The Miscellany News recently published a letter by an alumnae/i group called “Fairness to Israel” that argued that recent events at our college indicate that Vassar is “no longer the open, innovative institution that transformed our lives” (“Faculty letter squelches campus voices,” 03.27.14). I would argue that Fairness to Israel (FTI), while touching on some real problems, is off the mark. While Vassar may not be the same institution as it was in the past, it is still an “open, innovative” institution stimulating “independent and critical thinking.”
One of the central issues raised by FTI’s letter is that 39 faculty members (including the author of the present letter) signed a public letter dissenting from President Hill and Dean Chenette’s statement condemning the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott resolution. True, the letter supported boycotts as a legitimate form of non-violent activism. According to FTI, this means Vassar’s faculty are “ranting activists, not scholars,” and that they “intimidate” students (who fear being “graded harshly”) into a “deafening silence.”
In reality, however, there are many indications, including several listed by the letter itself, of lively debate at Vassar. They include campus activism such as Israel Apartheid Week, the formation of a “pro-Israel” student group on campus, the Students for Justice in Palestine-organized (SJP) action urging fellow students to not go to Israel, and the well-enrolled, intellectually engaged International Studies & Jewish Studies travel course to Israel and the occupied territories that went forward nonetheless. FTI may certainly disagree with the positions being voiced, but it cannot deny the existence of real debate.
Furthermore, FTI misreads the faculty letter of dissent. It did not accuse the administration of stifling free speech, as FTI suggests. Rather, it expressed concern that it could “have a chilling effect” on debate, as most certainly has come to pass on other campuses. This fear is not without grounds. Northeastern University recently called in police to question SJP activists after a leafleting campaign (of all the participants, apparently, only students of color were targeted), and subsequently suspended the SJP chapter. Barnard College just halted their longstanding practice of allowing student groups to advertise events with banners hung from the main building, solely in response to the local SJP’s (previously authorized) placement of a banner.
Vassar’s administration, admirably, has not followed this trend. While their statement condemning the ASA boycott resolution is too selective, the administration has manifestly allowed an environment in which faculty and students can publicly disagree with them (and with each other). None of this gives credence to FTI’s claim that Vassar has an “anti-intellectual atmosphere.”
The March 3 event that FTI uses to condemn the mood at Vassar, putatively fueled by the letter of dissent, was a moment when frustration, fear and passion did come together in a way that many agreed was unhelpful or intimidating. Students do need courage to express unpopular opinions on divisive issues, and an event billed as an “open discussion” should encourage openness, by which I mean the airing of different views.
But associating the letter of dissent with the March 3 event is unfair. So is assuming that one interchange is indicative of the wider climate at Vassar. The event had little or nothing to do with the letter of dissent. They had been organized separately by different people. To suggest that the letter was “deliberately timed” to “silence pro-Israel voices” at the event is silly. It is the rightful place of informed people—including college faculty—to speak out on issues of social justice, and it is wrong to associate this with “bullying” or anti-intellectualism.
Yet linking the letter with the March 3 event has helped several blogs (particularly on the right) emphasize the racial element of this issue on campus. This, in turn, has led to the reductive and inaccurate vision of Jews pitted against people of color and their left-wing sympathizers. Of course the issue does have a racial dimension; this is not surprising given that the Israel/Palestine issue concerns ethnic/religious discrimination and human and civil rights, and Vassar hosts students from a variety of backgrounds. But it is not true that Jews and people of color are reliably on opposing sides—regarding the travel course, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), or Israel/Palestine in general.
Vassar College has never been more diverse. Not coincidentally, it is hosting a lively, multi-sided, engaged, and often angry debate about Israel and Palestine, among other issues. These debates involve (and wrestle with) terms such as “racism,” “colonialism,” “anti-Semitism,” and “apartheid.” Frequently, this debate is informed, nuanced and useful.
Occasionally, it is nasty. This obvious reality makes it clear that Fairness to Israel need not worry that opposing voices are “being silenced” at Vassar. I invite them to join me in celebrating what all this makes quite clear: opposing voices are not being silenced.
—Joshua Schreier is an associate professor of history at Vassar College. He is Director of the Jewish Studies multidisciplinary program.
Editors Note: 4/3/14 – A correction has been made to address those involved in the organization of the event and those who signed the faculty letter.