Late last month, Vassar College students narrowly rejected a proposed Israel-boycott.

Legal Insurrection led the way in exposing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity at Vassar over the past two years. Key parts of the problem were vocal faculty who were hostile to Israel and favorable towards the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Vassar administration, while opposed officially to BDS, seemed frozen by the aggressive tactics of student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Despite the repudiation of the boycott, reports of anti-Jewish hostility and administration inaction increased so much so that Jewish students solicited help from outside groups.

Thirty four Jewish and civil rights groups participated in the letter to Vassar College President. Thursday, the AMCHA Initiative issued a press release detailing Vassar student concerns and the response from outside groups:

At the request of several Jewish students at Vassar College who report feeling unsafe in light of an uptick in numerous anti-Semitic incidents since February, 34 Jewish and civil rights groups today wrote to Vassar College President Catharine Hill urging her to do more to prevent anti-Semitism and protect Jewish students.

“Last week, several Jewish students on your campus approached us and asked for our help. They reported an alarming and threatening escalation in anti-Jewish hostility that has not been adequately addressed by campus administrators,” wrote the groups.

“The students told us that this semester, in the midst of a protracted and virulently anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a number of anti-Semitic incidents occurred which have caused them to feel singularly vulnerable and threatened,” continued the groups.

The incidents include unaddressed swastikas, Jewish students being mocked and vilified during a March BDS vote, anti-Semitic statements posted on Vassar Yik Yak including “fuck Jews” and “Zionism is a plague of mankind” and Vassar SJP advertising the sale of shirts with convicted terrorist Leila Khaled holding a gun with the caption “Resistance is not Terrorism.” SJP’s promotion described the shirt and other items for sale as, “sweet fucking antiZionist gear.”

“The Vassar students with whom we spoke were deeply disappointed that you did not publicly acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of these incidents and commit your administration to addressing the extremely hostile environment facing many Jewish students, who are reporting feeling harassed, intimidated and unsafe on your campus.”

The groups called on Hill to, first and foremost, “swiftly, forcefully and publicly acknowledge and condemn all acts of anti-Semitism,” adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that identifies all forms of anti-Jewish bigotry, including when anti-Israel rhetoric crosses the line into anti-Semitism, and increase anti-discrimination training and education. The groups also cited as a model the University of California’s recently adopted “landmark report that explicitly recognized that contemporary forms of anti-Semitism often occur in the guise of anti-Israel activism.”

The students contacted AMCHA Initiative last week concerned for their safety and asking for help. AMCHA then coordinated the letter from the thirty-four groups.

Those groups are:

AMCHA UCLA Alumni
American Institute for Jewish Research
Americans for Peace and Tolerance
BEAR: Bias Education, Advocacy & Resources
Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law
Club Z
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) CUFI on Campus
Davis Faculty for Israel
Eagles Wings
Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET)
Fairness to Israel
Fuel For Truth
Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel
Iranian American Jewish Federation
Israeli-American Council (IAC)
Jerusalem U
National Conference on Jewish Affairs
Middle East Political and Information Network (MEPIN) Proclaiming Justice to the Nations
Project Genesis
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi
StandWithUs
Stop BDS on Campus
Students and Parents Against Campus Anti-Semitism The Israel Christian Nexus
The Israel Group
The Israel Institute
Training and Education About the Middle East (T.E.A.M.) Zionist Organization of America

In March, AMCHA released an empirical study reporting widespread anti-Semitism in 2015 among the top 100 schools for Jewish students. The study also demonstrated that BDS is the strongest predictor of anti-Jewish hostility on campus.

The letter to Vassar College President can be found here.

Vassar student concerns appear to corroborate similar incidents documented by a Vassar professor in March.

UPDATE 5-20-2016 (by WAJ): Vassar media relations forwarded to me today the following response from Vassar’s President to the letter:

Dear Ms. Rossman-Benjamin:

Thank you for your recent letter on behalf of the 34 organizations. I appreciate your willingness to reach out on these important issues.

The well-being of our students is our ultimate concern at Vassar. We want all students who come here to know they are an essential part of our community, that they belong at Vassar, and that they will be treated with respect. This must be true, even when there are strong, deeply-held differences of opinion among students on important issues. This is the goal so many of our committed staff, faculty, and students work toward every day.

Vassar College as an institution, and I personally, have consistently and forcefully condemned anti-Semitism, and we will continue to do so. In word and in deed, including messages to our campus community, alumnae/i, and parents of students, I have stated unequivocally that anti-Semitism must be called out wherever it exists.

We have well-established processes and dedicated staff on our campus to investigate any charges of discrimination or harassment thoroughly and promptly, and assure that they are adjudicated swiftly and appropriately through our college regulations process. If a student or other member of our community is found to be responsible for discrimination, harassment or threat, that person will be disciplined accordingly. I, along with our faculty and staff, have consistently urged and worked with our students, should they ever feel they have been discriminated against, to use these processes fully.

Calling out anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination through this process is the most effective way we have to hold individuals accountable and make it clear to our students that we will not tolerate such behavior.

Obviously, anonymous postings on social media such as Yik Yak make it difficult to hold persons accountable in the same way. We cannot know whether such postings even come from our own community. These are among the serious challenges and harmful results of anonymous social media that all organizations and institutions face.

As I am certain you are aware, Vassar has consistently made its position against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement known. The Dean of the Faculty and I rejected the American Studies Association call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and I have on many occasions stated that Vassar does not support the BDS movement. That position against BDS did not change when our student government agreed to take up the BDS issue and as you know, in a referendum last month our students voted against supporting BDS.

At the same time, Vassar has a strong commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Those freedoms provide our students, faculty, and staff the right to hold and express their points of view and beliefs about the BDS movement.

There is no perfect model of how to have respectful conversations and dialogue among people who hold opposing, deeply felt opinions and beliefs. But I believe colleges and universities can, and must, rise to this challenge. We cannot solve the problems of our time unless we explore them together, and campuses should be places where we can face these complex and challenging issues in productive ways. This is an essential part of the education we must provide our students, if they are to contribute to a society that will be better equipped to address urgent problems than we are today.

It is critical for students to understand the impact of their words and actions on others, just as it is critical to learn how to compromise and work toward solutions. To that end, at Vassar we have made learning how to have these challenging conversations a priority. We have held workshops on anti-Semitism with skilled facilitators and have engaged the highly regarded National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) for trainings on how to have respectful dialogue on difficult topics. Student leaders, faculty, and staff from throughout student services, as well as my senior staff and I, have worked with NCBI over the last year and a half.

Vassar has made a strong commitment to education and discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speakers and panels this year – several of which were supported through the President’s Office Fund for Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences — included human rights activist Bassem Eid, who conveyed a cautionary message about BDS; journalist, author, and professor Peter Beinart on the “Crisis of Zionism”; legal scholar and former president of Brandeis University Frederick Lawrence via webcast on “Free Speech vs Hate Speech,” followed by a faculty panel for audience discussion; author and activist Ari Shavit on “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”; a faculty panel entitled “Disciplinary Perspectives on Boycotts of Israel” with faculty from the psychology, history, and economics departments; and broadcast journalist Krista Tippett on “Creating Civility.”

And we will not stop here. Our goal is to make a contribution not only to recruit and educate a highly qualified and diverse student body, but to help them learn and engage constructively across deep differences. Anti-Semitism, and all other forms of discrimination and harassment, will not be tolerated on our campus. We are equally dedicated to being able to hold tough conversations, and helping our students learn to listen and respect one another across their differences. This is a mission I believe we must all embrace, in order to create a future we will want to live in.

Catharine Hill, President

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