Students at The Park School of Baltimore were five minutes into a Zoom call with two Swarthmore College professors on Friday when the screen went black. School leadership had shut down the internet.
The video call was an attempt by some students to take matters into their own hands when school leaders abruptly canceled an assembly on the war in Israel and Gaza. Angry with the decision, student government members contacted the professors who’d been scheduled to speak — Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian, and Moriel Rothman-Zecher, a Jewish Israeli citizen — and announced in a schoolwide email that the talk was on.
The school’s leadership wasn’t having it.
The Park School is the latest local institution where passionate discourse about the conflict in the Middle East has turned to controversy. In emails reviewed by The Baltimore Banner, Head of School Dan Paradis explained his decision to cancel the speakers and cut the internet, and laid out the events that roiled the progressive private school in Baltimore County, long considered a safe haven for Jewish families who were once unwelcome in many private schools.
Students walked off campus in protest of the school’s recent action, with the support of “many” faculty, Paradis wrote to the school community Sunday.
“While the students’ goals and rationale — and indeed their commitment to advocating for what they believe they and their fellow students were ready to experience — were clearly articulated, their actions countermanded my cancellation message of the previous day,” Paradis wrote.
The originally scheduled talk had been canceled because the speakers “express views and use rhetoric that are not in keeping with what we understood to be their planned program,” Paradis wrote in a Thursday email explaining the decision. He said he wants students to be engaged in difficult conversations but added, “We must find ways to do so that yield constructive, not corrosive or harmful, dialogue.”
The Park School would not answer questions from The Banner about the speakers or the protest. Its communications director, Pete Hilsee, said the school will continue “fostering a dialogue across differences.”
Atshan and Rothman-Zecher had been scheduled to speak in person to the campus’s Upper School, or high school, at 9:45 a.m. Friday. But the school emailed the two on Thursday afternoon informing them that the event was canceled, Rothman-Zecher said, telling them “some of your rhetoric does not align with what our community currently needs.”
The email singled out Atshan in particular, but did not make it clear what rhetoric of his was deemed objectionable.
Atshan is an associate professor and chair of the peace and conflict studies department at Swarthmore . Rothman-Zecher is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing and novelist who teaches creative writing at Swarthmore, a liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia.
Rothman-Zecher said he and Atshan were just about to do a similar conversation in front of Swarthmore students on Thursday when they got the news.
At The Park School, they planned to discuss their different backgrounds. Rothman-Zecher was born in West Jerusalem and Atshan grew up in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel for decades. He said the two planned to discuss the shift in their perspectives as they grew up and their heartbreak and grief in hearing what is happening to their friends and family now living in the area.
They have similar viewpoints, Rothman-Zecher said. Both are queer pacifists who oppose the war in Gaza and the occupation and believe “that everyone is deserving of justice and freedom.” They were never invited to debate each other at The Park School, he said.
Both speakers were disappointed that the event was canceled, Rothman-Zecher said. He noted the difficulty that schools and colleges have faced in having open discussions about the topic. The presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania resigned amid a controversy over their carefully worded responses to questions about whether students who call for the genocide of Jews should be punished.
Rothman-Zecher said higher education should be at the “foreground of intellectual discussion and debate.” At the Swarthmore event, he said, students responded well.
“It was a space of openness and curiosity and not a space of pushing in a uniform perspective,” he said. “I was looking forward to speaking with the students [at Park] about the role I see for art and literature in broadening our minds,” he said. “I am still looking forward to that.”
A few students were able to get in touch with Rothman-Zecher to tell him that they would like to reschedule the conversation for a later date.
Paradis wrote in a Sunday email that the events showed the school community should consider, “and even debate, language and the limits of free speech in a learning community where we strive for open discourse and the airing of diverse opinions and ideas.”
The Israel-Hamas war has led to widespread protests and emotional debates since it erupted last fall. Hamas on Oct. 7 launched a surprise attack in southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 250 hostages. Some called it the worst attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust. Israel responded with retaliatory airstrikes and an invasion of Gaza. The Gaza-based Ministry of Health — an agency in the Hamas-controlled government — estimates that more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed while more than 80% of the territory’s people have been displaced.
The war has been a reccurring topic of discussion around Park’s Upper School. Paradis wrote that school leadership has allowed “multiple opportunities” for students to share their own perspectives, like a faculty “teach-in” where students can pick groups with which to have conversations about “identity, coping, political vs. cultural identity, anti-Semitism, and more,” affinity groups, and drop-ins for community members to talk about Gaza’s history and the humanitarian crisis.
But students have expressed dissatisfaction with the school’s response to the war. In the Dec. 13 edition of The Postscript, the school newspaper, a news story headlined “A chance to discuss” said discussions have been limited.
“Aside from a few affinity spaces, there had previously been no organized place for the student body and faculty to have this dialogue as a whole,” the paper stated.
The school has since removed that issue of the student newspaper from its website, Hilsee said, to protect student safety. “There are kids’ images with full names, etc. that shouldn’t be exposed to the world of people voicing their opinions on Israel/Gaza on social media, etc,” he wrote in an email Tuesday morning. The school’s website says that the newspaper is student-run and “the school fully supports this effort by giving them the freedom to publish openly.”
It goes on to say that Atshan, one of the speakers whose Zoom talk was canceled on Friday, was supposed to speak at the school Dec. 4.
“The administration postponed the professor’s visit to allow Dr. Atshan time to respond to a request that he share the stage with another person of his choosing to model the importance of dialogue and discourse,” The Postscript read.
The Upper School faculty organized discussion groups instead.
Paradis said school leaders will review their vetting process for guest speakers and research outside organizations that will help develop protocols for engaging in constructive dialogues. He said they will also “carefully” plan conversations around free speech, hate speech and censorship, and continue to bring in a “multiplicity of voices” to talk about the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Corrections: This story was updated to note that Sa'ed Atshan grew up in the West Bank but was not born there.