Letter to the Editor 3/27/14

The February 28th “Open letter in defense of academic freedom in Palestine/Israel and in the United States” which was published in the Miscellany News is a remarkable document. It’s signed by thirty-nine VassarCollege professors. Sadly, the letter lays out an argument for academic freedom that thinly veils a more controlling agenda.

The Trigger: On January 2, 2014 President Catharine Bond Hill publically condemned an American Study Association decision to support an Israeli boycott. Then, President Hill followed up with an open letter on February 27th, inviting the Vassar community to stand up for free discussion and mutual respect.

The Response: The thirty-nine professors responded with remarkable – and frightening – candor. These learned people are not promoting liberal conversation; rather, they want the BDS movement to go unchallenged on campus.  It’s turning the idea of academic freedom on its head. (If they were more self aware, they’d give themselves a failing mark.)

As a psychiatrist I never fail to be impressed with how seriously bright people can rationalize the worst behaviors. Misinformed and biased intelligence can be a dangerous thing.

A Slip that tells it all: Here’s a quote from the faculty’s letter. “We want on our campuses, including here at Vassar, to have open, honest and principled discussion about the situation in Palestine/Israel, without labeling, targeting, and harassing of faculty, students, administrators and staff who disagree with, or are opposed to Israeli policies towards Palestinians.”

We know what they really want – and its spelled B-D-S. What about extending those rights, privileges and respect to those who see the Israel/Palestinian problem from an Israeli perspective? Are they to be silenced?  Guess so.  A mob, no matter how nuanced, abhors dissent; so much for the sacredness of academic freedom.

Justice for Israeland Justice for Palestine will involve sacrifices. Demonizing Israel is a radicalized approach to Palestinian (and Israeli) suffering.  There are many players in this drama; hostile Arab states, an overly solicitous United Nations, anti-Semitism, Israel’s many mistakes and Palestinian violence and rejectionism.

BDS turns this debate into a cartoon.

What’s needed is free debate without hate language. A debate layered with the nuance these issues truly deserve. There are many sides to this story; can Vassar be a safe place for young people who love Israel as well as those who love the Palestinians?

Let’s not ask these thirty-nine faculty members.

I’m afraid that they’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.

—Mark R. Banschick, MD ’78


  1. “We know what they really want – and its spelled B-D-S.”

    This is where I stopped reading. This is imputing a motive and though it may be popular and effective rhetoric, I do not accept imputing motives as a way to evaluate such statements as that letter. It may be interesting to you to explore the possible motives but there are better and more constructive approaches to responding, like understanding and critiquing what the letter simply says.

    • With due respect Mr. Ruud, you are objectlively mistaken. The fact is that criticism to BDS is often asserted to be an attempt to stiffle free speech. Moreover, the content of the “open letter” by the 39 professors fits the formula used by BDS supporters: alleging a non-existent campaign to silence them and alleging that the Israelis have committed wrongdoing, backed up by anti-Israel NGO’s.

      The key to knowing the true intent of the letter comes from the claim that there is an attempt to stiffle professors – including tenured professors on endowed chairs and department heads. The fact is, as you may know, professors at Vassar cannot be stiffled by the administration because Vassar’s Governance rules expressly prohibit the administration from doing so. So, the allegation made by in the “open letter” raises a phony issue.

      Here is my theory on the letter. The aim of the authors of letters such as the “open letter” is to attract as wide a number of professors to sign the letter as possible, including professors who do not support BDS. However, the true authors are hardcore supporters of BDS. So, to achieve their purpose, the true intent of the letter has to be disguisedbehind the “stiffling debate” issue. The idea is that professors, unfamiliar with BDS, think they are signing a letter supporting a just resolution to the Arab Israeli dispute when, in fact, they are being used by BDS.

      This is not rocket science, Mr. Ruud. You will find, if you investigate the matter, that it is the way BDS works.

  2. In their letter, not a word was stated by these faculty members about BDS. But Mark Banschick claims they were shilling for BDS. Superb. A nice way to throw up a straw man (BDS) and attack the straw man. All the while avoiding any discussion of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Brilliant Mark. Brilliant.

  3. Professor Ruud, I suggest you denounce the Israel hate fest of late February, the bullying of pro-Israel students during the March 3 meeting, and the picketing and disruption of the international studies class by a group of students. Encourage your colleagues to invite a speaker who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of only pro-BDS speakers like Judith Butler and a Palestinian slam poet who do not feel Israel has a right to exist.

    Don’t you agree that Vassar students should learn about other perspectives?

    The open letter submitted by your colleagues was not written in a vacuum. We all know what’s been going on at Vassar, and yes, it is spelled B-D-S.

    Harassment and targeting of pro-BDS professors by outsiders does not justify harassment and targeting of pro-Israel students and faculty on campus.

    Academic freedom involves the right of students and faculty to participate in an open and free exchange of ideas. This has not been happening at Vassar. The pro-Israel side at Vassar has been silenced, and you know it.

  4. Professor Ruud,
    Thank you for reading as far as you did.

    If my letter came across as sharply rhetorical, then I accomplished my purpose.
    You may not acknowledge it, but I was responding to a letter that was signed by 39 of your colleagues that was itself one sided. I believed that tough rhetoric required a response in kind.

    I am glad that I got my point through.

    Now, can we make Vassar a safe place for a constructive discussion about Israel and the Palestinians?

    It is a valuable conversation that requires an honest look at Israeli mistakes, Palestinian mistakes, a consistently hostile Arab world (Israel did not invite five armies to invade at it’s birth), and the destructive role of religion. It requires grieving losses and embracing the future, a project that has not been successfully achieved in much of the Middle East. (How have Syria, Egypt, and even Hamas and the Palestinian Authority fared in reconciliation?).

    Can we maintain sufficient civility on campus to encourage a conversation that might contribute to peace in this great land?

    A solution can be found. It will take two sides. It will take giving up precious narratives, and it will happen when all sides can recognize their own role in this terrible drama.

    Thank you for reading as far as you did.
    And, thank you for caring enough to write.

    Mark Banschick, MD

  5. Like Mark Banschick, I would like to see Vassar be “a safe place for a constructive discussion about Israel and the Palestinians.” My concern is that arguing against an inferred position is not constructive. For example, someone might infer and claim that my motive is to defend BDS and denounce me as well. Where would that leave our conversation? If we are going to build an understanding, it seems to me that everyone must make an effort to argue about what has been actually said. I sympathize with Semyon Gustav’s desire to share theories about the letter but I see this as counter-productive. Not only does it distract from the conversation, such theorizing can be reasonably interpreted as prejudice.
    The letter expresses dissatisfaction with a public statement by our president and dean of faculty and clearly states the reasons in its second paragraph: (1) the public statement “could have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas,” (2) the public statement “misrepresents … the ASA statement,” (3) the public statement “sidesteps ethical questions,” and (4) it “obscures the effectiveness of non-violent boycotts.” I think that these four claims are a starting point for a constructive response.
    I recognize that there is much more in the letter that one might respond to. The letter endorses the effectiveness of academic boycotts. It also states that “many icons of the anti-Apartheid struggle–such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu–support the BDS campaign today.” The letter concludes with only an invitation to discuss “the role of academic boycotts in the attainment of justice and dignity for all people.” And there is much between the opening and the conclusion but the letter does not call for support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
    Some of the signatories may support BDS and everyone is welcome to debate the BDS campaign specifically as well. It just does not seem helpful to me to conflate the letter with BDS. While it endorses boycotts in a general way, the letter only calls for a discussion of academic boycotts and does not call for divestment or sanctions. To criticize the letter for promoting BDS seems provocative to me.
    Solomon suggests alternative things for me to say and do. While I am against harassing people, disrupting classes, and “hate fests” and in favor of understanding many perspectives, I do not actually know “what’s been going on at Vassar” as he describes it. We don’t “all know” as he asserts. I, and many of my colleagues, learned something about the class disruption and the March 3 meeting at the faculty meeting on March 26. I was reading various sources to learn more when I came upon Dr. Banschick’s letter, having already seen the open letter from my colleagues.
    In addition, Solomon seems to link the open faculty letter with these events. Certainly the letter preceded them and it may have influenced the behavior of some individuals. But I doubt that the faculty who signed the open letter imagined that their words would contribute to intimidation. They were merely responding to the declaration by the president and the dean of the college.
    Finally, I do not know that the pro-Israeli side has been silenced. If it has then I hope that we can revive them but I suspect that they are stronger than Solomon gives them credit for. It can be daunting when a professor takes a strong position, even more so when a large group of faculty do. But I would be very surprised if these faculty seek to silence anyone. I know them to be people who welcome discussion. I hope that discussion will succeed.
    Sincerely, Paul

    • Professor Ruud,

      Please read this carefully. As the parent of a Vassar student – and I have been writing here with a pseudonym in order to protect my child who attends Vassar -, I know for a fact that students who are pro-Israel are harassed and silenced at Vassar. I know this because I had to console my child due to extreme Antisemitism at Vassar. In fact, my child came home shaken – literally shaking -, the result of the poisonous environment at Vassar which professors have played an important role in creating. Things at Vassar are to the point of my child being afraid to speak about Israel at Vassar for fear of ostracism. So, your understanding of what is occurring on campus is not accurate; not remotely accurate.

      Consider, if Vassar does not address this issue seriously – and, from what you have written, it appears that you simply do not understand what is going on – Vassar is going to be a school to which Jews (and others who strongly support Israel) will stop going. Is that what you really want? After what happened to my child, you can bet I shall not recommend Vassar as a safe place for Jews or for those who support Israel. And, you can bet that I am not alone in this view.

      My main point previously was that the alleged chilling of professors is, under Vassar’s Governing document – i.e., the schools constitution – simply not possible; as in the president of Vassar has no way to chill the speech of any professor. Must I quote the express language in the Governing document that expressly permits professors to express any opinions they want without fear? And, if you read the document, the the president of Vassar has no means to chill speech. It is beyond her authority to do so. In my view, you should consider reading the document because you will see that it shows the claim of any chilling is bogus.

      How, please tell me, could President Hill chill speech by tenured professors? Please explain it.

      What, in President Hill’s speech was directed towards chilling any speech? If you read her statements, she stated exactly the opposite, namely, that she wants people to express their views. I think that is a real problem for those who claim their speech has been chilled.

      Here is a thought experiment for you, Professor Ruud. Put yourself back in time to when you were a student. Imagine taking a course on the Arab Israeli dispute with a professor who has written that Jews are a “race” – a view popular in the 1930’s, most particularly in Nazi Germany (but also, please note, among Antisemites in the US during that period) – and expressed support for BDS, which is a movement that uses the same language about Israel that was traditionally used by Antisemites when talking about Jews – and humor me by accepting facts, because it is a fact. Would you, in that teacher’s class, take a pro-Israel position in a paper? I bet you would not because you would fear receiving a bad grade.

      Now, let’s take a better look at what the 39 professors wrote. I shall now humor you by accepting your view. You admit that some who wrote the letter might support BDS. The problem there is that supporting BDS is no better than supporting the KKK. Would you look the other way about a professor who supports the KKK? I doubt it.

      No doubt you will claim that BDS is not the same as the KKK. But, please note, the KKK seems to see the two movements as holding the same view, especially about Israel. I suppose you would say that does not make it so and that there is no guilt by association.

      My contention is that the KKK and BDS share the same ideology, as regards Jews and Israel. They use the same type of language. They both tap directly into the language traditionally used to speak negatively about Jews, most particular the language of accusing Jews of committing great evils. Please add to your reading list: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg. It might wake you up. While the book is not about Israel, it speaks to the very sort of language used by the professors in the “open” letter.

      Given the historical prevalence of Antisemitism, I think it is for the BDS supporters and the authors of the “open” letter to show they are free of prejudice. Their letter suggests otherwise, although, of course, I am not a mind reader. But, I do know that what they are doing causes Antisemitism and they should be ashamed of themselves.

      • Dear “Semyon Gustav,”

        You seem to think that I am defending the open letter by 39 of my colleagues. I am not. I am simply asking that people address what is in the letter. You do this when you question whether President Hill could chill speech by tenured faculty. I support asking such questions and providing responses..

        Let me add that I accept that some students have been harassed and silenced. I am against this and take it very seriously. I regret very much that your child was traumatized. Vassar is addressing these issues seriously, students, faculty, staff, and administrators. There is a great deal of concern and engagement.

        At this point, I am withdrawing from this particular discussion. I have made my basic point several times and I don’t think that it bears repeating again. Thanks to everyone for their contributions.

        Sincerely, Paul

        • Dear Professor Ruud,

          Thank you for clarifying where you stand. I appreciate that.While I realize you have withdrawn from the conversation, I trust that you will read my comment that follows.

          You, unlike me, are in a position to do something about the terrible things happening at Vassar. I implore you to do something. It will show the Jewish students on campus that Vassar does not have to be the Antisemitic school it has become. It will also make a difference to other professors who, like you up to now, have preferred to wait this out, no doubt hoping against hope that things will improve. If you read history, you will realize that Antisemitism does not often abate on its own. Rather, it gathers steam, using one incident as prelude for the next, unless good people stand up against it.

          I want to review briefly – so that you know why there a great numbers of incensed Vassar parents and alums – for you just the most recent events that ought to have you and other decent professors and students standing up and screaming, “Enough is enough”!

          First, a Vassar professor saw no reason to avoid calling Jews a “race.” Nobody stood up to say anything is wrong about that. But, it is an outrageous statement, one that should never have found its way into the Miscellany News. Yet, there it was in the paper and neither anyone from the Miscellany News nor anyone on the faculty questioned it. That speaks volumes about Vassar’s decline.

          Second, there was a planned trip to Israel that was turned into a hateful controversy, as conceded even by an anti-Israel ideologue, no less. And, again, nobody did a thing about it; nobody said that anybody did anything wrong. In fact, a professor, if the reports are correct, contributed to it being hateful and even brought race into the dispute. Nobody did anything about that either. I trust you realize just how far over the line the March 3 meeting went.

          Third, there was a professor harassed near her classroom by anti-Israel bigots. Again, nothing was done about that. A class was picketed due evidently to the mildly pro-Israel views of the professor; she does not accept that Israel is so evil that it must be destroyed. Nothing was done about that either. Why are the students who did those things not expelled or at least suspended?

          Fourth, there was a week of hateful rage, called Israel anti-apartheid week, with pro-Israel students harassed – and nobody did anything to stop it. That, notwithstanding the placement of nasty ads in toilet stalls. Why was there silence from the faculty about this? Does no one at Vassar realize that the next step in Antisemitic hatefulness such as occurred at Vassar will be violence? I am shocked by the silence of the faculty in the face of incidents that have traditionally led to violence against Jews.

          I realize that there are consequences for taking a stand, especially in a school where there is a committed ideological movement with a hateful, Antisemitic – and, likely, violent – agenda. I know you will be harassed if you do so. That, after all, is the norm for Antisemitic behavior. However, if Vassar waits too long on this, you can be sure there will be serious violent incidents against Jewish and other pro-Israel students at Vassar. You won’t forgive yourself then. Show some courage.

          I shall believe that Vassar is not the despicable school it has become when I see professors like you standing up to the anti-Israel bigots on campus and the professors who are egging them on. Are you prepared to do that? Is anyone at Vassar prepared to do that? We shall see.

  6. Paul,
    I just want to thank you for entering the conversation.

    Truthfully, I hear behind your words an honest wish to help make Vassar a better place, and diffuse the harsh reaction to the open letter that some of your colleagues wrote. It may be inference, but I experience you as a fair thinker. I am glad you stepped up.

    Let’s work together to figure out a way to move forward. Everyone should feel safe on campus to express and learn about differing political views. That is the what a great school like Vassar is all about.

    It would be good to grab a cup of coffee sometime.


  7. Actually what people like Mark and Semyon want is a series of rules/regulations to squelch any discussion of Israeli policies. Other than of course the hand wringing seminars of how “difficult” a problem it is and how we need have more endless seminars where we have a “balanced” debate. You know the “seminars” where the Hillel (the old ones) invites someone to give us an “objective” view on Israel. You know sniff sniff such “difficult” and “complex” topics.
    But woe be upon any person who points out , like Bishop Tutu or others did, that what Israel practices is Apartheid. Or better yet what Naftali Bennett is proposing is apartheid. Such facts are not a “balanced discussion”. They “intimidate” students.
    This is the exact mumbo that Peter Beinart points out as “intellectual fraud” by the pro-Israeli community. And somehow the pro-Israeli crowd pretends they can get the college administration to craft a set of rules to quell free speech. What a joke. The Jewish Students at Vassar themselves walked away from the Hillel because of its notorious censorship. And these parents and alumni want it for all of Vassar !!!

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