Campus discourse continues to be strong

The Miscellany News recently published a letter by an alumnae/i group called “Fairness to Israel” that argued that recent events at our college indicate that Vassar is “no longer the open, innovative institution that transformed our lives” (“Faculty letter squelches campus voices,” 03.27.14). I would argue that Fairness to Israel (FTI), while touching on some real problems, is off the mark. While Vassar may not be the same institution as it was in the past, it is still an “open, innovative” institution stimulating “independent and critical thinking.”

One of the central issues raised by FTI’s letter is that 39 faculty members (including the author of the present letter) signed a public letter dissenting from President Hill and Dean Chenette’s statement condemning the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott resolution. True, the letter supported boycotts as a legitimate form of non-violent activism. According to FTI, this means Vassar’s faculty are “ranting activists, not scholars,” and that they “intimidate” students (who fear being “graded harshly”) into a “deafening silence.”

In reality, however, there are many indications, including several listed by the letter itself, of lively debate at Vassar. They include campus activism such as Israel Apartheid Week, the formation of a “pro-Israel” student group on campus, the Students for Justice in Palestine-organized (SJP) action urging fellow students to not go to Israel, and the well-enrolled, intellectually engaged International Studies & Jewish Studies travel course to Israel and the occupied territories that went forward nonetheless. FTI may certainly disagree with the positions being voiced, but it cannot deny the existence of real debate.

Furthermore, FTI misreads the faculty letter of dissent. It did not accuse the administration of stifling free speech, as FTI suggests. Rather, it expressed concern that it could “have a chilling effect” on debate, as most certainly has come to pass on other campuses. This fear is not without grounds. Northeastern University recently called in police to question SJP activists after a leafleting campaign (of all the participants, apparently, only students of color were targeted), and subsequently suspended the SJP chapter. Barnard College just halted their longstanding practice of allowing student groups to advertise events with banners hung from the main building, solely in response to the local SJP’s (previously authorized) placement of a banner.

Vassar’s administration, admirably, has not followed this trend. While their statement condemning the ASA boycott resolution is too selective, the administration has manifestly allowed an environment in which faculty and students can publicly disagree with them (and with each other). None of this gives credence to FTI’s claim that Vassar has an “anti-intellectual atmosphere.”

The March 3 event that FTI uses to condemn the mood at Vassar, putatively fueled by the letter of dissent, was a moment when frustration, fear and passion did come together in a way that many agreed was unhelpful or intimidating. Students do need courage to express unpopular opinions on divisive issues, and an event billed as an “open discussion” should encourage openness, by which I mean the airing of different views.

But associating the letter of dissent with the March 3 event is unfair. So is assuming that one interchange is indicative of the wider climate at Vassar. The event had little or nothing to do with the letter of dissent. They had been organized separately by different people. To suggest that the letter was “deliberately timed” to “silence pro-Israel voices” at the event is silly. It is the rightful place of informed people—including college faculty—to speak out on issues of social justice, and it is wrong to associate this with “bullying” or anti-intellectualism.

Yet linking the letter with the March 3 event has helped several blogs (particularly on the right) emphasize the racial element of this issue on campus. This, in turn, has led to the reductive and inaccurate vision of Jews pitted against people of color and their left-wing sympathizers. Of course the issue does have a racial dimension; this is not surprising given that the Israel/Palestine issue concerns ethnic/religious discrimination and human and civil rights, and Vassar hosts students from a variety of backgrounds. But it is not true that Jews and people of color are reliably on opposing sides—regarding the travel course, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), or Israel/Palestine in general.

Vassar College has never been more diverse. Not coincidentally, it is hosting a lively, multi-sided, engaged, and often angry debate about Israel and Palestine, among other issues. These debates involve (and wrestle with) terms such as “racism,” “colonialism,” “anti-Semitism,” and “apartheid.” Frequently, this debate is informed, nuanced and useful.

Occasionally, it is nasty. This obvious reality makes it clear that Fairness to Israel need not worry that opposing voices are “being silenced” at Vassar. I invite them to join me in celebrating what all this makes quite clear: opposing voices are not being silenced.

 

­­—Joshua Schreier is an associate professor of history at Vassar College. He is Director of the Jewish Studies multidisciplinary program.

Editors Note: 4/3/14 – A correction has been made to address those involved in the organization of the event and those who signed the faculty letter.

21 Comments

  1. Amen
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    On the other thread, i pointed out repeatedly that wealthy pro-Israeli benefactors have attempted to interfere in Faculty decisions on college campuses across America. They all posit that they acted on their own and are outraged at the suggestion that their protest is somehow linked with other groups. And any suggestion of pro-Israeli acting in tandem was just plain……(you know where this is going)…..”anti-semitic”.
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    Heres a simple example. Our “outraged” authors describe the Faculty letters as a manifesto. They actually deliberately added that word in. A unique portrayal of the Faculty letter.
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    But wait. Here are a sampling of some right wing editorials that use the same description. Surprised ?!!!
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    “Most are political outliers who probably would vote for the Communist Manifesto, too. ”
    http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/why-im-boycotting-american-studies-association-0
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    “posted a long manifesto in its favor ”
    http://www.thejerusalemconnection.us/blog/2013/12/29/asathe-corrupt-academy.html
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    “ASA’s national council posted a 1,200-word manifesto”
    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304744304579250893249174348
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    Go ahead. Use Google and read a few of these “victim” editorials. In the end ask yourself. Can i differentiate one from the other ? You be the judge.

  2. Prof. Scheirer struggles to make the academics’ letter appear more benign than it actually is since it merely supports the concept of boycotts. At the same time, he accuses the FTI of over-reacting. The fact is that the academics supported a specific boycott, that of Israeli academic institutions and Israeli academics, thus slamming the door on academic freedom at Vassar and fueling a debate with thinly disguised — or not at all disguised — anti-Semitic roots. As Director of Jewish Studies, these roots should have been apparent to him.
    Jean Sonkin Arbeiter ’58

  3. Professor Schreier,
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    If, as you seem to claim, Vassar is open to multi-sided debate regarding the Arab Israeli dispute, I have a challenge for you. Invite a scholar who does not blame the Arab Israeli dispute and the problems in the Middle East on Israel.
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    For example, invite Israeli scholar Efraim Karsh, author of Palestine Betrayed, where he shows that, in fact, the Arab leadership, particularly Haj Amin al-Husseini, played a major role in the creation of the refugee problem and the 1948 war in general and where Karsh shows that the vast majority of Arabs who left what became Israel departed due to efforts, which he details, of the Arab leadership.
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    Or, maybe you might invite Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, who is co-author, with the recently deceased Middle East scholar, Barry Rubin, of the book, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which tells of the formative role of Germany in the development of Islamism and, in particularly, the role of one of the important leaders of that movement and the leader, in those days of the Palestinian Arab movement, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who worked closely with the Nazis including on a plan to exterminate Palestine’s Jews.
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    Or, maybe you would invite Professor Jeffrey Herf, who wrote Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, which highlights the role of al-Husseini and other Islamists in creating the syncretist Islamist ideology, which combines, as has been shown, elements of Islam with Nazism and in bringing that syncretist ideology to Muslims in support of the Nazi movement.
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    Or, perhaps you would invite the great German scholars Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, who wrote, Halbmond und Hakenkreuz: Das Dritte Reich, die Araber und Palestinia (“The Crescent and the Swastika: The Third Reich, The Arabs and Palestine”), available in English under the title, Nazi Palestine: The Plans for the Extermination of the Jews in Palestine. Here is noted French scholar Bernard-Henri Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his book, Left in Dark Times, describing Mallmann and Cüppers:
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    ‘First, that Arab anti-Semitism was not, as is always said, a circumstantial anti-Semitism, mainly linked to English support for the nascent Israeli state, which the Arabs therefore saw as a colonial creation: Germany, says the Grand Mufti in a statement the authors discovered, is “the only country in the world that has not merely fought the Jews at home but have declared war on the entirety of world Jewry; in this war against world Jewry, the Arabs feel profoundly connected to Germany”—one could hardly put it better! And second, that there was, stationed in Athens, under the orders of the Obersturmbannführer Walther Rauff the very same man who refined and then developed the use of gas trucks at Auschwitz, a special intervention force, the Einsatzgruppe Ägypten, intended to reach Palestine and liquidate the 500,000 European Jews who had already taken refuge in the Yishuv in the event Rommel won the battle of the desert: this was an Arab unit, and it was al- Husseini who, there again, in his conversations with Eichmann, had put the final touches on the intervention plan, which should indicate his full and entire participation in the Final Solution; and only Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein stymied the project for extermination.’
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    I have two predictions. 1. You won’t invite any of these major scholars because they would put the lie, full stop, to your simplistic interpretation of the Arab Israeli dispute. 2. If you do invite them, their efforts to present their findings will be interrupted by brainwashed students because Vassar is, in fact, no longer a school where real scholarship regarding the Arab Israeli dispute is possible, largely due to propagandists masquerading as scholars. You know the type. Such people refer to Jews as being a race and egg them on to support Antisemitic causes like BDS.
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    Prove me wrong on both counts, Professor Schreier. As things now stand, I know for a fact that Vassar has become an intolerant ideology factory, largely due to propagandist “scholars.” And, I know that Vassar is heading for serious trouble, where dissent is now discouraged. And, I know that pro-Israel students are being silenced by brainwashed anti-Israeli ideologues.

  4. Professor Schreier writes: “The point remains: the letter of dissent has clearly not silenced any voices at Vassar.”
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    The allegation by FTI was not limited to one letter. And, the letter was a product of an academic environment where professors confuse the role of the academic with the advocate. Having signed the noted letter by the 39 “professors,” you clearly conflate the two roles, which is anti-educational, misleading impressionable minds. Shame on you.
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    Moreover, you should realize that to publish such a letter supporting BDS is to broadcast loud and clear to students: “you better not be pro-Israel in front of those 39 professor, who are ideologues and may take your support of Israel out against you.” If you do not understand that, Professor Schreir, you do not know anything about young people. So, in fact the only effort to halt open discusion at Vassar is coming from BDS advocates like you.
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    Also, please note that Vassar College’s official opposition to BDS has not chilled the speech of anti-Israel ideologues; nor could it. In fact, Vassar College has no way to chill speech by any professor. Try reading Vassar’s Governance rules. There is no possibility that BDS speech will be chilled.
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    In fact, Vassar College’s official position is to encourage different points of view – expressed by President Hill repeatedly in this BDS dispute – and that also contradicts the claim that any speech from anti-Israel ideologues is in danger of being chilled. So, the entire allegation in the letter you signed is bogus.
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    Shame on you for signing a bogus letter being used as a cover story for advocating BDS.

  5. I’m curious, Professor. How many mainstream Israeli voices have been heard on campus in the past, say, five years? You’re the head of Jewish Studies. Study of Israel is doubtless a major part of the Jewish world today; it’s the home of the world’s largest Jewish population. So what have you done to advance it on campus beyond the conflict, which is one aspect of Israel’s existence, and certainly the most covered part, but certainly not something that gives us a full or accurate picture of what it means to be a Jewish Israeli, a Jew in Israel, or a Jew in America who cares about Israel. How have you helped students to understand what it’s like to live in a place where a substantial percentage of the citizenry have been either victims of terrorism or are one degree removed from those who have, and where the perpetrators cite historical antisemitic texts as a basis for why they target Jews?

    Because polling data strongly suggests that the average American has no clue what Israeli life is actually like or what Israelis are like (most think that most Israelis are religious Jews), and I doubt the average Vassar student has much of a clue either. Most kids won’t take your class, and I think you and I both know that those who do receive the post-colonial treatment, where the Palestinians are largely portrayed as victims of a settler colonialist venture. Your 2008 syllabus (and perhaps it’s changed since then) does not include a single reading on the Holocaust, on DP camps, or on the fate of Jews in Arab countries in the 1940s and 1950s. How are students to understand anything about Israelis as human beings without understanding that most Israelis are the descendants of refugees, and most have an historical memory of being persecuted?

    With all due respect, this is why it’s especially problematic when you tell the Misc and talk about how you think there are good arguments for BDS and then sign a letter that you would have had to know would be seen as basically a faculty endorsement of BDS given the people who signed, and the tenor of the writing.

    You’re not speaking to a student body with some erudite, sophisticated idea of what Israel is, what an Israeli Jew is, or even what a Palestinian is or what a Palestinian Israeli is. You’re speaking to a student body who has been targeted by a concerted propaganda campaign by the SJP to demonize and delegitimize Israel, and rather than helping as a scholar to make sure students have a full, comprehensive knowledge of the human beings in the region, you’ve all but given your endorsement to a partisan cause associated with the same place that is a focus of your scholarship. That’s the problem I have with you. I think you’re contributing to the nastiness of the atmosphere by doing so on a campus where, clearly, the activist community is dominated by partisan students of one point of view. Maybe you think it’s brave. I think it shows poor judgment on your part.

  6. And by the way, your account is absolutely wrong. The source most responsible for characterizing the March 3 meeting as having a racial tinge is Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss, a far-left pro-Palestinian website. The Northeastern SJP was suspended for a two-year pattern of disrupting the events of other student organizations, vandalizing university property, and breaking other college rules. There is no evidence that only students of color were punished. The Barnard SJP students posted a map with Israel erased and placed it next to the Barnard emblem. It was removed after several students complained about it (I doubt you’d be happy if a pro-Israel group posted a map of Israel without the West Bank and Gaza delineated as occupied territory). That you omitted all of this is telling.

    • http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/06/12/stifling-student-protest-northeastern-university/H7k5rk8VCsPlpWaJVS7eFI/story.html?s_campaign=sm_tw

      “Stifling Student Voices”

      “It began in April, when the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine staged a walkout at a presentation by Israeli soldiers. At the start of the event, 35 students stood, small signs taped to their shirts. One member called the soldiers war criminals. One or two chanted slogans. They were gone in a minute.
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      For this protest, SJP has been placed on probation, and will be suspended indefinitely for further transgressions.”
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      They say they’re being singled out, citing a 2010 protest by Huskies for Israel, in which students disrupted a speech by controversial pro-Palestinian author Norman Finkelstein, and escaped sanctions. The university says the pro-Israel group was not sanctioned because it had a permit.”
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      You need a speech for walking out of a speech. But Northeastern issues permits for disrupting speeches ? Get the picture folks. That’s the kind of “fair and balanced” dialogue our “victims” want.

      • Oh please. You’re leaving out the entire context here. They pack the room to intimidate other students into staying away, and then, once they’ve taken up the seats and the lecture has begun, they get up and walk out. It’s completely unfair to those student groups who put on these events, and you’d go nuts if you brought a speaker and another student group did that to you.

        I’m sure they’re shading the truth about what happened with Finkelstein also. They made what appears to be a totally bogus claim of discrimination because the school decided to discipline two kids who happened to be female students of color. They made no showing that they were disciplined BECAUSE they were female or students of color.

        This is a tactic. The SJP knows that the more controversy they create, the more coverage they get.

        • Context. What context. Now u claim walking out of a meeting is against the rules. !!!
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          And ignore the fact that Jewish students were allowed to disrupt a speech. Because they had a permit !!!

        • Crowding a lecture and taking up all the seats so that other students who actually want to attend the lecture cannot come in, and then getting up and walking out after the lecture has started is a form of intimidation, a way of keeping other students from hearing what they have a right to hear. This is an SJP tactic, keeping completely in line with the SJP goal of simply eliminating Zionist voices from campus and intimidating those who disagree with them.

          • Yes Raj, when you actively try to prevent other students from hearing the voices of those you disagree with, and favor policies that would effectively ban those voices altogether, you’re engaging in censorship. That’s what the SJP is about. They defend censorship by claiming that they’re taking on the “Zionist media,” in their words.

            There is nothing wrong with a protest, so long as it does not infringe on the rights of other students to hear the speaker and so long as it does not infringe on the right of the speaker to be heard. SJPs have frequently crossed that line, and it’s not surprising, because their goal is to eliminate these voices from campus altogether.

  7. Schreier’s cognitive dissonance here is astounding. He admits the March 3 was “unhelpful” and “intimidating” (I would categorize it as a good old-fashioned display of antisemitic rage), and then throws his hands up as if to imply he has no idea how anyone could link that event to the faculty letter, or the constant anti-Israel propaganda spewed out by professors like himself. If you spend your time actively promoting hate, don’t be surprised when your young, impressionable students start parroting what you say.

    • Intimidating. So if a minority student has an angry look, that’s intimidating ? If a minority student has an angry look because he is protesting that his point of view was excluded, that’s intimidating and anti-semitic ?
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      Did those minority students threaten or act in any way of violence ? Oh wait. the answer is too inconvenient. Just the good old fashion angry or pissed look is all we need to classify it as anti-semitic. Thanks Alum.

      • Notice how I did not once mention “minority students,” yet you made that the entire subject of your post. And somehow I’m playing victim by calling antisemitic actions out.

        And Schreier was the one who used the word “intimidating”. If you don’t like that, take it up with him. I used the word “antisemitic,” because guess what; if you spend all your time fighting for a movement whose sole purpose is to eliminate the one Jewish state, then you are antisemitic. Had Israel existed in the 30s and 40s, millions of people would have been saved. I have not once seen the BDSers acknowledge this fact in their constant attack on the state’s legitimacy.

        • Firstly he points out that many agreed was intimidating. He was reporting an observation. You twist it around as if he states it was intimidating. And of course add your standard form “antisemitic” embellishments.
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          Secondly the intimidating group he refers to was of minority students who were pissed. And i brought it up as a fact directly related to Schreier’s narrative.
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          • Nobody is upset at the BDS crowd because of their race or ethnicity. Stop propping up that strawman. The issue is their relentless fixation on demonizing and delegitimizing the sole refuge for Jews on the planet. The skin color or nationality of the people doing this does not change the implications of their actions one iota.

          • Comment edited: Of course the only “anti-semitic intimidation” that took place was when the students of color had an angry look. Wow the ever evolving standards of “anti-semitism” !!!!

  8. The debate over who is or isn’t subject to a “chilling effect” cannot be won by either side (pro-Israeli gov. or BDS) for this reason: support for Israel is fairly widespread nationwide but among educated elites (and especially within academia) antagonism towards Israel is absolutely unremarkable. Therefore the supporters of Israel can claim that they are being stifled on college campuses and BDS supporters can justifiably claim that theirs is an unpopular minority view.

    My problem with the “open letter” is that it contains sloppy, illogical arguments (where supporting the CRM in the 60s necessarily leads to BDS today) and demonstratively false assertions (countless careers ruined by watchdog groups). I would expect 39 Vassar profs to be able to figure that out.

  9. jean s arbeiter has expressed my own feelings in a sincere,sensible and mature manner…supporting democratic debate which befits this situation .

  10. Joshua,

    This one is for you…

    I feel sorry for you when I read your so
    called moderation. With due respect, you have the typical historical Jewish
    minority, “PLEASE LIKE ME” complex and it is so pitiful to read.

    Throughout Jewish History especially in Nazi
    Germany there were those Jews who begged to be accepted and liked by the host
    country’s people. “Like me and I will eat ham for you on Yom Kippur. Like
    me and I will put up a Christmas tree and call it a Hanukah Bush, like me and I
    will only pray one day a week, Sunday if you wish (the early German Reformed
    Jews), etc.” The first Jews to be gassed by Hitler were those Reformers
    (“please like me…”) who were viewed as a major threat by Hitler and
    his Jew hating Nazis.

    Fast forward to today: Here you are
    apologizing for Israel who is expected to live a double standard. Never mind
    the rockets and atrocities implemented by the Palestine people. If you read
    your history parts of Jordan are supposed to include part of Palestine–the
    world has convenient amnesia with this one. In the meantime here you are with
    your “please like me” attitude and no matter what you do they are NOT
    going to like you. You can stand on your head, eat ham and cheese sandwiches and
    they are still going to hate you because you are a Jew, period!

    Look in the mirror and accept that you are a
    Jew. Say it to yourself over and over and perhaps YOU can accept YOURSELF.
    Remember, if Israel disappears (the Jewish Host country) there IS NO place for
    American Jews or the World Jewish community to go in the event of another
    pogrom, anti-Semitic uprising or Holocaust. If there is another anti-Semitic
    uprising you are a Jew to these people no matter how much you apologize or try
    to appease them.

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