Had I any doubts that our students are ill-served when faculty act primarily as activists rather than scholars, Prof. Schreier’s letter (“Campus Discourse Continues to Be Strong,” The Miscellany News 4/3/14) has completely dispelled them. It is a textbook example of how easily facts are sacrificed when one’s concern is to promote a specific political agenda.
Let’s start with Prof. Schreier’s recasting of the original “open letter” signed by 39 Vassar professors “dissenting” from President Hill’s and Dean Chenette’s condemnation of the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutions. He says it was simply a defense of academic boycotts as a form of non-violent activism –surely nothing that the alumni group Fairness to Israel (FTI) could fairly characterize as “ranting.” In actual fact, it was President Hill’s and Dean Chenette’s statement that was limited to that issue; they asserted (along with 250 other universities and colleges) that academic boycotts are detrimental to the free exchange of ideas. But while Pres. Hill and Dean Chenette did not address the ASA’s unfair and unjustified singling out of Israel for academic isolation, the 39 professors nevertheless took the opportunity to sling the same inflammatory accusations against Israel that BDS supporters use to urge elimination of the Jewish state. Without any specifics but much rhetoric, the 39 professors asserted that Israel inflicts “considerable violence and brutality” on the Palestinians and “other minoritized populations,” that it engages in “ongoing systematic dispossession of Palestinians, the destruction of their homes and livelihood,” that it has “apartheid legislation,” and that it has created a “humanitarian crisis” – among other horrible acts. When inflammatory statements of this sort are made gratuitously and without specifics, most people would agree that constitutes ranting.
Prof. Schreier also retreats from the 39 professors’ expressed concern that Vassar’s rejection of the ASA boycott could have a chilling effect “on our campus.” Now, after FTI has pointed out all the ways in which anti-Zionist views are echoed loudly, aggressively and hostilely on Vassar’s campus while pro-Israel voices have been silenced, Prof. Schreier assures us that campus discourse is open and that debate is “lively.” And the evidence for this? Israel Apartheid week! The SJP members physically harassing students attending class to prevent their planned trip to Israel! The fact that the SJP’s harassment efforts failed! How bathroom stalls littered with flyers full of anti-Israel rhetoric stimulates debate is a puzzle to me (and conjures surreal images that I prefer not to entertain). Ditto for disruptions of classroom learning and the other intimidating tactics employed by SJP.
In fact, my sense is that Prof. Schreier is getting a bit worried that SJP’s free rein to engage in disruptive tactics may be curtailed. So he takes this occasion to compliment Vassar’s administration for its tolerance, contrasting it to Northeastern University and Barnard College where, he suggests, they have chilled legitimate debate as part of a backlash against the ASA boycott. This is yet another example where Prof. Schreier does not allow facts to get in the way of spin. Neither NU nor Barnard acted in response to the ASA boycott. At NU, Jewish students had endured several years during which BDS supporters were allowed to run rampant, engaging in such activities as mocking Jewish students for being Jewish and touting anti-Semitism as a “badge of distinction.” The NU administration finally was moved to act after some groups began documenting these anti-Semitic incidents. In suspending the NU chapter of SJP, the administration noted that those students had vandalized campus property, refused to follow university rules when sliding mock eviction notices under the doors of fellow students, and disrupted events featuring speakers they opposed.
And, at Barnard, a banner showing a map that eliminated Israel was removed not in contravention of long-standing practice, but precisely the opposite. The banner had been posted in a particular space dedicated to promoting campus events; using it for controversial statements was outside of the norm, because the prominent location implied official endorsement.
Perhaps Professor Schreier’s most appalling reality lapse is his accusation that FTI has helped right-wing bloggers “emphasize” the racial elements of the issues at hand. FTI’s response to the 39 professors’ “open letter” made no reference to the race of the anti-Israel protesters. In fact, it was a left-wing , notoriously anti-Zionist blog, Mondoweiss, which first revealed a Vassar professor’s claim that SJP students were being targeted unfairly because of their color (even though no disciplinary actions were ever brought based on their disruptive behavior).
Indeed, Prof. Schreier has no compunction whatsoever in injecting race into the debate when it serves his purpose, as he did when suggesting that Judaism is a race in an interview on the ASA boycott published by The Miscellany News on January 22.
Prof. Schreier does mention that some students have finally begun to organize “pro-Israel” groups, which is the one hopeful sign in all of this sorry state of affairs. One such group, the Chabad Student Jewish group, hosted an event on April 3, in which two Israeli soldiers spoke about their lives, their work and their aspirations for peace. They encouraged all to attend, including those opposed to the Israeli state, in the hope that students would hear firsthand from those whom they have been taught and encouraged to vilify. Although this was a meaningful opportunity for students and faculty to engage in the type of open dialogue Prof. Schreier purports to espouse, neither he nor any of the other 38 signers of the open letter in support of academic freedom found the time to attend.
–Laurie Josephs ’78 P’12. Member of Fairness to Israel