On Tuesday, May 13, the Vassar preliminary student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), posted an image online linked to Nazi propaganda. The distribution of the image, as well as President Hill’s response to it, has sparked serious debate about the College and its responses to instances of anti-semitism and racism.
This action by SJP comes at an already heated time for the College after an incident involving Vassar security and the Poughkeepsie police that took place three weeks ago and incited claims of racial profiling from students and alum.
The image posted by SJP was highly critical of American international intervention but also featured several anti-semitic and racist references and images.
As a member of the Jewish-affiliated but all-inclusive student group, a student representative from the VJU explained, “I don’t think there is any denying that the post was anti-semitic. SJP’s focus is on Israel-Palestine which does not directly relate to Judaism. They are two very different things. I think that this post was an attack toward Jews on campus and in general and I think it was disconnected in a lot of ways from the debate that was going on.”
SJP initially released a response to criticisms of the post that defended consulting problematic source material if the content was good.
After further outcry from members of the Vassar community, the preliminary student organization released a longer apology on May 13.
This apology post explained that up until that point, only one member of the student group was in charge of social media and that the org’s general body was not being consulted about these posts.
The apology went on to say, “We condemn any and all hate speech including any form of anti-Semitism and we are deeply sorry several offensive posts were made in SJP Vassar’s name.”
On May 14, President Hill released a statement to the community responding to SJP’s post. In the all-campus email, Hill condemned the actions of the student organization and called for temporary disbanding of the group pending an investigation of the organization’s actions in addition to a VSA review of the org.
Hill went further, writing in the message, “I also request that the SJP Vassar membership take responsibility for its actions and cease representing itself as an official Vassar group, pending these investigations. Vassar College is committed to free speech and academic freedom, but we condemn racist, hateful speech.”
Hill’s message was well-received by some but incited further outrage by other members of the community who felt as if her response to cries of anti-semitism were far more active and direct than her responses to incidents of racism and racial profiling that have been taking place all year.
With regards to the email,the VJU representative said, “Do I think that Cappy’s email was wrong or she shouldn’t have done this? No. Personally, I think how she expressed herself in this email, she should do more often. I think that the problem is how she acted in this instance was the exception but this should be the norm with all issues related to discrimination. There should be no tolerance for hateful speech regardless of the student body that is being attacked.”
He continued, “One thing to consider is she might be more harsh or more outspoken because it is a Vassar org and not an individual student and it was clear who the culprit was, whereas often times bias incidents can occur and it isn’t clear who is committing them. Nonetheless the administration should have a more uniformed response to all incidents of bias regardless of the group being targeted.”
Another concern brought up by critics of the administration’s response to SJP’s post stemmed from the fact that Vassar has a large population of alums who are politically involved in the Israel-Palestine issue.
On May 15, the issue was made further complicated by a poster that was installed in the Retreat. The poster was titled the “Wall of Truths” and featured several ideas presented as “myths” relating to the Israel-Palestine debate.
Many found the poster to be extremely offensive. Asthe VJU representative said, “Jstreet U was upset because the content was unacceptable but furthermore this is why people assume anyone who is ‘pro-existence of a Jewish state’ is radically conservative because of people who post things like this. I’m sure there are some people who assume this was posted by Jstreet U or a group of Jewish students even though it wasn’t. It just isn’t true. A lot of this stuff isn’t right.”
In addition, the Israel-Palestine controversy at Vassar has been featured in several publications including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News. Generally, these opinion pieces have been strongly critical of non pro-Israel groups on campus, notably SJP.
As one opinions piece in the Wall Street Journal read, “I am still waiting for the day a student or faculty member stands up to these academic hooligans at the Vassar Quad. Now that would show some ‘critical thinking.’” (Wall Street Journal, “Anti-Israel Jews and the Vassar Blues”, 2.13.14)
Regardless of opinion on this specific issue, many feel as if more space needs to be made for discussion and dialogue on campus.
This debate was widely-discussed this semester, due in some part to the international studies class that traveled to Israel over spring break. In response to student protest of the class, a panel was held in March by the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence to discuss the issue of Palestinian sovereignty and the ethics of student protest.
Emails from President Hill have since followed, all calling for respectful discourse on the issue. What is clear from the controversies that have broken out recently is that people feel strongly about the Israel-Palestine issue and want to be able to discuss it.
Asthe VJU representative remarked, “I just think that there should be a way to create a space to discuss this on campus rather than social media where it is very reactionary and disconnected. It could shed light on where people are coming from on both sides.”