Howard’s opinion disregards academia

Responding to articles and letters from us and other alumnae/i, Katherine Howard ’12 purports to offer her own “case for academic freedom” (The Miscellany News, “Vassar BDS sentiments not shared by all,” 2.19.14). Thank you, Howard, for providing an excellent example of what the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement is actually about. As your letter makes clear, you are not concerned with Israel’s supposed wrongdoing—much less about trying to persuade Israel to correct alleged misdeeds—but with Israel’s “wrong-being”. For you and other BDS proponents, Israel has no right to exist.

It should be an uphill battle to convince the world that the only stable liberal democracy in the Middle East should dissolve itself. After all, it was almost 67 years ago that the UN recommended (through UN Resolution 181) partition of the land in order to create a Jewish state, and, thereafter admitted that state into the United Nations. But Howard shows us how surprisingly easy it can be, if one assumes the audience is intellectually lazy or already indoctrinated.

To begin with, let’s note Howard doesn’t address the facts that are inconvenient to her pet characterizations of “apartheid,” “racist” and “colonialist.” To add, Howard makes clear that she isn’t going to “go through and fact-check every statement” made in the pieces we submitted. Next, Howard proclaims as a fact, from her omniscient perch at Emory, that she hopes—specifically, that the two-state solution “is dead in the water.” Certainly the outcome of the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is far from certain, but despite her remarks in favor of a one-state solution, Howard does not have a realistic proposal to resolve the dispute.

Her suggestion that under Hamas or even Fatah rule, Jews and Christians would be treated equally shows a shocking ignorance of history and current events. Christians living in the Palestinian territories are also subject to severe discrimination, as it has existed for many centuries. In 1995, when Bethlehem came under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Christians, who comprised two-thirds of the population, left in droves in fear of persecution.

Now, less than 20 percent the population of Bethlehem is Christian. Critics, including Arab Israeli journalist Kahaled Abu Toameh, have written extensively of Hamas’s “Talibanization” of the Gaza Strip, where Christians under Hamas rule have been attacked, their churches and schools firebombed, leaders murdered and cemeteries dug up. Hamas leaders call for the genocide of all Jews. Do we need to wonder how Hamas would treat Jews under its rule?

Very little of Howard’s call for academic freedom is actually concerned with the topic. However, Howard alleges that Palestinian students and institutions do not have adequate resources­—including water—due to the “Israeli occupation.” The water-theft accusation is a BDS favorite and false: not only has Israel helped to modernize the water systems in both the West Bank and Gaza, but it pumps its own water into the West Bank in amounts triple those agreed to in the Oslo accords.

And as for denying visas to foreign scholars wishing to study in Palestine, of the four examples cited in the Modern Language Association’s recent discussion of resolutions against Israel, three occurred many years ago. The only recent incident involved an academic who refused to comply with security questioning.

Of course, if BDS proponents like Ms. Howard were actually concerned with academic freedom, one would expect them to rail against such nations as China, which fires and imprisons dissident scholars, or Iran, which also regularly imprisons scholars (and, just the other week, executed poet Hashem Shaabani who blasphemed by speaking against the repression of a minority group), or North Korea, which, as a UN report recently confirmed, is the worst human rights abuser of all. But that would not advance BDS’ aim of destroying the only Jewish state in the world.

Howard’s proposal for academic freedom is to demand that Vassar retract its denunciation of the ASA’s academic boycott. Here’s our counterproposal to BDS: Rather than trying to intimidate students into accepting your demonization of Israel by portraying non-BDS believers as racist sympathizers, and rather than seeking to cut off students from contact with Israeli scholars and institutions, why not call for open discussion and dialogue? Why is it so important to you, Ms. Howard, that only the pro-BDS voices speak? What is it that you do not want the Vassar students to hear?


—Karen Rappaport ’78 was a pre-med biology major and pursued a career in health care, first as a pathologist and subsequently as a health services researcher. Laurie Josephs ’78 was a political science major and attorney for a number of years in New York City.


  1. Dear Ms. Rappaport and Ms. Josephs,

    In the spirit of President Hill’s February 27th email, it’s wonderful to hear from you again. You’ve attributed many claims to me here that I never made, and subsequently leveled judgments about my character and raised suspicions about the intentions behind my views that I believe are untrue and unfair. I regret if my argument was unclear or my language was opaque, or if you feel that I was attributing an authority to myself that I have no wish to claim. Instead of responding to your statements line by line, I’ll refer you to “Open letter in defense of academic freedom in Palestine/Israel and in the United States” (03/01/2014) a faculty-written op-ed piece and “Letter to the Editor 2/27/2014” an alumni-written op-ed piece, both of which I fully endorse. These statements express my own opinions better than I could and I am grateful for them. However, if you would like to continue the conversation with me personally, I will be happy to talk with you. I assure you that the perch from where I sit is far from omniscient, but, as you say, I can be found at Emory.

    Katherine Howard

  2. Dear Ms. Howard,
    I did not find your letter to the Misc opaque; it expressed quite clearly the same sentiments expressed in the manifesto issued by 39 faculty members purportedly in defense of academic freedom. What I find so intriguing is that this concern for academic freedom cuts only one way; there is absolutely no concern that Vassar students and faculty who are supportive of Israel feel free to express their views. Do you not find it strange that the only letters in support of Vassar’s condemnation of the boycott have come solely from alums? Do you really think there is not a single Vassar student who might disagree with the BDS movement? But opponents of BDS are bullied and intimidated; especially after such intellectually-stimulating events as Israel Apartheid week, when bathroom stalls are littered with flyers accusing Israel of racism, or so-called “open conversations” such as the one held on March 3rd about the ethics of the International Studies program’s sponsored trip to Israel, in which any pro-Israel sentiment was immediately cut off. (You needn’t take my word for what happened at the “open conversation,” just click on Did you know that prior to approving the academic boycott resolution, the ASA refused to post any comments opposing that resolution on its website? Is that how to model academic freedom? If you would like to correspond with me further on this or the many false accusations against Israel that you and the 39 Vassar freedom-loving professors are so fond of leveling, feel free to friend me on FB and I will private message with you. But only if you really want to hear things that might challenge the way you think about these issues. Sincerely, Laurie Josephs

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