On Mar. 6, the VSA will vote on the Vassar Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Resolution, one part of a larger movement set forth by the Palestinian BDS National Committee. Though the past semester marked a noticeable increase in discourses surrounding both BDS and the larger Israel-Palestine Conflict as the VSA nears its vote, the Vassar community has been locked in this debate for years.
Students who have clung to neutrality might soon find the debate at their doorstep (and in their inboxes) as a referendum. With recent calls for anonymity to protect VSA representatives, we at The Miscellany News recognize the polarizing and often toxic climate surrounding these issues and call for active towards a more inclusive and open conversation about BDS.
If the VSA votes in support of the resolution, the result would affect the entire student body by determining the use of VSA funds. Many students with a personal stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict have personally felt the effects of an increasingly divided campus climate. Two weeks ago, anti-semitic messages on Yik Yak prompted a Bias Alert Report and joined a slew of anti-semitic allegations against Vassar. Discriminatory language, in any form, threatens students’ ability to safely engage in the BDS debate.
As Vassar’s administration addresses anti-semitism, the community must not forget about the rampant Islamophobia that continues to affect discourse surrounding the Middle East. Middle-Eastern voices are often silenced by racial and cultural discrimination that is increasingly tied to a warped, post-9/11 sense of patriotism. Vassar’s campus is not exempt, as evidenced by the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab social media posts described in another recent Bias Incident Alert Report. At the same time, discriminatory slurs attributed to anti-Zionism falsely conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, a misconception often used to invalidate Palestinian beliefs.
When we use rhetoric that disrespects the identities of members of our community, we derail productive conversation and endanger students. The hateful speech thrown around anonymous social media demonstrates Vassar’s need for neutral, safe spaces in which students can exchange ideas without experiencing bias, spreading misinformation or fearing an attack.
The desire among many VSA representatives to vote anonymously indicates a pervasive pressure around these issues. This pressure comes out of the polarized dialogue surrounding BDS issues, which creates a binary that elicits conflict and argument rather than education and discussion. It seems that students who do not fully understand the goals or implications of the BDS movement or the complex and nuanced issues surrounding it have nowhere to turn to receive this information.
Several on-campus political organizations—including J Street U, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—organize weekly meetings and campus-wide programming to provide education on the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, these spaces naturally come with bias based on that organization’s goals and viewpoints. This does not mean that these organizations are problematic, but rather that without neutral discourse, they create a charged environment that makes it challenging to enter the conversation.
Perhaps some of the hesitancy of students to offer their opinion is a lack of knowledge on the topics at hand. Students that feel uninformed are much less likely to step into a debate.
In addition to the absence of unbiased information, the debate-based atmosphere surrounding the issues seems to lend itself to a more combative culture. Students that are already reluctant to share their opinions due to being uninformed are even less likely to do so if they feel that they will be attacked or debated as a result. This creates a culture where only the loudest and most passionate opinions are heard, and newcomers are only able to join in if they take up this style as well.
We believe that these issues are extremely important for all students to learn about and discuss, not only because the BDS referendum vote will have effects on daily student life, but also because these initiatives are pertinent to the world beyond Vassar. Therefore, something must be changed about the campus climate regarding the BDS resolution.
There should be opportunities to learn about these concerns in a neutral atmosphere that focuses more on education and less on conflict. This by no means belittles the conflicting opinions among those who have a firm grasp on the history and social issues of BDS, but merely requests additional means of accessible discourse.
The reality is that the Israel-Palestine conflict and BDS movement cannot be fully grasped from any button or pamphlet. These complex issues deserve time and attention before a student can come to terms with an opinion or stance on the issue. Though it is great that our campus has groups of people who already have these stances, the only way we can get more of them is through education. This education should be offered by non-affiliated groups, for whom there is no underlying agenda or slant.
Obviously, not every student can enroll in a history course on Israel and Palestine; however there are ways to promote learning and education about these issues.
House teams can sponsor study breaks that could serve as a space to discuss these topics from a campus climate perspective, since this can be an extremely challenging topic to talk about. Houses are also neutral spaces that aren’t already affiliated with partial parties.
As for the actual education portion, workshops led by qualified professors could provide a good platform to investigate the nuances and complexities of the BDS solution. We know that professors have their own feelings about the resolution but professors are resources for students and as such, they are obligated to present us with uninfluenced insight.
Additionally, the VSA could hold a panel or send a comprehensive letter explaining the bureaucratic process of the resolution and the implications it has on student life. We at The Miscellany News believe that Vassar has the resources to promote a less polarized dialogue surrounding BDS and should foster a community where everyone can learn about and contribute to challenging global issues.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.