On Aug. 21, Vice President of Student Affairs Theresa Powell sent an email to the Temple community regarding an “an act of violence” that occurred at Temple Fest, which included “reports of religious slurs and insults.”
The email is evenly worded, with no mention of the names of the people or groups allegedly involved, but implying that the incident was “marred” by “religious slurs” before the claim is substantiated only taints the investigation.
The Temple News reported that the alleged assault took place by the informational table for Students for Justice in Palestine. Senior management information systems major Daniel Vessal approached the table and a verbal dispute ensued. A student acquainted with several of the SJP members – not a member himself, according to a press release from SJP – struck Vessal across the face.
However, the true nature of the incident have been heavily disputed.
The details that matter have been reported differently by Vessal and by the women managing SJP’s table. Vessal said that he was punched in the face with a closed fist and taunted with anti-Semitic slurs. In a statement from SJP on Aug. 21, the student organization denied any such insults were uttered by anyone present. Instead, it alleged that Vessal was harassing the women, calling them “terrorists” and “Hamas,” returning to the table multiple times despite requests that he leave them alone.
Suddenly, Vessal’s free speech sounds a lot more like fighting words.
The situation needs more than a fair investigation; it needs to be honestly and transparently reported to the Temple community. In a Q-and-A posted on the Temple University website, university spokesman Brandon Lausch wrote, “The University does not release details of investigations like this, in order to prevent bias in the judicial process.”
But they’ve already said too much – and it’s hard not to see the bias.
Despite a statement from Powell specifying that “there is no change in the status of SJP,” the investigation has been treating the group unfairly.
“It’s quite shocking that they’re throwing this all at SJP,” said Rose Daraz, the organization’s president. According to the senior journalism major, the university has hardly taken any steps to hear from SJP. Despite university officials stating they would reach out to “Jewish and Pro-Palestinian communities,” Daraz said Temple Police waited three days to contact SJP for comments about the incident.
Temple seems more concerned with covering itself and assuring the public that it is staunchly anti-violence than ensuring that justice is done. President Theobald proved this when he addressed the student community about the altercation in a Temple Student Government meeting on Aug. 25.
“There is no place on the university campus for violence,” he said.
While physical violence should always be taken seriously, it’s of utmost priority for the university to ensure that all students are given a fair trial – no matter how contentious the underlying issues.
Don’t ask what Temple can do to prevent these kinds of “attacks” in the future, as some students have done. Demand that the university treat all its students and organizations as innocent until proven guilty. Until we know that there is any truth behind Vessal’s allegations, nobody should even mention the words “hate crime,” as Aron Hier, campus outreach director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the incident when he spoke to TruthRevolt.org.
Daraz expressed disbelief that SJP would be accused of anti-Semitism, especially considering that the organization has Jewish members. Since news of the incident, Christian-Jewish Allies, Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace, and the Philadelphia chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace have released statements attesting to SJP’s commitment to non-violence and openness as an organization.
“SJP has always been against all forms of racism,” Daraz said. “We’ve never condoned any act of physical violence.”
If Temple wants to truthfully say that it “unequivocally condemns in the strongest possible terms the disparagement of any person or persons based on religion, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation or identity,” as it has reiterated when reached for comments, then it needs to investigate SJP’s allegations as thoroughly as Vessal’s.
Things get messy when they come out of a conflict as difficult as the Israel-Palestine debate. But it’s when situations are most challenging that justice and a clear head are most necessary.
Tyler Horst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org