Vassar BDS sentiments not shared by all

In response to President Hill and Dean Chenette’s decision to denounce the stance of the ASA and the broader BDS movement on behalf of the College, I want to make my own case for academic freedom.

I’ll preface my statement, however, by addressing a few things. First, the contributions of several Vassar alumnae/i in the past week or so. If I were to go through and fact-check every statement, this would be a long letter indeed, so I’ll keep my own remarks brief. It’s important to note I’m not Palestinian or Israeli, but I’ll say what I think is fair and accurate based on my experience as a scholar living and working in the region.

Israel is considered a settler-colonialist state in part because settlements exist and continue to spread across Palestinian lands without their consent and in violation of international law; Israel is considered an apartheid state, not only because of the “security wall,” but because of an entire system of infrastructure and resource allocation throughout the West Bank to which only Israeli settlers have access to, including settler-only roads; Israel has demonstrated a history of racist policies, including denying entry to citizens of some races and nationalities and making it nearly impossible for Palestinians and Israelis to intermarry. Finally, important histories of Jewish persecution and dispossession do not legitimize the continued persecution and dispossession of other peoples by other means, especially because of the lasting power and relevance of those Jewish histories.

I take it that the broader argument expressed by Ms. Rappaport and Ms. Josephs though—that living together is an impossibility for Palestinians and Israelis or that it is simply undesirable—wills a conclusion that is by no means assured. Any two-state solution is widely understood to be dead in the water. There are practical, topological issues that stand in the way and questions that remain unanswered: What will the map look like? What percent of historic Palestine would Palestinians receive today and how much will Israel receive? How will Jerusalem be divided? What will the status of Arab-Israelis be? These questions are also deeply philosophical. They ask: What is Israel? Can it be the site of the Jewish homeland without being an exclusively Jewish state? What is our ethical duty to the Other? What will the right of return look like? Can two nations occupy the same territory? Is it possible to maintain one’s identity amidst plurality? Are our democratic commitments strong enough to protect minorities? Will we see the outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict rehearse the death throes of the nation-state, or is something else possible?

Palestinians and Israelis are already living a de facto one-state solution with varying levels of citizenship and corresponding rights. The late Edward Said held this view, and so do many others today. As we look forward, whether this state will convene political rights and equality for some or for all continues to be up for grabs—the demands of international law and human rights on this, however, are clear.

Regardless of the outcome of continuing conversations, as a Vassar alumna, I am disturbed and disappointed that two members of the Vassar administration would unilaterally denounce the academic boycott of Israeli universities, the stance of the ASA, or the broader BDS movement on behalf of the entire Vassar College community, which includes myself and others who are in support of the boycott. I am further disturbed by the notion that this denunciation is made in the name of academic freedom. I too want to defend the goal of academic freedom, but let’s first talk about what exactly we’re championing here.

My decision to support the academic boycott and the broader BDS movement is not an attack on academic freedom, but the expression of a commitment to it. I stand behind those students, researchers, faculties and institutions that do not have adequate access to educational resources (including consistent electricity and water), travel and residency visas, or opportunities for intellectual exchange with the rest of the world as a direct result of the Israeli occupation. This includes students and faculty from other countries who wish to study in Palestine or collaborate with Palestinian scholars and are denied entry into Israel to do so. As long as the Vassar administration wants to uphold abstract protections for the abstract ideal of “academic freedom,” that ideal will always be unattainable. Indeed, true academic freedom will always be lacking where entire populations of people are denied the basic conditions for the possibility to secure that freedom. As an institution that enjoys the privilege of many freedoms as only a small liberal arts college could, we must be willing to take up our concomitant responsibility to struggle for the extension of academic freedom with others who lack it. Without this perpetual struggle, academic freedom is meaningless and hollow. Because of the unique nature and importance of intellectual exchange, academic freedom is one of the few phenomena that diminishes in the whole world where it is denied in part of it—and let’s be clear: what we’re talking about with the academic boycott is not the denial of Israeli academic freedom.

Surely, participation in this struggle must be particularly pressing where communities are barred by laws of violence, discrimination, dispossession and imprisonment. These laws can only be overturned by the State of Israel itself (as the inaction of international bodies has made clear) and the academic boycott of Israeli universities represents one non-violent way of exerting pressure on the state to do so. The boycott challenges those members of the Israeli community, as well as members of our own community, to reassert their commitment to an idea that we all hold dear by treating it first and foremost as the fruit of tangible reality and not as an abstract ideal.

In support of this goal for academic freedom, and in the spirit of keeping dialogue about the academic boycott and the BDS movement unrestricted, I call on President Hill and Dean Chenette to retract the College’s denunciation of the ASA and to reevaluate through broader discussion the “academic freedom” that we, as a community, choose to defend.


—Katherine Howard ’12 was a philosophy major. She is a philosophy Ph.D student at Emory University.

One Comment

  1. Ms. Howard appears to question the factual accuracy of previous contributions to this discussion, but her own op-ed is replete with errors and misrepresentations. For example, there is no such thing as a “settler only road,” in the West Bank. There are a very few roads that are open only to cars with Israeli license plates, regardless of whether their passengers are Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Druze or foreign tourists. The sole reason for this restriction was to prevent the ambush, fire bomb and shooting attacks on Israeli cars that were previously common in some areas of the West Bank.

    The security wall, likewise, was built solely to prevent the entry into Israel of mass murderers who butchered and maimed many Israeli Arabs as well as Jews by exploding themselves in restaurants and on buses during the years before the wall was constructed.

    Israel does not deny entry to anyone based on race or nationality but rather on detailed security profiles that are targeted specifically to substantial threats. And there is no Israeli policy that makes it “nearly impossible for Palestinians and Israelis to intermarry.” The law to which Ms. Howard is probably referring is a temporary restriction on granting citizenship to Palestinian Arab spouses of Israeli citizens, which has been extended on an annual basis, is also security related and nevertheless is highly controversial within Israel.

    Finally, Ms. Howard refers to “Palestinian lands,” yet many areas of the West Bank were home to thriving Jewish communities for centuries if not millennia before they were violently attacked and their residents either murdered or dispersed during the earlier part of the last century. Unless one is of the opinion, as most BDS supporters seem to be, that all of Israel is “Palestinian land,” the definition of which areas will fall within that category remains to be decided by final status negotiations between the parties.

    The fact that supporters of the BDS and academic boycott movements feel obliged to resort to widespread but thoroughly debunked distortions of fact in order to defend their position speaks volumes.

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