The International Studies (IS) travel class recently returned from their spring break trip to Israel; however, campus debate and activism surrounding Israel-Palestinian issues seems unlikely to die out anytime soon.
An annual tradition for almost 25 years, the International Studies 110 class travels to a different country each year during spring break, often to explore firsthand the roots and causes of geopolitical conflicts.
This year’s IS trip, led by Professor of Earth Science and Geography Jill Schneiderman and Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies Rachel Friedman, looked at issues of water rights and access to the Jordan River, as well as disparities in water distribution in Palestine and Israel.
According to a student in the class, along with traveling around Israel, the class also took trips into the West Bank, visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have claimed that the travel class makes Vassar complicit in supporting Israel and perpetuating oppressive policies and actions against Palestinians. Members of SJP have protested the class and organized a display in the Retreat called “Israel Apartheid Week.”
Timothy Koechlin has been the Director of International Studies since 2010 and a member of the Steering Committee since 2004. He shared that the backlash against this year’s IS trip came as a surprise to him and his colleagues.
“The course has received a level of scrutiny and protest that, I think, no one expected,” he wrote in an emailed statement. Previous IS classes have visited countries like Cuba, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and, in 1989, the USSR, but no recent trip has generated the same level of debate.
Koechlin explained how every spring the IS Steering Committee, a group of faculty from various departments, reviews proposals submitted by professors for the following year’s IS 110 class. After considering a wide range of factors and even asking professors to revise and resubmit the trip details, the committee will vote to approve a proposal.
According to Koechlin, the discussion of whether or not to approve the Israel trip was even more detailed than most years. In all these conversations, however, the issue of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international campaign to isolate Israel from the global community, was entirely absent.
“I admit that, in retrospect, this is a bit perplexing to me—and to many of my IS colleagues. I wish we had,” wrote Koechlin.
It was against the backdrop of the IS trip that the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) held a public forum Monday, March 3.
According to Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon, the topic of the Israel trip was folded into the CIE’s forum on the ethics of student activism and protest after a discussion planned by IS fell through.
Laymon wrote in an emailed statement, “No one could pull off the IS trip conversation so we decided to help IS and the community by having the first one of hopefully many.”
He described how the forum also grew out of a concern over the language being leveled at SJP after their protests.
He wrote, “As you can tell from our remarks we were really concerned that SJP was being defined as threatening, bullying, etc. and CIE wanted to do everything we could to let encourage our community to think about the raced connotations of those words at a place like Vassar.”
After Laymon and Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Africana Studies Zachariah Mampilly explained the purpose behind the forum, several parties who had reached out to CIE made opening remarks. Although they had originally been slated to speak, SJP pulled out the night before.
Writing in an emailed statement, SJP explained why they chose to withdraw their formal presence from the forum: “While many SJP members were present as individuals, SJP as an organization decided to pull out of the introductory panel as we feel that our right to peacefully protest in the manner we did is indisputable. We had nothing to prove nor hide within the context of a panel on student activism. We believe that continuing to debate our conduct detracts from the real issues of violations of human rights and international law.”
Although he was not convinced that this first forum was productive, Laymon still hoped there would be more discussions in the future.
He wrote, “There will be more spaces for conversation. I don’t think it should be about parties coming to an agreement. It should be about passionately listening and speaking, though.”
Yaniv Yaffe ’16 attended the forum and is the co-founder of J Street U, a student organization advocating for a two-state solution.
He wrote in an email, “Personally, I support the IS department’s decision to send the class to Israel and the Palestinian territories. I feel that the most productive activism for a peaceful resolution to the conflict is one supported by a pragmatic education. Refusing to interact with Israeli society or cooperating with Israeli academic institutions inherently detracts from this ideal.”
SJP shared their reaction to the forum: “The dialogue quickly strayed from its topic and became about putting SJP on trial for making some people feel ‘uncomfortable.’ However, students and faculty members with no connection to SJP spoke up about how our actions have initiated an important discussion about Vassar’s involvement in apartheid and how we are being unfairly targeted for protesting, which is in all other cases encouraged of Vassar students and well within our rights.”
Meanwhile, Laymon expressed surprise that it was the Israel and Palestinian conflict that has captured the campus’ attention, even while local issues escape the same level of scrutiny. He wishes that more students would draw connections between injustices committed half a world away and those a few blocks down the road.
“Personally, I’m amazed that with all sanctioned racialized terror happening in Poughkeepsie, and all the sexual assaults on and off campus, that this Israel/Palestine issue is what is getting folks excited,” he wrote.