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Anti-Israel “Climate of fear” at Vassar

Anti-Israel “Climate of fear” at Vassar

Clearly, something has gone very wrong at Vassar.

Our post, Anti-Israel academic boycott turns ugly at Vassar, exhaustively detailed the fury directed by Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine at two Vassar  professors teaching a class that involved travel to Israel and the West Bank. 

That fury erupted in an Open Forum organized by the Vassar administration at which those professors together with Jewish students were heckled, jeered and belittled in such a frenzy that it shocked even Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss website, who himself is anti-Israel and was present at the event.

The accuracy of our reporting was confirmed by the two professors involved, as detailed in The Anti-Israel Cultural Revolution at Vassar.

Now the two professors have written a lengthy column in the Vassar student newspaper detailing their experience.  They specifically address how this incident fits into the perceived climate of fear at Vasssar.  Here is an excerpt (emphasis added):

One especially vexing aspect of the criticism leveled at us is that it has been racialized. In early February, SJP students picketed our course causing some of our students to express feelings of harassment and intimidation upon entering the space of the classroom. We objected to the picket because of its negative effect on those who already felt beleaguered by ill-informed criticisms across campus for enrolling in the course. Discussing the picket during class, our students asked us to relay to administrators in the Dean of the College office and the International Studies program the request for a facilitated discussion between them and SJP members. Despite our repeated requests for such an intervention, none transpired.

Since then, our objection to the picket has been characterized by some members of the Vassar community as our use of white privilege to target students of color. If we and our students had been consulted before this conclusion was drawn, listeners would have learned that our students—many of whom belong to racial and ethnic minority groups—were as surprised as we were that the group of SJP protesters were characterized as being “of color.” Furthermore, it would have become clear that we supported the right of SJP students to protest in any number of ways, including ongoing tabling in the College Center, but not inside an academic building at our classroom door. If anyone had thought to speak with us before stereotypically labeling us, multiple competing narratives would have emerged. For example, while the two of us have indeed benefited from the privilege of being seen as within the white majority in our society, we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP.

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.

In our opinion, the rage unleashed disrespectfully at us at the forum has a gendered as well as a racial dimension. Perhaps one way to begin countering the climate of fear is to work harder campus-wide to engage one another with intellectual openness, listening to the multiple narratives that emanate from the Vassar community. A jumping-off point for this endeavor might be to engage with any one of the 28 breathtakingly thoughtful students who devoted their spring break to the study trip. Though some might caricature these students as having been greenwashed by the two of us or by our itinerary, such spurious depictions underestimate the intelligence of the diverse group of students whom we have been privileged to teach.

—Jill Schneiderman is a professor of earth science & geography at Vassar. Rachel Friedman is an associate professor of Greek & Roman studies at Vassar and Jewish Studies.

Clearly, something has gone very wrong at Vassar.

Update: We have received a copy of the following Statement from Vassar president Catharine Hill issued April 11, 2014, which reads in part:

Dear members of the Vassar community,

I have heard from many of you, on campus as well as alumnae/i and parents, who are concerned, as am I, about campus tensions stemming from different viewpoints about Israel and Palestine. I know that people have very deep feelings about these issues and emotions can be raw. While there are people who have been working hard to further understanding on campus, we are a community very diverse in thought. Some feel very clear in their views, while others are conflicted. Some are frustrated and feeling unheard when opportunities for discussion are organized, while others have said they are uncomfortable publicly expressing their views. Still others are unengaged with the issue.

There is no way to make the challenges or the frustrations surrounding these issues just go away, nor do we want to do that. What I believe we in the Vassar community can contribute to these discussions and any other set of complicated and contentious issues is a way to talk about them with intellectual discipline and mutual respect, even in the face of heated disagreements.

There is no more natural home for this process than at Vassar. We welcome the multiple differing opinions we have among our faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i, and families on these and many other issues. And this is especially important during a time when we see a lack – at times almost a complete absence — of civility and engagement within our political system and in our media. With our multiplicity of backgrounds and opinions comes the challenge of figuring out how to have difficult discussions in which everyone involved has a chance to be heard without interference, certainly without derision. We need to treat each other civilly and with respect. If we don’t, we shut down and shut out important voices. People may then withdraw from the discussion. This is a loss of ideas and perspectives….

Our Statement on Civility and Responsibility in an Academic Community, in stressing the importance of both free speech and an environment “free from intolerance, disrespect or harassment,” ends with the powerful statement that “genuine freedom of mind is not possible in the absence of civility.”

The college has clear policies against discrimination and harassment that the entire community must abide by, with carefully developed procedures for investigating and adjudicating alleged infractions that protect the rights of all involved. Sanctions are imposed in those instances when any member or members of the community are found to have violated the policies. We have confidence in these policies and procedures and have used them to guide our responses in difficult situations. As an educational institution, our responsibilities include preparing our students to be active in important issues in their communities, the country, and the world after graduation. Our policies and procedures are designed to educate, in addition to holding people responsible for their actions….

Our International Studies course, the Jordan River Watershed, that included a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, provided an opportunity for deep engagement and learning around some of the most contentious issues of our time. While there were and continue to be discussions on campus about what kinds of trips take place, I have been moved by comments from the students and faculty who made this trip. Instead of the monolithic opinions some expected to encounter among many in both areas, they found instead a range of viewpoints. Our students and faculty witnessed diverse groups working through intense, difficult discussions to find some understanding and even common ground. There can be no better learning experience. I hope that difficult conversations on campus can have the same impact on our students’ lives.

I am cautiously optimistic and encouraged by these and other events. As a community we are taking very seriously our responsibility to prepare Vassar’s next generation to speak confidently, listen respectfully, and act responsibly and effectively. Most importantly, drawing on language long associated with our college, we are working to live up to the call to “educate the individual imagination to see into the lives of others.”

Catharine Hill President


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“Clearly, something has gone very wrong at Vassar.”

Well, THAT catalog would look like the Greater Los Angeles phone book.

LukeHandCool | April 12, 2014 at 2:06 pm

“For example, while the two of us have indeed benefited from the privilege of being seen as within the white majority in our society, we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP.”

When I see a white woman in her fifties or sixties working as a waitress in some cheap casino restaurant in Vegas, I wonder, “Why doesn’t she use her white privilege to her benefit? What’s she waiting for?”

When I see a middle-aged white man working in a fast-food joint, I wonder “Doesn’t he intend to benefit from his white privilege instead of making it hard on himself?”

Why the trailer parks full of “white trash” reluctant to invoke their “white privilege”? Don’t they know they can go to any job interview for any high-paying job and be hired on the spot by invoking their white privilege?

“… we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP.”

Why? For harassing you and your students?

For spreading lies about Israel and the dynamics preventing peace?

Professor Schneiderman, you need to get outside the academic bubble for some extended reality R&R. A nice sabbatical might help you rethink some things.

LukeHandCool | April 12, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Arigatoo, gs-chan.

“Banzai!” is what Luke’s wife used to yell at Luke’s little children so they’d throw their arms up in the air so she could yank off their t-shirts. Funny looks from mothers nearby in the park made Luke ask her to simply say, in English, “Raise your arms up.” Her reaction? She yelled “Banzai!” even louder. Luke should know by now to use reverse psychology with her.

LukeHandCool | April 12, 2014 at 3:10 pm

By the way,

As for academic bubbles, at least Professor J gets out every now and then to see how the other 99% live.

Luke met him and his charming wife when they were here in L.A. It’s obvious she forces him to leave his comfort zone within the academic bubble to mingle a bit.

Luke could tell Professor J doesn’t care for slumming very much.

But, that only added to Luke’s amusement … probably not unlike his wife’s self-amusement yelling “Banzai!” even louder when Luke expressed his discomfort.

Banzai, Professor!

Someone please define for me what “of color” means these days.

And re Catharine Hill’s statement: if one of my kids had turned in this mealy, meandering, insipid piece of euphemistic blather as a homeschool essay, I would have told them to rewrite it using no more than three paragraphs.

Hey Catherine, maybe another twelve hundred words might help you get to the bottom of this? No, I’d expect not. Simple declarative sentences like, “Anyone intimidating students going to class will be immediately suspended; If they do not comply, they will be expelled and may be subject to arrest,” may not be forthcoming, no matter how many words she gives forth.

Insufficiently Sensitive | April 12, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Says the Vassar Prez:

We welcome the multiple differing opinions we have among our faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i, and families on these and many other issues.

Nowhere in that entire gaseous emission does she address the bullying mobs whose actions against the classroom she is so earnestly welcoming. No doubt if some students of opinions differing from the classes were to hang a few class members as an example for the others, she’d twaddle on as if hanging is a perfectly respectable form of expression in a fully diverse University atmosphere.

Instead of reacting in fear from their intimidation…be happy, cheerful and have faith…that always gets ’em. It’s the bullies that are writing the bullying laws these days. Do not comply with how they expect you to act. I know it’s hard sometimes, but remember they are just jealous, stupid and maybe paid activists to boot..or in the least very lead astray by disinformation and propaganda lies. Most 20 year olds are out the big, bad world without a clue and are easily manipulated by others to “fit in”. Somehow when I think of Vassar, neither thankful or humble come to mind.

I found the President’s message to be poorly-written and unclear. I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was saying.

As to Prof. Schneiderman, I have enormous sympathy for her but she does seem to be a bit clueless. Had she not been aware of the underlying and vicious feelings which surround anything to do with Israel? as compared to say, one of those benign places like Syria much less North Korea? Where has she been?

I chalk it up to a moral snobbery common among a certain kind of liberal (and hey! when you get down to all the substantive issues I AM a liberal) so I know my folks.

At a personal level I wish her well and that this incident will be a learning one and not too much scab tissue. And it doesn’t mean that she needn’t have empathy for Palestinian people — god knows they have gotten a raw deal even when partly of their own making — but she needs to have some commonsense.

I hope that difficult conversations on campus can have the same impact on our students’ lives.

so now abusing those you disagree with = difficult conversation … glad to know that …

so if I feel the need to call her a stupid b*tch in public we are just having a “difficult conversation” …

Juba Doobai! | April 13, 2014 at 8:16 am

Vassar has laid the ground work for on campus terrorism.

This Vassar situation seems of a piece with my developing thesis on the aims and intentions of the Obama administration vis a vis the American people.

Think of SJP as the colonizers, and the students who disagree with them as the colonized. The colonizers will browbeat and use every tool at their disposal to diminish the colonized. The fear existing on Vassar’s campus is the fear that Obama imagines the colonized peoples of the world felt when interacting with their colonizers. This is the fear that SJP would visit on American students on their own university campus. And they are succeeding, too. Think of it as verbal car bombs, knifings, and sniper attacks. It’s intent is to demoralize, to weaken, to stop people from going to Israel.

The only answer, it seems, is to beat the hell out of some of these SJP folks. I’m generally not an advocate of violence, but some people don’t seem to understand rights, laws, and polite conversation. They will understand very quickly if you kick the crap out of them because that beating makes hem think you’re a strong horse, so they will now fear you. That is what they’re accustomed to. That is what they know. And, it seems, that is what they want handed to them.

    David R. Graham in reply to Juba Doobai!. | April 13, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Do you think a thrashing would be sufficient to the end? One would think so, of an ordinary human’s response. With these personalities, however, I doubt that a thrashing would achieve an enlightenment. A permanent fix might more suffice the end.

    In any case, Vassar — sadly — wrote herself onto the permanent do not attend/do not support list. That list comprises now the Who’s Who of Latin culture’s post-secondary education. All because of the corrupting influence — and vivid First Amendment violation — of private efffectively-religious establishment using public taxes.

    CAIR did not create this evil. They exploit its already-extant opportunities.

    Ronin0985 in reply to Juba Doobai!. | April 13, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Simple physical violence would be to polite and simple for them to understand, their ignorant stereotype consuming foot soldiers should be renditioned and dumped at random points in the region they claim to “know and love” so well with no money or documents for a random period of time.

“That fury erupted in an Open Forum organized by the Vassar administration at which those professors together with Jewish students were heckled, jeered and belittled in such a frenzy that it shocked even Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss website, who himself is anti-Israel and was present at the event.”

You think Robespierre ever had moments like this before he prey to his own mob?

I can’t do much beyond trying to stay informed about this insanity. Thanks to the Professor for being one of the main sources of BDS info.
I will take my tax return this year and buy Israel Bonds. Perhaps if enough of us concerned friends of Israel does something like this it will encourage more people to it.
The BDS people can kiss my bonds.

No, it wouldn’t. But we’re talking about the people who like to talk about fairness and equality yet who trade in the currency of terroristic behavior to deny other people equal rights. Talking to them sometimes is a waste if time. They have potatoes in their ears, as Greta would say.

As I said, I’m not an advocate of violence, and I know the solution to this problem lies in prayer, but sometimes you just want to beat the hell out of some of these idiots, especially when you know many of them have a mindset that only responds to oppressive physical force.