The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at Vassar College has been unusually ugly and aggressive in the two-plus years I’ve been covering developments there.

In my first post on March 27, 2014, Anti-Israel academic boycott turns ugly at Vassar, I detailed — based on interviews with professors who witnessed the events first-hand and documents provided to me — the picketing of a course because it involved travel to Israel, and the vitriol directed not only at the professors at a campus-wide Open Fourm, but also at Jewish students who spoke out in defense of Israel:

What transpired was anti-Israel vitriol directed at Professors and students taking a course that involved travel to Israel and the West Bank, an intimidating protest outside a classroom, and a campus forum in which the Professors and Jewish students were belittled, heckled and mocked in such crude ways that it left even critics of Israel shaken.

The two professors targeted, Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman, later wrote in the Vassar student newspaper about the “climate of fear” that had descended on campus:

Many Vassar students and faculty have expressed their concern that over the last several years, a climate of fear has descended on campus. This fear was confirmed for them during the spectacle at the Open Forum that was held on March 3.

Schneiderman wrote a blog entry describing the anti-Israel atmosphere:

… I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.

Anti-Zionist author Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss website described the Open Forum, which he attended (emphasis added):

I was at the March 3 meeting that so upset Schneiderman, and it was truly unsettling. Over 200 students and faculty jammed a large room of the College Center, and torrents of anger ripped through the gathering. Most of them were directed at Israel or its supporters. Two or three times people shouted at one another. Several said they felt bullied. Schneiderman and another leader of the trip, Rachel Friedman, an associate professor of Greek and Roman studies, looked shocked.

As Schneiderman said in her blogpost, rage against Israel was the theme….

…. the spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.

I left the room as soon as the meeting ended. The clash felt too raw, and there was a racial element to the division (privileged Jews versus students of color). Vassar is not my community, and I didn’t want to say anything to make things worse.

I wrote at the time:

Both Friedman and Schneiderman said that Weiss’ description of the forum hostile environment was fairly accurate in substance and tone, although they disagreed with his characterization of the trip to Israel elsewhere in his article.

Friedman described it to me as “not an open forum, a trial.”  Schneiderman called it a “very toxic atmosphere,” and that the anti-Israel element was “argumentative and belligerent.”  Schneiderman said that this belligerency reflected what she perceived to be a general breakdown at Vassar of willingness to engage in dialogue “where thoughtful people can disagree” and a tendency to see complicated issues “as clear cut.”

The room was full, with approximately 200 students, most of whom were anti-Israel.

Friedman described how “Jewish kids sho spoke were heckled” and drowned out with a finger snapping noise and loudly laughed at.   I asked how she knew they were Jewish, and she said that they self-identified as such in response to the crowd. One student stated: “I felt anti-Semitism before in my small town and never thought I would again until now.”

Friedman agreed with Weiss’ characterization of the racial element.  The issue of her class trip and the protest “became very racialized,” and most of the hostility at the forum came from “students of color.”

Fast forward to the recent passage of a BDS resolution by the student government council, and the open acts of anti-Semitism and intimidation that accompanied it.

That climate of fear described two years ago still exists, and if anything, has become worse.

Student Jason Storch wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which was syndicated elsewhere as well:

In my three years at Vassar College, I have been told – by a Jewish student leader, no less – that supporting Israel is tantamount to supporting oppression. I have watched Jewish friends bullied into silence by aggressive anti-Israel activists who call the Jews racists. I have seen many anti-Semitic comments from fellow students on social media. Although I have had many good experiences at Vassar and have made many friends, it can be uncomfortable to be Jewish here, especially if one supports Israel.

But nothing prepared me for the mob mentality that prevailed here on March 6, when Vassar’s student government, the Vassar Student Association, voted 15-7 to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, against Israel.

… few showed up to oppose BDS.

They did not stay away because they were busy or because Vassar lacks anti-BDS students. They stayed away because they were afraid of pro-BDS students who have, over the past two years, pursued an aggressive campaign of intimidation at Vassar….

The behavior of BDS supporters at the March 6 vote was typical. One after another, members of groups representing students of color stood up to denounce Israel for oppressing people of color. One student from Vassar’s Multiracial/Biracial Student Alliance claimed supporting BDS was necessary to support the “black and Arab population of Gaza.”

Those who attempted to challenge the resolution’s intellectual basis were mocked.

“Jesus Christ,” exclaimed a pro-BDS student in response to a question about the resolution’s claim that BDS is based in intersectional feminism.

“Does that question even have to be answered?” sneered another.

Most disturbingly, students who raised concerns about the effects of the unending BDS campaign on Vassar’s Jewish community were heckled and laughed at. One Jewish student talked about how the BDS campaign had invoked every anxiety nightmare she had ever had. She was crying as she spoke. Pro-BDS students laughed at her….

At the meeting’s conclusion, one non-Jewish council member said she felt “very complicit in the anti-Semitism that was occurring tonight.” Some, at least, feel shame about what happened on March 6.

That description was confirmed to me by another student, Jesse Horowitz, who described the atmosphere at the vote as follows, in part:

The meeting was packed with BDS supporters while its opponents were to afraid to attend. Several BDS opponents have told me that they were afraid to attend the meeting for a variety of reasons, from fear of attack to fear of reacting poorly to the result of the vote. Many of those attending made broad statements implying that those who oppose BDS are a) racist and b) sexist, yet whenever someone even mentioned antisemitism it was met with laughter and dismissal.

One jewish girl was in tears because of the impact this debate has had on her, and in response SJP members were mocking her. It was quiet enough so that it wasn’t a big disturbance but other students sitting nearby me saw it. It is the President of the VSA Council’s job to prevent this sort of thing, but he either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

A council member posted on Facebook, it reads in pertinent part [identity withheld]:

As a VSA member who voted at yesterdays meeting, I realized how painful and divisive this resolution has been to our community–to Jewish students and to Arab and Muslim students alike. But it was shocked at how many people were laughing and having side conversations when there were students who were clearly in distress. Watching the events play out was incredibly strange to me.

SJP students and BDS supporters sat on the outside for the most part, pretty much surrounding members of JSU [Jewish Student Union] who sat in the middle of the room. Laughter and murmurs all around them as they fought to be heard and seen. When clarifying questions were asked, an SJP member shouted out “is that worth answering?”…. But the cruelty and utter lack of respect for the students who were clearly going to be affected the most from our decision is disgusting, despicable, and shameful….

The school’s newspaper tweeted complaints from Council members about the atmosphere:

Now a faculty member has spoken up about the current atmosphere, in a description similar to those of the other professors in 2014 and the students quoted above.

The professor is Michaela Pohl of the Department of History at Vassar, Vassar Through the Eyes of a Non-Jewish Zionist Professor (emphasis added):

The atmosphere at Vassar College, where I’ve been teaching Russian history since 1999, is troubled. I am not Jewish, but even I have experienced an increase in hostility and strained silences among students and colleagues.

I have been called a “f—king fascist,” “Zionist” and “idiot” for speaking out against Vassar’s BDS resolution and speaking up for Israel and for U.S. policy. I have seen Jewish students profiled and singled out at a BDS meeting. I have felt the icy silence that reigns in some departments. Many professors have signed very visible and public petitions but don’t acknowledge them in person, instead saying, “I have nothing to do with that.”

…. I find it random, facetious and, yes, anti-Semitic, that so many at Vassar choose to engage in political activism by means of a barrage of discourse about boycotting Israel.

Two years ago, Vassar’s Students for Justice in Palestine posted online the Dutch fascist party’s 1943 “Liberators” poster. It includes words like “Miss America,” “Ku Klux Klan” and “Jitterbug,” and shows capitalism and imperialism as a frightening creature composed of Jewish/Zionist and American bombs, dripping with blood. I was angry and felt wounded, though the post was later removed. How could students be unaware that the image they posted is a core part of fascist propaganda about capitalism?

The campaign for a BDS resolution at Vassar has continued to flood the campus with broad condemnations of the U.S. and Israel as imperialist, racist and genocidal. Countless declarations that students “must struggle against Israel”; making the Vassar Student Association debate this issue while pro-Palestinian students heckled, laughed and ridiculed those who opposed BDS; and the refrain that all this is not anti-Semitic — all this amounts to a mass intellectual trolling campaign….

Anti-Jewish speech off and on campus is very real, and it is starting to have long-term effects.

This is one of only a few faculty members willing to speak publicly. The complicity of the faculty in creating and protecting this climate of fear is something that needs to be explored.

In the meantime, all is not well at Vassar. The administration’s attempt to pass off the problems as a creation of social media no longer holds water after these students and faculty have spoken out.


Here are selected posts from the dozens I have written about Vassar College:

[Featured Image: T-Shirt sold at Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine event, honoring Leila Khalid, Palestinian airplane hijacker]