Diversity, Debate, and Activism at a Quaker College

By Henry Reichman

Jews, Palestinians, and Friends: 45 Years at a Quaker College (Sort of a Memoir), 2nd edition, by Richie Zweigenhaft. Greensboro, NC: Half Court Press, 2021.

When Richie Zweigenhaft joined the psychology department at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1974 he was “one of the first two full-time faculty members to call ourselves Jewish.” A fateful decision by the Quaker college to recruit nationally rather than regionally led within two years to the hiring of three more Jewish faculty members and, in 1993, the first of two Palestinian faculty members. By the turn of the century both groups could claim significant, if still small, representation among Guilford’s students, faculty, and staff.

In this brief and charming memoir, Zweigenhaft, who retired in 2020, reflects on Guilford’s “dramatic transition” in these years “from an all-white conservative school to one that diversified its faculty, its student body, and its board of trustees, and became known as a liberal and progressive college.” He also “examines how the increased attention on the campus to Middle East politics, especially the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, led to some divisions on the campus, but, much more problematically, to a major chasm between the college and the local Jewish community.”   

“An assimilated and unobservant Jew” but “definitely Jewish,” Zweigenhaft thoughtfully recounts his own lifelong confrontation with Zionism. Like many other Jewish academics, including this reviewer, he is neither explicitly Zionist nor anti-Zionist and has wrestled with “how [his] childhood belief in the early dreams of Israel (as exemplified by the kibbutzim, Israel’s socialist agrarian collectives) were in synch, or now out of synch, with the changing political realities.” For understanding, he turns to his admirable Jewish colleague in philosophy, Jonathan Malino—an ordained rabbi descended from rabbis—who with another faculty member regularly led student trips to Israel and the West Bank, where they met with representatives of various sides in the conflict. Malino recalls with fondness his time as a youth in Jerusalem and declares he has probably “always been a Zionist,” although he “never made much of the designation.” He tells Zweigenhaft, “Today, the valence of ’Zionism’ has changed dramatically. . . . I wouldn’t reject the label (and would argue that liberal or progressive Zionism need not be oxymoronic, however hard it is to imagine how it can be politically realized in today’s world), but I would be quick to distance myself from the majority of those who embrace it. Their and my visions for Israel are radically disparate. And while the (critical) Zionism of my younger self came with pride and optimism, today it’s conjoined with anguish and pessimism.”

Zweigenhaft chronicles several landmark events that manifested differences over the Middle East on the Guilford campus. In the best Quaker tradition, the college largely handled these events well, aiming to minimize conflicts. In 1982, during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, a local temple agreed to sponsor a panel discussion on campus but vetoed the proposed inclusion of a Palestinian speaker. Nonetheless, the participation of Jewish critics of Israeli policies, like Malino, and of a Lebanese engineering professor tilted the conversation. And when a Palestinian attendee rose to speak, the panelists agreed to provide time, which led a local rabbi to complain. A second panel, seven years later, reinforced the Jewish community’s increasingly negative image of Guilford. At that event a Greensboro rabbi appeared with a Palestinian graduate student, but “rather than present an Israeli perspective on the conflict . . . he spent most of his time criticizing Guilford for having the event and implying that we were anti-Semitic.” Still, on campus, these and similar activities spurred “a quiet but sustained Jewish-Palestinian dialogue.”

A fall 2014 visit to campus by Steven Salaita, recently dismissed from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of his anti-Zionist tweets, drew a standing-room-only crowd. The AAUP had censured the university for the dismissal following an investigation that I chaired. Salaita’s talk had to be moved after objections from the family of the Jewish donor who was the namesake of the initial venue. The college also received an angry protest from a student’s mother, forwarded to the newly installed president by a much-respected former administrator whom Zweigenhaft credited with having encouraged much of Guilford’s diversification. I am reminded here of Kenneth Stern’s observation about how, while some pro-Palestinian students might try to shout down speakers, “Jewish organizations tend to work through connections to administrators and donors” with the same goal. In 2019, a group of thirty Palestinian alumni wrote to Guilford’s president to complain that the college’s public relations department had lauded a business professor’s participation in a “bridge-building” trip to Israel  sponsored by the Jewish National Fund–USA, a Zionist organization.

These incidents, and the book’s meticulous chronicling of them, exemplify contradictions and difficulties experienced by many colleges and universities. It seems Guilford has dealt with the tensions admirably. It does not appear that academic freedom has been violated, or even significantly threatened. As Zweigenhaft concludes, “including Jews and Palestinians in the Guilford community, even though or perhaps because they don’t agree with one another (or among themselves) has made the college a much more vibrant place, a much better liberal arts school than it would have been without them.”

These words conclude Zweigenhaft’s account of the Jewish-Palestinian question at Guilford, but the book’s second edition devotes an additional chapter—amounting, at thirty-two pages, to more than a quarter of the text—to the 2020–21 academic year. (An adapted version of the chapter, “How the AAUP Helped to Save Guilford College,” appeared in the winter 2022 Academe.) In that academic year the effects of declining enrollments and financial troubles, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, brought Guilford to the edge of collapse. But a revitalized AAUP chapter—Zweigenhaft was chapter president from 2008 to 2020—helped mobilize faculty, alumni, and students to thwart proposed terminations of faculty appointments. Guilford still may not survive, but thanks to the AAUP chapter it has managed for now to avoid the fate of other small colleges—Medaille comes to mind—where violations of shared governance principles have led, all too predictably, to immediate disaster. Zweigenhaft says he decided to add the story of the chapter’s fight to save faculty jobs and the college itself “to encourage others at other institutions, when faced with what looks like impending doom, to believe that activism can work.” He might have added that this entire little gem of a book also offers its readers encouragement to embrace diversity and debate, foundation stones of liberal education.

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. He is a former AAUP vice president and AAUP Foundation chair and served as chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 2012 to 2021. His recent publications include The Future of Academic Freedom and Understanding Academic Freedom.