Search for Vassar College in Legal Insurrection’s archives, and you’ll find scores of posts documenting Vassar students’ efforts to shut down speech with which they disagree. This is a longstanding problem on today’s college campuses, and it is perhaps most commonly manifested in attacks on Israeli, pro-Israel, and/or Jewish speakers.

Vassar College Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has a particularly sordid history, including posting of an anti-Jewish and anti-American Nazi cartoon, glorifying terrorists, and picketing a course that involved travel to Israel.

So Vassar SJP’s attempt to shut down a November 14, 2019, lecture by Israeli speaker Hen Mazzig was just par-for-the-course, as was their ear-splitting chanting of the Hamas-favored phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”.

But this time SJP appears to have crossed a line. In a strong statement, Vassar President has condemned SJP’s behavior as anti-Semitic, and has announced an “adjudication process” for the students who participated.

Hen Mazzig is a well-known Jewish-Israeli-Iraqi-Amazigh activist; he’s been an eloquent and articulate advocate for LGBTQ+ communities all over the world, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, and an educator focusing on Mizrahi (eastern) Jewry. Hen is also a polyglot; though English is not his first language, he has become fluent enough to give dozens of speeches in English every year, and his writing has been published in the LA Times, at NBC, the Miami Herald, the Jerusalem Post, JTA, and others.

LIF has long followed Hen’s continued advocacy for Israel, and how he has been targeted by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Jewish State. We documented some of the the hostility and violence he has faced in our October 2016 post, BDS thugs attack Israeli speaker and crowd at University College London.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Hen nearly ten years ago when I served as a Campus Coordinator for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). As we worked with Hen on arranging a speaking tour, I found him to be warm, sincere, and a passionate advocate of human rights. Professor Jacobson also met Hen in Tel Aviv in 2013.

I have been fortunate to be able to keep in touch with Hen; I will never forget one interaction with him in particular.

During the first semester of my graduate coursework at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel in late 2015, Hen came to campus to speak on a panel about life as an Israel activist. I hadn’t seen him in person in several years and was thrilled to attend his lecture. We were able to exchange a quick hello hug before the program started and I took my seat in the packed auditorium with some friends.

After IDC’s introduction and excited applause, Hen began his remarks by graciously thanking our school, his two fellow panelists, and everyone present for attending. But instead of then launching into his planned presentation, Hen asked everyone in the audience—about 400 people—to acknowledge “another incredible Zionist activist here tonight, who has worked tirelessly for years for Israel and for the Jewish people.” My friends and I looked around the auditorium, searching for the person to whom he referred.

But to my surprise, Hen suddenly called my name; smiling at me from the stage, he asked me to wave to the crowd, told everyone how much he appreciates my work, and even had the whole audience—which included some of my professors—applaud for me

It was and remains one of the most genuinely kind, flattering, and deferential gestures I have ever experienced. More than four years on, Hen’s example of humility, consideration, and magnanimity still inspires me to try to always treat others with warmth and respect.

In short: Hen is knowledgeable, thoughtful, intelligent, and hard-working. His experiences afford him a unique perspective, he offers a nuanced understanding of a complex reality, and he is altogether a great representative for Jews, Israelis, and Zionists. Basically, Hen is exactly the kind of person Students for Justice in Palestine—with its dictate that Zionists are uniquely, uniformly evil—would rather never come to campus.

But come Hen does.

SJP Tries To Prevent Hen From Speaking at Vassar

Organized by the Vassar student group Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively (VOICE), Hen’s event at Vassar College was to focus on his family’s story, and the oft-overlooked history of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

https://www.facebook.com/events/538369210340796/

Hen’s lectures present a remarkable story to listeners: as refugees from Arab countries, Hen’s Jewish relatives—and nearly a million others like them—found solace and a home in a fledgling Jewish state. He speaks about the indigeneity of Jews to the land, and about the struggles against racial discrimination many Mizrahi Jews faced (and still face).

https://www.facebook.com/events/538369210340796/

SJP, however, evidently could not handle the idea of Hen’s presence at Vassar. The group took to Facebook and published a lengthy rant the day before Hen’s event claiming that Hen’s unrelated status as an IDF veteran automatically precludes the possibility that he could present an “accurate history of the mass exodus of “Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.”

Even more disturbing to SJP than Hen’s service in the military, it seems, is his ethnic, cultural, and sexual identity. As an organization that uses ‘intersectionality’ to argue that ‘people of color’ and minority sexualities are all fighting the same (or related) oppressions (white/ colonialist/ Israeli supremacy) and should thus all agree with one another on all social issues, SJP is naturally outraged that Hen—a “queer” person of color—has not jumped on the intersectional identity politics bandwagon in the way it wants him to; SJP complained Hen would obviously “use his identities (as a queer, Mizrahi Jew) to glorify Israel and attack anyone who advocates for Palestinian liberation.”

Finally, evidently afraid that a student attending and listening to Hen’s talk might find something in the presentation with which to empathize, identify, or even—heaven forbid—from which to learn, SJP hastily dismissed the possibility of an equal exchange of ideas and commanded others not to attend, claiming that even listening to Hen amounts to the “normalization” of racism:

There is no two-sided conversation to be had when one party’s existence is predicated upon the forced dispossession, massacre, and total control of movement and access to resources of the other. There is no such thing as progressive Zionism as Zionism is inherently racist and necessitates the displacement and subjugation of the Palestinian people…BDS calls for us to refuse normalization of Zionism on all fronts and thus, we refuse to offer space for even more racism and imperialism on this campus…Do not attend this talk and do not permit the continued legitimization of an ideology that relies on the dehumanization of the Palestinian people.

But SJP went further than ordering others not to hear Hen’s perspective. Indeed, the group decided that it would punish those people who chose to attend—and Hen himself—by staging a loud disruption at the lecture itself, preventing Hen from continuing and his audience from hearing him.

Attempted Shout Down and Threat of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free”

The Jewish Journal reported,

Prior to the event, Mazzig pointed out that the protesters were handing out flyers accusing Mazzig of “pinkwashing,” – the allegation that Israel provides the LGBTQ+ community with rights to distract from the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians – and stating that Mazzig’s “queerness will never make up for the violence underlying his advocacy for a settler-colonial occupying state.”

“It had nothing to do with the talk,” Mazzig said. “My talk was about Mizrahi Jews. I had to talk about being gay because in the flyers they mentioned it.”

A video of the event (here and below) shows protesters shouting the common phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” over and over again.

Hen himself tweeted two more videos of seemingly endless SJP chants.

As Hen later noted, the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” is a favorite of the Hamas, the Gaza-based terrorist organization that controls the area. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has invoked it in speeches calling for the eradication of Jews, and it is generally understood that the chant characterizes all of Israel (from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea) as an occupied Arab state from whose Jews it will eventually be “free[d]”.

Thus, SJP’s behavior quickly evoked outrage.

https://web.archive.org/web/20191117233345/https://www.facebook.com/VassarSJP/posts/2640676409331100?__tn__=-R

[The public responds to SJP’s complaints about Hen and the group’s behavior at Hen’s event. Screenshot from Vassar SJP Facebook, November 2019.]

Vassar President Condemns Anti-Semitic Threats and Violation of Peaceful Protest Policy

Mere hours after Hen’s talk, Vassar president Elizabeth Bradley issued a preliminary statement:

For the last two years, our campus has been focused on engaged pluralism and practices that allow all voices to be heard. This is not easy, and while we have had triumphs, we have also had setbacks along the way. Promoting a sense of belonging for all students, faculty, administrators and staff and faculty on this campus can be challenging. Today, we fell short of these expectations.

A student group brought a speaker to campus, who gave a lecture on “The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East: Forgotten Refugees.”  A group of students disrupted the speaker by chanting outside the lecture hall for some time. People who were in the lecture expressed that the chanting was intimidating and hard to listen to. The words have been associated by some people with anti-Semitism.

We have worked with student groups to promote peaceful dissent and assembly, and disrupting an invited speaker is antithetical to being a part of a learning community. We have protocols that allow for peaceful protest. At the core of these protocols is our unwavering belief that we cannot have a free exchange of ideas if we do not allow diverse perspectives to be heard. Students today knowingly violated those protocols, which is unacceptable. We will follow our internal processes to address the situation.

Let us work toward a better approach to discussion and engagement. Vassar aspires to a culture where people feel they belong, where diverse views are welcomed, and where respect for persons is paramount.

Today, we let ourselves down in the pursuit of these values. Despite this, I believe in our ability to learn from this event. Given the strong voices on this campus, and the commitment of faculty, administrators, staff and students to education, I remain confident that multiple ideas, even opposing ideas, will continue to flourish.

Perhaps sensing that the group may have gone too far, the SJP students published another long Facebook post the following day. In it, the students justify their behavior at Hen’s lecture, admit that “we do not believe that Zionism should have a platform”, and claim that their chanting was “merely [an] expression of solidarity with Palestinian people across the world.”

SJP also attacked Vassar president Elizabeth Bradley, declaring

Bradley’s reactionary response is to be expected from a President who seems to be more concerned with checking off boxes and deploying buzzwords in defense of her image than dispelling false attacks on students or taking a stance against imperialism. Bradley picks and chooses what she engages with, or what is deemed worthy of addressing, based on the interests of donors, powerful alumni, trustees and the public image of the college. Last night’s statement came mere hours after Zionist backlash emerged on social media. Meanwhile, Bradley has not addressed the fears of Black students on campus after the administration increased the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department’s presence two weeks ago, or the ongoing investigations of Poughkeepsie Police brutality, happening right outside our campus. Bradley’s facade of administrative neutrality and promotion of peaceful dialogue not only erases the racism and violence inherent to Zionism but conceals her own complicity in the oppression of Palestinians.

This may have been the wrong move for SJP.

In a subsequent, landmark statement, Elizabeth Bradley set a new precedent by condemning SJP’s behavior as anti-Semitic, and announcing that an “adjudication process” had been set in motion:

Vassar has since 1861 been a bold and pioneering institution of higher education. It is a place that aspires to set the bar for the liberal arts and demonstrate the very best environment in which to work, study, and live. We know from decades of research that the culture of an organization matters to the quality of learning, and hence, I take great interest in how each of us influences the social and intellectual fabric of this place we and our alumnae/i have called home.

Last week’s event in which students chanted at an invited speaker was unacceptable. The student leadership had committed to upholding our practices of peaceful protest, including not disrupting the speaker. They broke that promise. Furthermore, protestors chose a chant that can be understood to be calling for the eradication of the State of Israel and is highly intimidating to Israelis and Jews, and directed it to an Israeli speaker discussing his perspective on Indigenous Jews. In the days following the incident, I have spent time speaking with and learning from students, faculty, alumnae/i, and experts in the field, and I now believe the use of the chant—in this way, directed at this speaker—crossed the line into anti-Semitism. We have begun our adjudication processes, which by federal law are confidential.

On this campus, we do not tolerate anti-Semitism, hate speech, or discrimination of any kind. I am grateful that after the fifteen-minute disruption, the invited speaker was able to continue and deliver his presentation to an engaged audience of students, faculty, and administrators.

To sustain the intellectual community that is Vassar, we support an environment and structures in which free speech flourishes. Even controversial discussions will best confer learning and understanding when they are free from discrimination of all kinds.

This is big news because it establishes a standard that can be used at other universities where students and even faculty have tried to shut down events they don’t like.

Vassar Turning a Page?

The fact that this comes from Vassar (of all places) magnifies the significance. As long-time readers may recall, LIF has a history at Vassar. Professor Jacobson spoke there in May 2014 on the issue of the anti-Israel boycott at Vassar, and only discovered during the Q&A portion of the lecture that one of the 39 Vassar professors who supported an academic boycott of Israel had also called for a boycott of Prof. Jacobson’s talk.

Then, there was the October 25, 2017 event, in which Professor Jacobson gave another speech at Vassar—this one on “An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech on College Campuses.” On that occasion,

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff on campus were whipped into a frenzy by false and malicious accusations, originating it appears with a student group Healing 2 Action, but also spread by the Vassar Student Association. In addition to maligning me personally, accusations were spread falsely claiming White Nationalist supporters might come to campus to target students of color, LGBT students, Jewish students and others.

But, as it transpired,

The turnout [for Prof. Jacobson’s free speech lecture] was excellent, approximately 200 students in the room (full capacity) plus overflow in the hallway. The students who attended, even the ones who showed up wearing black in protest, listened intently. I think they were expecting someone and something very different based on the campus hysteria. I addressed the hysteria in my lecture.

After my lecture, we had over an hour-long question and answer session, and almost all the students stayed to the very end. The questions were thoughtful and in many instances quite challenging, the students respectful, and I think we all learned something.

This SJP incident may be a turning point for Vassar in protecting free speech by drawing a clear red line as to attempts to shout down and disrupt speakers. Equally important, this is an important recognition that the genocidal demand to erase Israel using a chant embraced by Hamas and other Jew-hating groups is anti-Semitic.

 
 
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