Cancellation of Palestinian Speaker Leads to Teacher Suspensions and Unrest at Friends’

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The cancellation of a speaking engagement by Swarthmore College professor Sa’ed Atshan — a Palestinian and LGBT activist — has set off a chain of events at Friends’ Central.

Following demonstrations by some students and faculty, the school placed teachers Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, who it deemed responsible for the matter, on administrative leave on Feb. 13.

“As a Quaker school, we have long-standing expectations for all members of our community — especially for our teachers, who have the responsibility of guiding young minds,” the statement from Head of School Craig N. Sellers said. “There are very real concerns about the conduct of Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa for their disregard of our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.

“As of today, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa are on indefinite paid administrative leave while a more extensive review is conducted,” the statement continued. School officials declined to speak with the Jewish Exponent.

Both supporters and opponents of Atshan expressed concerns about the decision.

Bryn Mawr attorney Mark D. Schwartz, whose two children graduated from Friends’ Central, is representing the 25-year-old English teacher Eure and 26-year-old history teacher Helwa. He has known Atshan for 13 years and said the decision wasn’t just.

He said his clients were informed by Sellers at a breakfast meeting that they were being suspended for actions related to their involvement with the Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, formed in 2016.

“A group of students wanted to get a committee together to form a club,” Schwartz said. “The school insisted they get a speaker to legitimize the club — even though it was not required of other clubs — and agreed to a stipend. The speaker was invited, then uninvited when some parents protested. The thing that bothers me is that these two women … did it to foster a dialogue.

“As a former parent, I wrote a letter saying this is not how a Quaker school should behave.”

It remains unclear who was behind the movement to prevent Atshan from speaking at Friends Central on Feb. 10.

“There’s probably a very conservative group that wants any voice that is not pro-Israel to be squashed,” said the mother of one senior at the school, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I’m not happy with the board of trustees and head of school caving to parent pressure. They’re donors and they want things done their way and put pressure on.”

Atshan, who is an assistant professor in peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore — also a Quaker institution — has been labeled anti-Israel and a BDS supporter on several websites.

“Atshan voices support for numerous pro-BDS organizations,” the Zionist Organization of America wrote in a fact sheet. “Atshan falsely claims that Israel is an ‘apartheid’ state and speaks at anti-Israel campus events titled ‘Israel Apartheid Week.’”

Atshan was not available for comment as of press time.

“My fear of what Friends’ Central did as someone who studies anti-Semitism is this feeds into its most dangerous narrative,” said Abington Friends graduate Ayal Feinberg, who’s now pursuing a Ph.D. in international relations in comparative politics in Texas.

“My concern is not if those Jewish families were right, but ultimately does it contribute to the traditional anti-Semitic conspiratorial [theory] that Jews control the message of society through their influence?”

Sellers said the school would take a “pause” before having future speakers, but Feinberg said that sends the wrong message.

He’d prefer having a give-and-take exchange.

At the same time, Craig Snider, son of the late Flyers owner Ed Snider, is disheartened to think the suspended teachers were pushing a personal agenda. His two youngest children are students at Friends’ Central and their three older siblings have already graduated.

“Leave your politics at home if you’re a teacher,” he said.

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