Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, has been in the headlines this year because of anti-Israel agitation related to Hillel. But that’s only part of the story, and the only part to receive mainstream media attention.
In fact, several events coincided leading to an ugly, racialized and anti-Israel eruption on campus in early March which has not received any mainstream media attention, although it was covered at the pro-Israel Commentary Magazine and Louis Brandeis Center, and previously at the anti-Israel Mondoweiss website.
I began looking into these events several days ago, and have had extensive conversations with the two Vassar professors who were the target of anti-Israel rage. I also have obtained documentation not previously published.
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. Yet the Vassar administration has done little in response, and would not comment for this report.
The bigger story is that these events at Vassar reflect how the American Studies Association academic boycott of Israel has emboldened anti-Israel students to cross previous lines of academic respect and freedom. The “anti-colonial” and other rhetoric focusing on Israel’s supposed European roots, inaccurately used by the boycott movement to demonize Israel, has injected a racial context to the protests (as at U. Michigan) which is boiling over but only in one direction — towards supporters of Israel.
This incident also reflects on what it means to “Open” Hillel and to diminish the place on campus where pro-Israel students are welcome.
“Open Hillel” and Faculty Letter Supporting Boycott
The Vassar Jewish Union is affiliated with the Hillel International organization.
Vassar is one of only two schools, the other being Swarthmore, to declare its branch of Hillel an “Open Hillel.” That designation means that the college branch would not honor Hillel’s international policy of not hosting groups hostile to Israel’s existence or in favor of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement.
At the time, Vassar
Jewish Student Union Assistant Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life Rabbi Rena Blumenthal expressed concern about what the “Open Hillel” designation would mean for pro-Israel students on campus:
Blumenthal, however, remains somewhat apprehensive for students, saying, “I do have a concern that some students who are supportive of Israel may misunderstand the Open Hillel stance to mean that their voices are not equally valued. I do hope that VJU will make it clear that being an Open Hillel means being open to all voices along the political spectrum of this complex issue.”
The Open Hillel effort at Vassar was led by Jewish Student Union President Naomi Dann, who co-signed a letter in support of the ASA boycott of Israel, along with the co-President of Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP is an anti-Israel group active in pushing the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, denying Jewish national aspirations in Israel, and advocating the claim that Israel is a “settler colonial” state:
SJP at Vassar is active and aggressive on campus, building a mock wall for “Israel Apartheid Week,” among other things:
At the same time, there was a vigorous faculty reaction to the statement issued on January 2, 2014, by College President Catharine Bond Hill and Dean of Faculty Jonathan Chenette announcing that Vassar rejected the academic boycott of Israel passed by the American Studies Association.
Recently several academic associations, including the American Studies Association, have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Vassar College is firmly committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We are opposed to boycotts of scholars and academic institutions anywhere in the world, and we strongly reject the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. We endorse the statements opposing the boycott issued by the American Association of University Professors, the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities, and the President of the American Council on Education.
Vassar’s commitment to academic freedom not only leads us to reject the call for a boycott, it helps ensure that our faculty and students may pursue their academic interests wherever they may lead, engage in unconstrained discussions, and express their views freely.
Nonetheless, 39 Vassar faculty members signed a strongly worded open letter condemning Israel, dated February 28, 2014 and printed in the Student Newspaper on March 1, 2014:
…. We cannot afford to be passive about the considerable violence and brutality that the Israeli state has inflicted and continues to inflict upon the Palestinian people and other minoritized populations, particularly as the United States financially, militarily and diplomatically supports the Israeli state, and thereby contributes to the ongoing occupation. Even the ardent supporters of Israel cannot deny the ongoing systematic dispossession of Palestinians, the destruction of their homes and livelihood, the expansion of illegal settlements beyond the 1967 borders, and the general humiliation and hardship Palestinians must endure as walls, checkpoints, apartheid legislation, and control of movement deny Palestinians self-determination, freedom, and basic human rights. While Palestinians have been fighting for their freedom since their dispossession in 1948, the world has remained largely silent with regard to this humanitarian crisis….
Among the signatories was Joshua Schreier, Associate Professor of History and Director of Jewish Studies, who supports the academic boycott of Israel and considers Israel (added — comparable to) an Apartheid state:
Associate Professor of History and current director of the Jewish Studies program Joshua Schreier is the instructor for a course at Vassar called “The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict”.
Schreier explained that his stance on whether or not to boycott Israeli academic institutions has changed over time.
He wrote in an emailed statement, “Originally, I was instinctively against it. Recently, I have heard far more reasoned, substantiated and detailed arguments in favor of the boycott.”
He proceeded, writing, “The second, explicit question is whether Apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel are comparable. Before anything, let me say clearly that I would never say the two countries are the same. This being said, it is hard to deny that both counties maintain (or maintained) hierarchies based on race or, in Israel, what is often called “nationality.”
SJP cheered the faculty letter, stating that it marked a turning point on campus.
International Studies 110 becomes target of academic boycott
While the Open Hillel push, Israel Apartheid Week, and faculty letter were moving forward, Professors Jill Schneiderman (Professor of Earth Science and Geography) and Rachel Friedman (Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies) were getting ready for their International Studies 110, International Study Travel.
This semester the course was focused on a trip to the Jordan River Watershed and Surroundings in Israel and the West Bank, as described by Schneiderman at her personal blog:
I’m about to embark on a two-week journey with 28 Vassar students to the Jordan River valley and its surroundings. I was motivated to propose and teach such a course because from my perspective as an earth scientist, I understand how daily and future access to clean water in ample supply is one of the key issues about which people in the region fight. It is also a problem on which Arabs, Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have worked together with integrity and compassion….
Our trip will take us from the headwaters of the Jordan River near the border with Lebanon down to the shrinking Dead Sea and through the bone dry Arava valley. With assistance from Friends of the Earth Middle East and EWASH (Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Palestinian territory), along the way, we’ll meet with Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians to learn about their perspectives and efforts with regard to the basic human right of ready access to clean water.
In late February, Friedman arrived at Kenyon Hall on campus for her regularly scheduled class.
As she entered the lobby of the building, near her class, Friedman was confronted with a line of SJP students holding posters and passing out flyers demanding that students not participate in the class and not go to Israel on the class trip.
I spoke with Friedman at length about the incident.
As Friedman describes it, protesters were lined up side-by-side across the lobby such that Friedman and the 28 students in her class had to push through the line to get to the classroom. While not physically blocked, Friedman described that this required her to physically cross the protest line, as the protesters created a space to walk through as she approached.
The protesters carried posters with slogans urging students to drop the class. While Friedman doesn’t have photos of the posters, Friedman recalls wording similar to “It’s not too late to drop the class,” “Indigenous Palestinians don’t want you to take the class,” and wording regarding oppression of Palestinians.
Here’s a copy of the flyer handed out as students entered the class:
Friedman said that she was “shocked” and “in 17 years at Vassar never experienced anything like this.” She said she “couldn’t believe protestors crossed over into [the] space of classes.” Even though the protesters didn’t enter the classroom itself, they imposed themselves physically in the pathway to the class.
Friedman considered these physical actions to be a “new kind of transgression.” Friedman felt that the protest was “dangerous” from an academic perspective, and “crossed a line that no other protest crossed.”
She said she would not have minded if the protest took place outside of the classroom vicinity and in a way that did not impose on those entering the class. SJP frequently leaflets and has a table set up in the student center, and Friedman said she doesn’t mind that.
The protesters continued to make noise as class started, but eventually quieted down and left. The students in her class looked “shell shocked” according to Friedman.
The class spent about a half hour talking about what had happened. Student comments during that session included that they “felt unsafe,” “bullied” and “harrassed.” Some other students felt that their “intelligence was insulted” by the protest.
Friedman asked the class what they wanted her to do. The consensus was to hold a “mediated discussion” with the protesters so that all student voices could be heard.
Open Forum Turns Toxic
After the class Friedman contacted senior administrators to inform them what had happened, and to express her concern. Friedman did not seek any sort of disciplinary sanction, only the “mediated discussion” the class requested.
According to Schneiderman, accusations of racism were made (added — based on the professors complaining) because SJP claimed that the protesters outside the class were “of color.” SJP also accused them of “greenwashing,” a term we have discussed here before where anti-Israel groups claim Israel uses its strong environmental record to cover up supposed crimes against Palestinians.
While SJP later would claim that the protest caused the course to include more areas of the West Bank, Friedman denied that, indicating that more areas were included once a State Department travel warning for those areas was removed. Until then, the school would not let the class travel to those areas, but it always was the intention to fully expose the students both to Israel and the West Bank.
Friedman was told that a dialogue session would be organized with the protesters, so that she and they could express their views to each other civilly. That meeting never took place.
Instead, and much to her surprise, Friedman received an all-campus email from the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence announcing that there would be a campus-wide forum to discuss the ethics of her class travel.
The Committee on Inclusion and Excellence presents:
The International Studies Trip and Student Protest at Vassar
Join us for an open discussion about the International Study Travel trip to Israel and the response from students. Representatives from the Dean of Students office, the International Studies Program and Travel class, and Students for Justice in Palestine will kick off a conversation on the ethics of the travel trip, the rights of students to protest on campus and other related issues.
Monday, March 3rd
5:30 to 6:30 pm
Multi-purpose Room, College Center
Friedman was shocked, particularly by the reference to the “ethics of the travel trip.” Friedman told me: “Since when do other faculty members get to challenge the ethics of another class?”
When she expressed that view to administrators, including the CIE administrators, Friedman was told her that “this thing happens with or without you.” She and Schneiderman felt they had no choice but to attend the forum.
Shortly thereafter, however, the title and description of the forum was altered in a second all-campus email:
The Committee on Inclusion and Excellence presents:
The Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar
Join CIE for an open conversation on the ethics and possibilities of student activism and the rights of students to protest on campus. This open dialogue, while not limited to, will include a conversation about the International Study Travel trip(s) and responses from students. Representatives from the Residential Life office, the International Studies Program, Travel class, Students for Justice in Palestine, and J Street will kick off the conversation.
Monday, March 3rd5:30 to 7 pm
Multi-purpose Room, College Center
The campus forum 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.
Phillip Weiss, a harsh critic of Israel who runs the Mondoweiss website, attended the forum at the invitation of Friedman and Scheiderman According to Weiss, Kiese Laymon, an African-American writer and English professor, led the meeting, saying he wanted a dialogue about activism–“not to be guided by cardboard notions of civility.” Friedman also remembered that phrase being used to open the meeting
Weiss descibed the hostile atmosphere, as follows in part (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.
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
2000 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.”
There were administrators present at the forum taking notes. The Dean of Students and Acting Dean of the College were present.
Friedman and Schneiderman left a few days later on their trip, and only returned a few days ago.
Is Vassar a Place for Pro-Israel Students?
As of my conversations this week with Friedman and Schneiderman, they were not aware of any administrative response to what happened.
The President of Vassar did not respond to two emails, copied to communications personnel, requesting comment on the forum specifically and the anti-Israel climate on campus in general.
The Rabbi Blumenthal of the Jewish Students Union also did not respond to a similar email.
Clearly there is a major problem at Vassar, with an out-of-control anti-Israeli hostility emboldened by SJP and some faculty.
Now that Hillel is “Open” to people who hate and want to destroy Israel, there is no organized place for pro-Israel students, Jewish or otherwise, a concern expressed early on by
the Vassar Jewish Student Union Rabbi Blumenthal.
With high school students about to receive acceptance letters and make decisions about where to attend college, one has to wonder whether Vassar is a place for pro-Israel students.
[Note – there were a few wording changes after publication, as noted in the post.]
I finally received a response from Vassar, at about 4 p.m., about 3 hours after I forwarded them this post. The email was from Jeff Kosmacher, Director of Media Relations & Public Affairs. Here is the email in full:
Mr. Jacobson:Your post needs correcting:
1) “At the time, Vassar Jewish Student Union Rabbi Rena Blumenthal expressed concern about what the “Open Hillel” designation would mean for pro-Israel students on campus”
— Rabbi Rena Blumenthal is in fact Assistant Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. The Vassar Jewish Union is a student organization.
2) “The room was full, with approximately 2000 students, most of whom were anti-Israel.”
— That would be 200, not 2000. Vassar only enrolls 2400 students, and our largest venue, the Chapel, only seats 1000.
— As to your contention “most of whom were anti-Israel,” what is your source? I was actually in the room.
The “2000” number was just a typo. Thank you for catching that. It has been corrected to 200. Rabbi Blumenthal’s title has been clarified. My sources for the description of the room atmosphere were those people mentioned and quoted in the post itself. It would have been nice if you responded to my prior emails so that I could have included your side of the story.
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