point, you feel so defeated and hopeless. I’m either just scrolling through my phone seeing mass destruction and mass killing or working towards fighting admin’s response.”
On Nov. 9, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a civil rights complaint against Wellesley College, a recipient of federal financial assistance, with the U.S Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Brandeis Center states in their complaint, “Jewish students at Wellesley College are being marginalized and excluded from their dormitory community in the aftermath of an email sent to dorm residents by residential staff and assistants (RAs) (all students) stating ‘that there should be no space, no consideration, and no support for Zionism within the Wellesley College community.’ Instead, Wellesley President Paula A. Johnson ignored the discriminatory attitude of the College’s paid student residential staff by describing them as merely having ‘expressed [their] views on the Israel-Hamas conflict’ and baselessly insisting that these student ‘leaders’ had learned from the ‘episode.’ Contrary to the claims made by Wellesley’s administration, the student residence hall leaders have made it clear that they did not learn from their mistreatment of Jewish students.”
The complaint cites an Instagram post shared by a student in their complaint as further evidence of a hostile environment on campus. The complaint states that hours before Munger student employees sent an email apologizing for their words, one of the RAs posted on her personal Instagram that the email apology was being sent because she “had a gun to [her] head,” and referred to students who complained as ‘some weak bitches fr.’
The Brandeis Center states that “Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath or maintaining a kosher diet” to support their argument that student leaders taking an anti-Zionist stance creates an unsafe environment for Jewish students.
On the other hand, Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, argue against Zionism. “Jewish Voice for Peace is guided by a vision of justice, equality and freedom for all people. We unequivocally oppose Zionism because it is counter to those ideals. …While it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others.”
Based on these events, the Brandeis Center argues that the College did not adequately discipline the students involved in this incident, thus, “denying equal access to educational opportunities and services to Jewish students on the basis of their shared ancestry and ethnicity.”
“Jewish students who celebrate the Jews’ ancestral connection to Israel are unable to participate with their full identity in Wellesley’s residential community and to receive the support of unbiased residential staff, whose job is to foster an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of the Wellesley community,” the Brandeis Center concluded.
On Nov. 13th, a Wellesley student, Rose Goldstein, interviewed on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on a segment focused on “Hate Crimes And Protest Around The World And U.S. Campuses Because Of Israel-Hamas Conflict”. In the segment, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attacks were discussed, on and off college campuses.
In a televised interview, Goldstein stated, “The student residential staff of one of our dorms stated in an email that there should be no space for Zionism on campus whatsoever. There is a way to criticize, for example, the Israeli government and not be anti-Semitic.”
On Nov. 22, the College published another announcement in which they addressed the extensive media coverage of campus and the civil rights complaint.
President Johnson assured the Wellesley community that she was making an effort to communicate with students and maintain safety on campus, for Jewish, Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim students. She noted that she held a webinar in response to inquiries from Jewish families and alumnae, and met with members of Wellesley Al-Muslimat with Dean of Student Sheilah Horton. She also discusses future plans to schedule a webinar session with alumnae and families who have expressed concerns about the well-being of Muslim, Palestinian, and Arab students.
Despite administration’s insistence that they are working to protect students, some are not persuaded. Wanda, referring to the College administration, commented, “Do you care about us, or do you care about your image more? Time and time again, they prove that they care more about their image.”
*Students have been given pseudonyms to maintain anonymity and protect their identities.