Andrew Pessin is a distinguished philosophy professor at Connecticut College. He is also, as I understand it, the only Jewish professor at the college who regularly speaks up on behalf of Israel in an intellectual climate that is often dominated by left-wing and foreign students hostile to Israel.
This made him the target of one Lamiya Khandaker, a student who took his intro to philosophy class without incident last Fall. In February, she sent him an email complaining about a Facebook post from the previous August, in which used the metaphor of a rabid pit bull to describe the situation in Gaza, to wit, “One image which essentializes the current situation in Gaza might be this. You’ve got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.”
Reading the post, it’s ambiguous whether the rabid pit bull analogy is meant to apply to Hamas, Hamas and its Palestinian supporters, or Palestinian residents of Gaza more generally (whoever heard of a hastily-drafted, unclear, FB post?). However, I have seen his previous Facebook posts on the Gaza war last Summer, and they are full of criticism of Hamas, and don’t say anything nasty about Palestinians more generally, suggesting that he was, in fact, referring to Hamas.
In any event, Khandaker suggested that she found the post racist. Pessin clarified in response that he was not referring to Palestinians in general, but to Hamas and why its behavior provides a rationale for the Israel blockade of Gaza. Nevertheless, he wrote, “if my analogy inadvertently invites that overly literal misunderstanding then I am truly sorry and surely need to be more careful, and I’ve taken the post down.” Khandaker, unsatisfied, complained to other members of the university community.
Just before Spring Break, the school newspaper published three (obviously coordinated) opinion pieces condemning Pessin. One was from an alumnus living in Jordan. One, by Khandaker, acknowledged that she (a Bangladeshi who to wears an Islamic head covering) was never mistreated in any way by Pessin as his student, but denounced him as a hateful racist anyway whose speech was not “acceptable.” [Update: Some commenters have tried to make the previous sentence into some sort of ethnic/religious slur against Khandaker. Of course not. Just in case it’s really not 100% clear, the point is that she accused Pessin of being bigoted based on a misreading of his Facebook post even while acknowledging that he didn’t exhibit any such bigotry in their faculty-student interactions. That point wouldn’t have any salience if it weren’t clear that Pessin knew she’s a member of minority religious and ethnic groups.]
The final piece, by students Michael Fratt and Katilyn Garbe, absurdly, perhaps even libelously, claimed that “Professor Pessin directly condoned the extermination of a people.” Before publishing these pieces, the editor-in-chief, one Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, failed to contact Pessin for a response or comment.
Pessin, acting under some bad advice from university administrators, in turn wrote a rather craven letter to the editor further apologizing for the Facebook post. The apology, rather than ending the matter, was interpreted by campus activists as an admission of guilt.
The result was an international controversy that included threats against Pessin and his family, knee-jerk reactions from academic departments throughout Connecticut College denouncing their colleague’s purported racism, denunciation without investigation by the usual suspects in the world of academic philosophy, and a school-sponsored “community conversation on free speech, equity and inclusion” that was so “inclusive” that the two Jewish students who spoke who criticized the Pessin witchhunt were, depending on the account, either booed or at least “met with derision.”
A few comments:
(1) I’m not a big fan of animal analogies to humans, and Pessin’s was poorly written. And regarding Hamas, it was a bad analogy, because in analogizing Hamas to a rabid pit bull, it was grossly unfair to rabid pit bulls. Rabid pit bulls have no real control over their violent actions. Hamas, whether blowing up schoolbuses, diverting foreign aid meant for destitute Gazans to missiles and foreign bank accounts, killing gay men in the street on the pretext they are collaborators with Israel, or using human shields after launching a war against Israel, is composed of human beings who are fully responsible for their actions.
(2) Professor Pessin did not realize that Khandaker was not a student who happened to stumble on a Facebook post she misinterpreted and found offensive, but an anti-Israel activist who had founded her high school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. While one can’t tar all chapters with the same brush, in general SJP is a hateful, extremist organization. If there is an overt anti-Semitic incident on a college campus, or real or threatened violence against pro-Israel students, there’s a good chance that SJP members are involved.
(3) Khandaker not only chose to start an SJP chapter, but, as reported in other sources, her Facebook cache (since she seems to think looking through people’s old Facebook posts is a good idea) shows her pooh-poohing a claim that Turkey P.M. Erdogan’s attack on Israel as Hitler-like fascism is anti-Semitic. Given that Erdogan is well-known for having made a long series of overtly anti-Semitic statements, Khandaker’s response, “Everything is anti-semitic to people wtf. It’s pissing me off,” is interesting, if only because she is Connecticut College’s student chair of Diversity and Equity for 2014-15.
(4) Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, the EIC of the school newspaper, later co-authored a petition denouncing Pessin’s Facebook post and making a series of largely contradictory and incoherent demands against the university. Who, if anyone, is advising the newspaper, if the EIC thinks it’s appropriate for a journalist to be a public activist on one side of an issue that the journalist is covering?
(5) The petition is itself interesting. It does not purport that Pessin’s “rabid pit bull” was meant to allude to Palestinians, rather than Hamas. Rather, it says, “It is clear that regardless of whom the professor is addressing here, he is indisputably dehumanizing them. Dehumanization is a tool of racism. Dehumanization has been used all throughout human history to justify genocide, colonialism and hatred of many communities.” In other words, any time one analogizes people, or even an organization composed of people, to animals, it is dehumanizing and racist, and thus worthy of strong condemnation. I am quite confident that Ms. Zuraw-Friedland, for one, would not be willing or able to defend that proposition publicly.
(6) Speaking of animal analogies, Hamas’s genocidal charter calls Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs.” Pro-Hamas activists who gin up phony racism controversies like this one would like you to forget that.
(7) Shame on the Connecticut College faculty for feeding the digital lynch mob rather than standing up for their colleague, or at least wallowing in ignominious silence.