Jordan River trip itinerary addresses complexities of region

On March 23, we returned from a two-week study trip to Israel/Palestine called “The Jordan River Watershed.” We feel confident that as a result of traveling to the region and talking with Arab and Jewish Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, our students can now speak knowledgeably about the complex realities of this conflict-ridden place. Our trip epitomizes the methodology of the field sciences, as well as the “go to the source” approach that has long been a defining feature of a Vassar education.

On our first day, we visited the holy sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem. Next, visits to the Arab village of Battir and a nearly century-old Palestinian hilltop farm, Tent of Nations, as well as the Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, provided bird’s-eye views of resource quality and quantity issues in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. After our introduction to the complicated mixture of communities in this tiny area, we traveled north towards the Lebanese border to the contested volcanic heights of Israel/Syria and familiarized ourselves with the water sources that feed the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater body in the region, and the upper reaches of the Jordan River. While in the Galilee, we also visited Nazareth and the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris, remarkable for the archaeological record it provides of Romans, Jews and Christians coexisting peacefully.

Over the next days, we headed south, traversing the length of the lower Jordan to its terminus in the closed basin of the Dead Sea. Throughout the Jordan valley, we encountered the stark reality of dammed tributaries, water in/sensitive agricultural practices, inadequate sewage treatment facilities, wetland reclamation efforts, land subsidence, mineral extraction industries and, especially notable, unequal access to surface water conduits and groundwater aquifers. At the same time, we were humbled by the awesome spectacle of deep geologic time revealed in the limestone layers of the canyons that we hiked to an oasis of Ein Gedi and the storied copper-bearing sandstone mountains of Timna. We concluded our trip in the southern Negev, learning about communities trying to live sustainably in the harsh desert terrain by employing solar power, dry composting, permaculture farming and mud-plaster building.

Throughout our trip we met with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions. Most impressive about these individuals, non-governmental organizations (such as Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Plaestinian territory) and educational institutions (Arava Institute for Environmental Studies) was their demonstrated ability to inhabit the gray area between radical extremes. Despite the charges leveled against them, brave people on both sides consistently asserted the need to sustain conflicting narratives simultaneously. As Sulaiman Khatib—a representative from the binational NGO Combatants for Peace who served 10 years in Israeli prison for armed resistance—put it, “Every stone has at least two stories.” Khatib’s line became our mantra as we repeatedly strove to occupy the murky but potentially productive middle space between binary extremes.

We have, of course, followed the maelstrom of reactions to the trip. We, as the instructors of the trip, have personally been attacked from both left and right. In one account, we are “white settler colonialists” oppressing the Palestinians; in the other, we are “self-hating Jews” pursuing an “anti-Israel agenda.” In fact, people who made little, if any effort to examine the details of our course subject and itinerary have reduced us to stereotypical caricatures. If their narrative is that the two of us are bent on destroying Israel, it is because our support for many of the goals of Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) and the Open Hillel movement seems irreconcilable with our involvement in our Jewish communities and support (albeit critical) of Israel. If their narrative is that we support a white colonialist regime in Israel, then perhaps they refuse to look at the ways in which we are committed to fighting injustice against Palestinians. Though unsurprised by these reactions, they sadden us, particularly as educators.

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. 


  1. It will be interesting to see how these two professors deal with next week’s Anti Israel and Anit Zionist campus wide action sponsored by the SJP. SJP has called for protests and parades against the false claim of “Israel Apartheid” (no such thing exists). Interesting also that this anti semitic group has called for this event during the holy Jewish week of Passover. No coincidence.

    • Of course there is apartheid in Israel. When there are two sets of laws governing which side of the wall one lives, on the same land, what else shall we call it ? Alternative reality.

      Ah yes, alternative reality. Many wish to construct by pretending there is no apartheid in Israel. And of course litters every letter with enough “anti-semitism as if such would cement such alternative reality.

      Lets get real. The entire world (except the usual suspects) see Israel as an apartheid state. Wake up and smell the hummus. Its pungent.

      • Raj,
        In your normal pentient to be a know it all, you are mistaken as to why there are two sets of laws. That little thing that anti-Israel ideologues insist upon, called International law, requires it.
        Moreover, the differences in the law are mostly customary in nature, except of course measures in place in an effort to keep the peace.
        Anti-Israel ideologies = hold Israel to contradictory standards.
        On the one hand, Anti-Israel ideologues demand that Israel comply with their interpretation of International law while, on the other hand, they assert that Israel is an apartheid state for following their interpretation of International law.

      • What a whitewash by these two professors. Really surprising that people with Ph.D.s can rationalize in this manner.

        • Deborah.
          You statement could be read several ways.
          Curious to know what you mean.
          How did the two professors err?

      • “When there are two sets of laws governing which side of the wall one lives, on the same land, what else shall we call it ?”

        How about a response to this:

        The Hamas charter: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him” (Article 7).

    • Jim Raker writes:

      “SJP has called for protests and parades against the false claim of “Israel Apartheid” (no such thing exists).”

      Right … which explains why Israel has been so gung-ho to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (which defined the crime of apartheid) … after having signed it …

      Oh, wait … Israel has since said that they have no intention of ratifying it … never mind …

      But of course, there’s always the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid … surely Israel being the modern, pluralistic, and civilized nation – with equal rights for all – that it is, has both signed and ratified that instrument, right ?

      What ? … they have haven’t even signed it yet, let alone ratified it ?

      Hmmm …

      “The Apartheid Convention declares that apartheid is a crime against humanity and that “inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination” are international crimes (art. 1).

      Article 2 defines the crime of apartheid –“which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa” – as covering “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. It then lists the acts that fall within the ambit of the crime.

      These include murder, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest of members of a racial group; deliberate imposition on a racial group of living conditions calculated to cause its physical destruction; legislative measures that discriminate in the political, social, economic and cultural fields; measures that divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate residential areas for racial groups; the prohibition of interracial marriages; and the persecution of persons opposed to apartheid.”

      Well, yes Jim … surely you must be right …

      Let the hasbara continue !

      • Raj rambles and never responds to details in the debate. Just repeating stale, albeit hateful, rhetoric. Now another poster – oneof5 – offers nasty, sarcastic criticism, hiding behind an anonymous nickname. I have questions for both of them, because other than their peurile rambling, there is never a valid point. What is the purpose of your hatred? Are you proposing the elimination of the State of Israel? Then what?

  2. The main problem I have with the professors’ letter is that they bend over backwards to show sympathy for the Palestinians to the extent that they blame only Israel for the problems in the region. I don’t believe they truly feel that the Palestinians are completely innocent and that all the guilt lies with Israel. However, the environment at Vassar has become so toxic, I don’t think they feel they have any alternative.

    Here’s some help.

    I just finished reading an article in the LARB by Judea Pearl, father of the late Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by Al-Qaeda in 2002. No one says it better than Dr. Pearl, who suffered the ultimate loss. Here are passages I think are the highlights of his article:

    “Some human beings are endowed with an amazing capacity to filter reality and see only that which fits their agenda. BDS advocates see the checkpoints, the separation wall, the night raids, and the home demolition in the West Bank. They do not see the innocent victims of terror. They do not see the innocent babies who owe their lives to the wall. They certainly do not see the anxiety of 7.9 million human beings living under the shadow of 150,000 deadly rockets, aimed at their civilian populations.”
    “BDS followers possess infinite capacity to remember every horror of the 1948 war that led to the Palestinian refugee problem but zero capacity to remember another refugee problem. In the 1936-1940, the British Government succumbed to mass Palestinian riots and blockaded Jewish refugees from entering Palestine — thus sealing their fate in Auschwitz. Perhaps it is hard for BDS supporters to acknowledge these refugees because they are not with us to testify. What they should be able to acknowledge though, and rarely do, is the 1948 Arab attack on the newly created nation of Israel, which, by all historical accounts, was genocidal in intent and left deep scars on the Israeli psyche. Scars on both sides beg for healing; seeing some and not others is seeing none.”
    “he one-way prism worn by BDS advocates is most glaring when it comes to the issue of “self-determination.” Some of their “intellectuals” preach for hours and hours on the moral right of Palestinians to self-determination. At the same time, they intentionally forget, wish away, or deny the moral right of their neighbors to that same self-determination. In the old days we used to label such intellectuals “racists” and shun them from the company of men of good will. Nowadays, the label “racist” is reserved primarily for Islamophobes and “white settlers” — real and imaginary; the distinct racist character of the BDS ideology is rarely condemned for what it is.”
    “Assigning guilt to one side only, and rushing to issue an indictment, a verdict, and a sentence — as BDS has done — is dishonest, reckless, and probably racist. Most people of conscience understand that Israel derives no benefits from controlling another people’s lives. The current situation is imposed on Israel by neighbors who continue to announce that they wish her dead and that lifting the occupation would only embolden their wishes. BDS’s complaints about travel restrictions on students in the West Bank appear grotesque compared to the daily existential threats that Israel is enduring.”
    “The leaders of the BDS movement do not hide their real purpose: in every conversation with them they admit that their ultimate goal is not to end the occupation, and surely not to promote peace or coexistence, but to choreograph an arena whereby the “criminality” of Israel is debated and her character defamed. In other words, their goal is not to win a debate but to stage one, in which the words “boycott Israel” are repeated time and again to slowly penetrate listeners’ minds, thereby tarnishing Israel’s image with a stain of criminality. Net effect: bullying pro-coexistence voices into silence.”
    “In his lecture at UCLA on January 15, 2014, Barghouti stated again that Jews in Israel are not entitled to any form of self-determination, on any piece of land, however slim. They are not a people, he proclaimed (with a straight face), and the UN principle of the right to self-determination does not apply to them.

    Consider the implications of committing 6.2 million human beings to eternal statelessness, stripped of their protective sovereignty, in a neighborhood that is boiling with genocidal designs. In so doing, Barghouti has in effect defined BDS as a racist, if not genocidal, movement. His statements were not disavowed by any BDS activist that I know of, including those writing in this forum, and certainly not by my esteemed colleague Professor Robins Kelley, who introduced Barghouti at UCLA with reverence befitting a reincarnated Mandella.”
    “It is not surprising, therefore, that misrepresenting Israel as a “white settlers colonialist society” has become a cornerstone of BDS ideology and propaganda. Readers are invited to count the number of times these labels are used in essays written by BDS supporters.

    And, while counting, readers should ask themselves if they can recall:

    *One case of white settlers moving into a country they perceived to be the birthplace of their history.
    *One case of white settlers speaking a language common in the land before the language spoken by its contemporary residents.
    *One case of settlers whose holidays commemorated historical events in the land to which they moved — not in the lands from which they came.
    .//*One case of settlers who did not name towns like: New York, New Amsterdam, New Wales (Israeli towns are not named “New Warsaw,” “New Berlin,” “New Baghdad”), but after names those towns enjoyed in ancient times,
    *Or settlers who narrated their homecoming journey for 80 generations in poetry, prose, lore, and daily prayers.”
    I wish Professors Schneiderman and Friedman a peaceful and wonderful Pesach. Next year, in Jerusaelm.

    Here is the link to the article:

  3. Professors Schneiderman and Friedman,

    You say in this April 9th letter that critics on both left and right “made little, if any effort to examine the details of our course subject and itinerary.” Please make the actual detailed itinerary of your trip, specifically where you went, day by day, who you specifically talked with by name so that people can examine this information. To date this has not been made public.

    Other than EWASH, did you consult with other water experts and, if so, with whom by name, organization and affiliation?

    In the interest of transparency, please make this information available so people can comply with your request. You can publish this information right here on the Misc website.


    • Would you also like their birth certificates in the interest of transparency to insure that they are who they say they are? If you want to know the itinerary and the syllabus and the curriculum, sign up the for the class next semester.

      • Yoni,

        The two professors, in fact, write that “people (who criticize us) made little…effort to examine the details of our course subject and itinerary.”

        No one is asking for a birth certificate as you suggest. An intelligent discourse on the nature of the trip and the question of trip bias must necessarily include the facts, not conjecture, about this trip, including itinerary. Signing up for the class next year hardly provides that. An effort is now being made “to examine the details of the itinerary,.” understanding that Professor’ Schneiderman’s and Friedman’s point is well taken.

        At the March 3 meeting, there were students present who were members of SJP. They specifically asked for the itinerary of the “Israel” trip and also stated that the itinerary had been changed at some point. The details of the trip (old or new) were not provided to them and faculty denied that the agenda for the trip had been altered by them in any way.

  4. “Intimidation at Vassar ?”
    “At about 6:15pm the first members of the class started trickling in, to which we had meaningful discussions about alternatives to breaching the boycott and what the BDS movement asks from them. At about 6:20pm until about 6:30pm many more students and the professors of the class came, expressing a wide spectrum of reaction to our protest. Many took literature, and even stopped to ask a few questions, while some kept walking unhindered to the classroom. There was no ululating. No student was blocked or obstructed from reaching the classroom. and we invited all of the class members to our meeting to keep the discussion going and to learn more. No one in our organization stepped foot into the classroom, and we all packed up and left at exactly 6:29pm, before the class would start. It is also worth noting that half a dozen members of the class would later come to our next general body meeting and participated in a insightful discussion about the political reality of the trip.”

  5. It seems as though those who would vilify, slur, and defame those who stand for human rights for the oppressed have begun to make their way out of the woodwork of Hasbara Central. Their game seems just a little weak at this point … so allow me to provide a little inspiration and some advice on technique. For this I turn to Brother Gabriel over at the Jews Sans Frontieres blog:

    “How to make the case for Israel and win

    To the benefit of the many not-very-bright zionist wannabe apologists who read this blog assiduously, I decided to offer a clear and simple method of arguing the case for Israel. This clear and simple method has been distilled from a life spent listening to and reading Zionist propaganda. It is easy to follow and results are guaranteed or your money back.

    So don’t hesitate! Take advantage NOW of this revolutionary rhetorical system that will make YOU a great apologist for Israel in less time than it takes to shoot a Palestinian toddler in the eye.

    Ready? 1..2..3..GO!

    You need to understand just one principle:

    The case for Israel is made of four propositions that should always be presented in the correct escalating order.

    We rock
    They suck
    You suck
    Everything sucks

    That’s it. Now you know everything that it took me a lifetime to learn. The rest is details; filling in the dotted lines.

    You begin by saying how great Israel is. Israel wants peace; Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; the desert blooms; kibutz; Israelis invented antibiotics, the wheel, the E minor scale; thanks to the occupation Palestinians no longer live in caves; Israel liberates Arab women; Israel has the most moral army in the world, etc.

    This will win over 50% of your listeners immediately. Don’t worry about the factual content. This is about brand identity, not writing a PhD. Do you really think BP is ‘beyond petroleum’?

    Then you go into the second point: They suck. Here you talk about the legal system of Saudi Arabia, gay rights in Iran, slave trade in the Sudan, Mohammad Atta, the burqa, Palestinians dancing after 9/11, Arafat’s facial hair, etc.

    There is only one additional principle you need to understand here. It will separate you from the amateurs. You need to know your audience. If you’ve got a crowd already disposed to racist logic, go for it with everything you have. But if you get a liberal crowd, you need to sugar coat the racism a bit. Focus on women rights, human rights, religious tolerance, “clash of civilizations”, terrorism, they teach their children to hate, etc. Deep down your audience WANTS to enjoy racism and feel superior. They just need the proper encouragement so they can keep their sophisticated self-image. Give them what they crave and they’ll adore you! But be careful not to ‘mix n match,’ because it will cost you credibility.

    When you’re done, there will always be dead-enders insisting that abuse of gays in Iran does not justify ethnic cleansing in Palestine. Take a deep breath, and pull the doomsday weapon: You suck!

    You’re a Jew-hater, Arab-lover, anti-Semite, you’re a pinko, a commie, a dreamer, a naive, a self-hater, you have issues, your mother worked for the Nazis, Prince Bandar buys you cookies, you forgot you were responsible for the holocaust, etc. The more the merrier. By the time you end this barrage, only a handful would be left standing. For mopping them up, you use the ultimate postmodern wisdom: Everything sucks.

    War, genocide, racism, oppression are everywhere. From the Roma in Italy to the Native-Americans in the U.S., the weak are victimized. Why pick on Israel? It’s the way of the world. Look! Right is only in question between equals in power; the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Ethics, schmethics. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Eat, drink! Carpe diem! The Palestinians would throw us into the sea if they could. Ha ha!

    Trust me, that’s as far as words can go. If you followed this method faithfully, you’ve done your work. You should leave the few who are still unconvinced to the forces of order.

    You are now ready to
    apologize for Israel like a pro.”

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