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A Tufts student government fight shows what’s wrong with the Israel-Palestine debate

Those who’ve paid attention to Jewish media world in the past week have seen the dramatic build up and sudden dissipation of the story about Tufts University junior Max Price, an outspoken pro-Israel member of the student government, and the Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine group. Price became the cause celebre du jour for one hot second in the ongoing debate about whether pro-Israel students are being targeted in an antisemitic way on American college campuses.

There are two versions of this story. These narratives are eerily similar, but different angles reveal just how the two sides of the story are operating more or less from two different realities, often talking past, rather than to, each other, and allowing for little to no nuance in the conversation. Both sides claim they were subject to harassment simply for trying to hold institutions accountable for their actions.

If you are pro-Israel, this is the story of how one student bravely stood up to the dark forces of antisemitism brewing at his college, aided by several institutions once his school failed to do nothing. If you are pro-Palestine, this is the story of a group of students who perhaps thought they were trying to make their college campus a better place, and were being stymied in that goal by one person. When they tried to remove him, he found help from large, well-funded outside institutions.

The story had all the makings of a tempest in a teapot narrative that could easily be spun in either a pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel direction, depending on the cause you wish to further. There were allegations of harassment on both sides, allegations of antisemitism, multiple dramatic hearings, nasty group text messages, all against the background of a major geopolitical conflict.

It all looked to be heading to its final showdown this past Sunday, February 28h, when it seemed likely that Price might be impeached by the Tufts student government for, he alleged, having pro-Israel views, and for attempting to correct a factually inaccurate referendum that the body recently passed. But suddenly, the hearing was canceled, the tension dissipated, and Price was left worrying, he told the Forward, whether another unlucky pro-Israel student was about to be locked in SJP’s crosshairs.

The Showdown

This story begins in the fall of 2020, when the Tufts SJP introduced a referendum to the Tufts student government calling for the university to apologize for participating in a program that sends U.S. law enforcement personnel to Israel for training and information swapping.

Groups critical of Israel call this program, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the “Deadly Exchange” program..

The students’ referendum, which would be non-binding, called on the Tufts administration to apologize for an incident in 2017 where the former executive director of public safety and chief of the Tufts University Police Department Kevin Maguire – who is no longer employed at the university — traveled to Israel. The referendum was presented as part of a larger move to work toward demilitarizing the Tufts University Police Department.

A Tufts Daily story on Students for Justice in Palestine's 'Deadly Exchange' program, Nov. 2019

A Tufts Daily story on Students for Justice in Palestine’s ‘Deadly Exchange’ program, Nov. 2019 Courtesy of Tufts Daily

What, exactly, Maguire traveled to Israel for is again subject to debate depending on what side of the story you’re on. If you’re on Team Israel, it was a nine-day counterterrorism and emergency preparedness seminar. If you’re Team Palestine, Maguire went for a military training exercise as part of “The Deadly Exchange.”

There are massive doubts circulating in the pro-Israel community over the validity of the claims made in the documentary about the program, “The Deadly Exchange,” which came out in 2017. Team Israel views “The Deadly Exchange” as factually dubious at best, and a downright baseless antisemitic conspiracy theory at worst. Team Palestine accepts the allegations made in the documentary as fact, and from that basis came the impetus for the referendum that the Tufts SJP introduced to the student government in the fall of 2020.

Enter Max Price.

Price is a member of the Tufts student government’s Judiciary Committee. Traditionally the committee looks over referenda such as this one, to make sure the wording is factually accurate. Price pushed back against the wording as it was presented, saying that it was a wholly inaccurate description of what happened – for one, that the program was not a military exchange or training. And two, that Maguire was not “sent” by Tufts as the language proposed, but rather had been invited to Israel, and Tufts simply did not stand in his way.

When asked about this distinction, SJP responded in an email saying, “The exchange trips are reflective of a wider pattern of police militarization at Tufts…we know that administrators approved of his participation and still have not apologized or committed to not send officers on a military exchange trip again.”

Price, in a lengthy statement detailing the saga, said when he pointed out that the nature of the exchange had been mischaracterized, the committee tried to negotiate in good faith with SJP to change the language. “On at least two occasions,” he wrote, the judiciary committee “sent specific proposed revisions to SJP in order to address the inaccuracies in their proposed text. SJP rejected the revisions.”

According to Price, he had already endured some harassment for his pro-Israel views when he decided to run for his seat on the student government, but at this point, he said, the volume cranked up.

SJP began sending emails asking for him to be removed from the judiciary review process over his alleged “pro-Israel bias.” Hearings were held, texts were sent to the huge student-government-wide group chats saying things like “f—- Max Price.”

Price said he was at one point forced to stay on mute during a hearing while members of the judiciary committee, the SJP, and an outside speaker discussed “The Deadly Exchange” and the merits of the referendum. According to SJP, the group was unaware that Price was not going to be allowed to speak, and said that decision was made by the judiciary committee. The committee did not respond to two requests for comment.

Price says he reported the harassment to the proper school authorities and received either no response, or inadequate responses. When contacted for comment, Tufts University spokesperson Patrick Collins sent a statement “Tufts University takes very seriously any allegation of discrimination… We are not at liberty to discuss specific student cases or allegations.”

The referendum, with slightly altered language, ultimately passed the student government by a large margin, and SJP released a statementcelebrating the move, stating that it would help put an “end to the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD)’s involvement in military training trips.”

Price, meanwhile, had engaged The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to help sound the alarm over his treatment. The center sent several letters on his behalf, including statements from Price and pages of screenshots of what various students had made about Price as evidence of harassment, to the university.

The Brandeis Center has emerged in recent years as a sort of de facto defender of pro-Israel university students across the U.S. It says it is non-partisan. From a pro-Israel angle, its campus intervention looks like the elders of the community rising up to defend one of their own. But from a pro-Palestinian angle, it is seen as the right-wing establishment circling the wagons (the founder of the Brandeis Center, Kenneth Marcus, left in 2017 to serve in President Donald Trump’s Education Department).

The whole episode was hurtling toward a dramatic climax on the evening of Feb. 28. SJP had filed a formal complaint against the student government judiciary committee over the referendum process, and a hearing was scheduled to discuss impeaching Price out of his seat.

Suddenly, on Friday, Feb. 26, Alyza Lewin, currently president of The Brandeis Center, called to confirm that the complaint had been withdrawn, and the hearing canceled. Max Price would not be impeached that weekend. SJP later released another statement confirming this.

Why was the hearing canceled, ultimately? Lewin estimates it’s because SJP was caught out. The media attention on the case had been building to a fever pitch throughout the week. Price agreed.

“My story, for better or worse, put them under a microscope,” Price said.

From Price’s perspective, it took massive external forces like the Brandeis Center and StandWithUs — which also sent a letter on his behalf to Tufts — rising up to defend him after the university failed in its duty to protect him from harassment.

However, the SJP statement tells a very different story. It alleges that it is SJP that faced roadblocks from the judiciary committee, that SJP members were subject to harassment over the referendum and that it received threats “to publish the identities and information of the students who filed the complaint” SJP claims it was subject to online bullying and “false accusations in right-wing media.”

When asked for examples or proof of threats or bullying, SJP did not respond.

Ultimately, SJP wrote, due to “concern for the safety of our members,” the group chose to remove the complaint.

The Meta Narrative — Who Tells the Story?

So where does this leave us? Well, it’s telling that in the course of reporting this story, there was a stark difference in who was willing to get up and tell their side of the story with their name attached and who wasn’t.

Price and Alyza Lewin were easily accessible to the media. They were prompt to respond to requests and answer phone calls, texts, and emails, and to provide documents supporting their claims. Most of the media coverage of the story includes original quotes from one or more of these major players in the drama. Mark Rotenberg of Hillel International reached out independently and said he’d also like to comment, stating that Hillel has seen this same tactic of targeting and impeaching pro-Israel students off of student governments used at other schools such as University of Southern California, Cornell, and University of Illinois, and he found it “very troubling.” StandWithUs notified the Forward that it had sent a letter to Tufts condemning the situation. The pro-Israel camp was more than willing to speak on the record.

Tufts University, on the other hand, sent a pat statement that answered no specific questions, and when pressed, would not confirm whether there was any investigation happening. After SJP withdrew its complaint, the university swiftly sent out another statement confirming the above but reiterating that it was not “at liberty to discuss specific student cases or allegations.”

SJP, for its part, responded from behind an anonymous Gmail account after three attempts to contact it. Just 10 minutes after SJP confirmed that it would answer questions, Lewin called to report that SJP had withdrawn their complaint and the hearing would be cancelled. SJP did respond to the questions, but its spokesperson — or people — chose to remain anonymous while doing so.

This reporter also attempted to contact a wide range of Tufts students who were not directly involved with this case to try and get a sense of what life is like as a Jewish student at Tufts. No one was willing to speak on the record or have their name associated in any way with their statements. Most downright refused to talk. Emails to various student government bodies also went unanswered.

Only two students, one Jewish, one not, agreed to speak on background, not wanting their names or anything about their identities associated with their statements. One said the subject was too touchy, and since they knew people on both sides of the issue, they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it, beyond revealing that a lot of Jewish student organizations were attacking SJP, and vice versa, over the issue.

What does this tell us? Price’s dilemma set wheels in motion. After he felt the university response was inadequate, he was able to call certain pro-Israel groups, which activated and rose up in his defense. Part of that was a media blitz: Price’s story was covered by much of the Jewish media, including the Israeli press. Most of these featured original quotes from Price and/or Lewin as well as the university’s statements. None had any direct or original quotes from members of the SJP, although Price provided plenty of documentation as to their actions and what certain members had said about him.

Only the Tufts Daily student paper managed to get an on-the-record quote from a member of the student government, who warned that SJP was still looking at other ways to push forward its allegations.

“I know that SJP is not done pursuing this,” the student, Taylor Lewis, who had been organizing Price’s hearing, told The Tufts Daily. “They’re … talking to administrators and exploring other … resolutions to the issue.”

Whose Story Are We Even Telling?

Based on the statements and documents gathered after five days of phone calls and emails to the major parties involved, it is all too easy to take the narratives of those who were willing to talk on the record and paint the Tufts SJP as conniving villains – an anonymous, trouble-making collective – that was attempting to push through meaningless referendum and bully Max Price in order to score political points.

It’s also easy to paint Max Price as a hapless victim of antisemitic abuse, a lone knight who was trying to stand up for facts, democratic debate, and Israel, who was then abandoned by his institution and had to turn to the outside for help. In his hour of need, the pro-Israel institutions of the U.S. rose to meet him.

Allow me, please, to complicate that narrative.

The Tufts SJP is not, in fact, a faceless monolithic organization made up of antisemites who are trying to make the lives of Jewish students at Tufts miserable or push them away from their views. In fact, according to the SJP themselves and another student speaking on background, many of the members and leadership of the SJP are, themselves, Jewish.

“SJP is made up of students from many backgrounds, including Palestinians, Jews, and many others who work to fight for justice and freedom,” they told the Forward in their email.

And disputes over Israel are not, as many outside organizations claim or imply, making life miserable for Tufts’ Jews. One Jewish student, speaking on background, said that Jewish life was actually really good at Tufts.

“There’s a lot of Jewish people at Tufts, which makes me feel really comfortable,” they said. “There’s a strong robust community, and there’s always options to engage and do things Jewishly. It’s a good place to be Jewish.”

This student also said that while he did think that SJP’s recent actions were probably part of a larger pattern, the Jewish media and people concerned with Jewish life on campus were getting overzealous about it.

“I don’t think it’s something that can be dismissed, but it also doesn’t have big consequences. There’s no outrage from the student body,” they said.

The student also disputes the idea, which the Brandeis Center’s Lewin put forth, that having pro-Palestinian views was a “litmus test” of sorts that students need to pass to be allowed to participate in other social justice movements. “I don’t think I would ever talk outright about Israel, but I’ve never felt ashamed about my pro-Israel views,” they said.

Why then, was Max Price targeted?

“Max is exceptionally visible, and he chooses to do that,” the student said. “He was certainly targeted because he’s had a history with these groups and arguing on social media, and he’s not ashamed of his views, so they’ve come to see him as the enemy.”

Price himself says he is the only student government member who is “publicly Zionist.”

So whom do we believe? The people who were willing to go on the record? The SJP representatives answering from behind an email? The Tufts students who were too nervous to use their name but nonetheless felt it was valuable to provide an outside perspective?

It is what makes this story frustrating, and delicate, to tell. Price — who comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken young man, and who says he wants to devote his life to public service — at the end of the day, insists there is a lot that he and the members of SJP actually agree on, and he’d love to work with them.

“I’m happy to sit down with members of SJP to work out a way to have a more civil dialogue on these issues and work together where we agree,” he said. Those issues would include police demilitarization, and education to prevent bigotry for example. “These are things we probably have in common,” Price continued. “I want to reach out. I’m hoping to leave this campus better than I found it.”


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