How a Facebook status led to chaos on campus


A month-old Facebook post written by a Jewish college professor about last summer's Gaza conflict has triggered a debate on intolerance at a liberal arts college in Connecticut.

The controversy over philosophy expert Andrew Pessin's remarks is seen as a microcosm of the tension between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates on American campuses.

Prof Pessin, who has worked at Connecticut College for a decade, said students had misrepresented words he wrote last summer about the violence in Gaza.

"You've got a rabid pitbull chained in a cage" that when freed "comes roaring, bounding out, snarling, going for the throat," Prof Pessin, a self-described off-campus advocate for Israel, wrote on the social media site.

Outraged students picked up on the post in March and wrote a series of letters to their campus newspaper. One called his message an example of "institutional racism".

A campus-wide debate was sparked by complainants calling on the college to take action against the professor.

He maintains that the "pitbull" metaphor referred not to Palestinians in general, but to Hamas and that he has been unfairly targeted.

Prof Pessin said: "Once you label somebody a racist, especially by misrepresenting what they said, without giving them any opportunity to respond or explain, that's not free speech, that's crossing a line into bullying and intimidation."

The original Facebook post has now been deleted and Prof Pessin has issued a public apology.

It is not the first time that the Israel-Palestinian conflict has found a battleground on the manicured lawns of US colleges and universities.

A Palestinian-American professor lost an offer for a tenured position at the University of Illinois last year after officials uncovered a barrage of tweets that were deemed antisemitic.

Students for Justice in Palestine groups have in the past couple of years gone from serving mock eviction notices on Jewish classmates to holding symbolic votes demanding that their schools divest from Israel.

American-Jewish groups such as the Israel on Campus Coalition, Stand With Us and Camera on Campus have worked to counter those efforts.

At Connecticut College the firestorm is still raging, with competing online petitions racking up hundreds of signatures. One defends the professor and the other calls for the college's president, Katherine Bergeron, to publicly denounce his remarks as racist and dehumanising.

Ms Bergeron wrote last month: "The post caused an outpouring of anger and pain among many different groups of students, faculty and staff."

To improve overall relations on campus, and following the discovery of racist graffiti, college bosses cancelled classes for a day in March to instead hold a community forum on free speech, equity and inclusion.

A college spokeswoman said Prof Pessin would not face disciplinary action. He is currently on leave due to stress caused by the controversy.

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