Judiciary Hearing Addresses Constitutionality of Palestine-Aligning AAS Email

The Judiciary Council held two separate hearings to address an anonymous complaint filed against the Amherst Association of Students Senate questioning the constitutionality of an email they sent last May.

The Judiciary Council (JC) held two separate hearings to address an anonymous complaint filed against the Amherst Association of Students (AAS) Senate questioning the constitutionality of an email they sent last May in which they aligned themselves with Palestine in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, senators came together in the Octagon to discuss whether the email was appropriate.

In the first hearing, those who filed the complaint requested that, moving forward, the AAS be more cognizant of the Jewish perspectives and only comment on complex geopolitical issues if they fairly represent student interests. In the second hearing, representatives selected by the AAS Senate defended the email as within the Senate’s authority as outlined by the AAS constitution, irrespective of the email’s contents.

This article will be updated to report on the second JC hearing in greater depth when its transcript is officially released.

Students who submitted the complaint felt that the expression of solidarity fell beyond the scope of the AAS’s responsibilities. Emma Daitz ’23 argued that senators took advantage of the AAS email platform to advance an “exclusionary position on a geopolitical issue” and alienate Jewish students. In response, members of the Senate contended that they are elected to represent student views and that, while the email may not have represented all student voices, it was not a breach in Senate jurisdiction. The second hearing focused on the word choice of the email and the logistics that went into sending the email.

The hearings for the complaint were held this semester because the complaint was filed after the last senate meeting of the spring semester, according to Judiciary Council Chair Jasper Liles. Liles reported that the JC also “experienced delays due to the particularities of the case.”

“Senate members on JC who were party to the hearing had to recuse themselves, and JC only had two at-large members at the time. Because of this, the JC had to find and appoint four new temporary members, which took some time,” Liles said.

The anonymous group of students who placed the complaint did so for three reasons, according to AAS Senator Joshua Kim ’22E. In the first hearing, Kim said that, first of all, the individuals found that the AAS did not have authority to send the email. Second, the complainants were upset that the email was “authored by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and Middle Eastern North African Association (MENAA),” in the words of Daitz. Finally, Kim noted that those who filed the complaint were concerned that Amherst Hillel was not consulted in addition to the MSA before the letter was sent to students.

Outside of the hearing, students have debated the nuances of the complaint through platforms like the campus GroupMe — questioning the Senate’s role in commenting on international conflicts, the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Student reached out to a number of relevant sources, but eight students declined to comment on the record for this article.

The first hearing began with opening statements from Daitz and Mason Quintero ’23. Following their accounts, senators and students asked the speakers questions. Individuals attended the hearing both in-person and over Zoom.

At the beginning of the hearing, Daitz argued that sending the email violated the AAS constitution. “The email itself is repugnant to the very purposes granted to it by the preamble of the [AAS] Constitution and the values statement: to respect and hear the voice of every student in the spirit of learning and the free exchange of ideas. We as Amherst students cherish these principles because it is necessary to the processes of legitimate democratic governance, but more critically, to the essence of the liberal arts education,” Daitz stated.  

Additionally, Daitz held that the email was an abuse of AAS resources. She said, “The email was a blatant misuse of the AAS email address and mailing list. As stated in section 20 of the bylaws, the AAS email account may only ‘be used for official AAS purposes.’ [The] AAS itself states that its purpose is to ‘represent the student body and be a liaison between students and administration.’”

The second JC hearing gave the AAS an opportunity to respond to such allegations. Senator Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22 specifically noted that bylaw 20 of the AAS constitution imposes no substantial restriction on the AAS’s use of the email account besides the requirement of getting approval of the email through a Senate vote. Since the Senate voted in favor of this email, the email was not a violation of AAS bylaws, he argued. Additionally, he argued that, even if the email were a violation of bylaw 20 of the AAS constitution, the fact that the vote in favor of the email was unanimous should be understood as an amendment to the bylaws, per bylaw 19 of the AAS constitution.

Daitz also expressed disappointment that the AAS did not more broadly consult the student body before sending the letter.  “It was extremely disappointing to see AAS simply accept the position offered in the letter without considering other views or engaging in a dialogue about the veracity of its content. There was no attempt or even desire to hear another perspective. As representatives of the student body, AAS members have a responsibility to educate themselves on issues about which they are writing the students — especially when such position papers are so infrequently sent,” she said.

Daitz particularly noted her dissatisfaction with the email’s authorship. She stated, “Originally, [the AAS] was going to co-sign and sponsor a letter written by MSA and MENAA. However, for some reason, the original authors of the letter: MENAA and MSA, were ultimately removed from the email, and their participation in the crafting of the email was not acknowledged.”

In closing, Daitz declared that the crux of the issue is not the politics of the conflict, but rather the fact that the AAS unfairly collected information and failed to represent the student body. Daitz requested that the AAS formally apologize to affected students.

The representational purpose of the AAS also came up at the second JC hearing. Graber-Mitchell posited that representing the student body does not mean that AAS is obligated to share views that are directly proportional to the public opinion of students, nor does it mean meeting with constituents on particular issues. Rather, he held that, constitutionally, the AAS is able to speak on behalf of the student body as their elected representatives.

Immediately after Daitz, Quintero spoke about the personal ramifications of the email. Quintero, who had been in Israel while the conflict was unfolding, gave a testimony about the alienation that he and fellow Jews experienced because of the letter.

In a statement to The Student, Quintero said, “I thought it was important for me to speak because I had a unique view on the situation having been in Israel during the conflict and when the email was sent out. I also heard thoughts from a number of Jews on the topic of the email and I wanted to try my best to represent them.”

Quintero emphasized that his goal was to advocate for the individuals he had heard from and not the entire Jewish population on campus.

Last semester, Quintero was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At the time that he received the AAS email, he described, “I was in the library with a few friends from the city, when the sirens started. We quickly made our way to the stairwell and stayed there for about 10 minutes, as we heard explosions off in the distance. My family friends who live in Ashdod close to the southern border, had to shelter multiple times every single day, and frequently in the middle of the night during those 11 days. And, I feared for them every single day. I'm not the only Amherst student with people that they love and care about living in Israel.”

When he read the email, Quintero voiced at the JC hearing that the email neither mentioned nor alluded to the struggles that he was facing. “I felt like I was going crazy. The fear that I felt for myself, and many of the people that I love and care about, was portrayed as illegitimate. In the days immediately following the email I received messages from dozens of Jewish Amherst students, expressing similar concerns. Many of them told me it made them feel isolated and seriously negatively affected their mental health,” Quintero said.

Quintero argued that, if the AAS wants to issue emails of a political nature in the future, they should be more broadly informed. Quintero said, “Going forward, if AAS is going to send emails such as these — commenting on complex political or geopolitical issues —  they [should] make sure to understand their constitutional duty to be educated and hear all sides of the story and make sure all student interests are represented in whatever communication they send out.”

This is not the first global conflict that the AAS has commented on, but some students hold that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different. During the hearing, JC member Alexandre Jabor ’23 asked whether the claim that the violation of the Senate’s jurisdiction “also extends to emails” about other issues that happen outside of the Amherst community. He asked whether the claim that the AAS went beyond its responsibilities applies “to some of the emails that were sent in the past, concerning, discrimination against African American students at UMass or the Black Lives Matter protest, or racism against Asian Americans.”

In response, the complainants said that the key differentiating factor is that the other situations are more one-sided. “There is no other side to racism.” Daitz said, “This is not an issue of hatred nor an issue of racist attacks.”

In the initial letter, the AAS also asserted that “We must not conflate critiquing the Israeli government or settlers with antisemitism. We condemn antisemitism in all forms.” In response, Quintero contested the statement, saying, “It’s very nice that AAS doesn’t want to conflate critiquing the Israeli government or settlers with antisemitism, but that doesn't change the facts on the ground, there is absolutely a correlation between the conflict in May and a rise in antisemitic crimes: over 200 to 300 percent between April and May.”

During the hearing, some observers interjected, calling for nuance. “The conflict is very emotional and people are dying, and many Americans are invested in a very simple view of it,” Baylar Ratzan ’22 said. “I really wish that this had been taken as an opportunity to have a discussion because we’ll be influential in the future: we’re studying here and we’re preparing to enter the world to be leaders in it.”

The Judiciary Council plans to release the transcript for the second hearing and their official ruling in the coming week.