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.