Dear Dean Chenette:
On February 25, you participated with several of your colleagues, including President Hill, in an on-line audio discussion about current issues and tensions on campus related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In your remarks, you cited a list of events held at Vassar “in the last 18 months” that you asserted was “a counter to any monolithic portrayal of the range of programming on Israel available to our students.” But the question posed to you specifically asked that you address concerns expressed over lack of balanced programming on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The list you presented does nothing to allay those concerns.
You cited J.T. Waldman’s lecture about his retelling the book of Esther in graphic novel form which, while certainly a subject of interest to Jewish students, is unrelated to Israel or her conflict with the Palestinians. But in any event, the publicized topic of Mr. Waldman’s February 26, 2014, Sitomer lecture was not his work on Megillat Esther. It was on an entirely different graphic novel, “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me,” in which the author wrestles with “the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland” and “interweaves his increasing disillusionment with the modern state of Israel.” This event reiterated the very monolithic view of Israel and the conflict that prevails in the curricula and programming at Vassar.
You also cited Jeffrey Shandler’s reading of interviews with Holocaust survivors. How did that event even address, let alone counter, the monolithic view of the conflict that prevails on campus? You cited a performance by an Israeli choreographer’s dance troupe and a concert of Sephardi song by an Iranian Jewish singer. Neither of these events addresses the Israeli Arab conflict. And you cited a seminar that explores the importance of space in Israeli culture. A fascinating topic, no doubt, but again, one that has no bearing on the conflict.
William Jacobson’s lecture, which you also cited, is actually a case study in the lack of balance in campus programming. Following the “open letter” to the Misc signed by 39 members of the faculty condemning President Hill’s rejection of the ASA boycott, Prof. Jacobson offered to come to campus to debate the issue of Israel and academic freedom with any and all of those faculty members. Not only did he have no takers, but not a single academic department or program stepped up to co-sponsor what turned out, by default, to be a lecture, nor, apparently, did any of those 39 faculty members even bother to attend. One of them, in fact, wrote to her colleagues urging them to boycott the event. Were you unaware of this background? Contrast this with the hate-filled lecture on campus just days before by notorious antisemites Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal (“The Battle for Justice in Palestine”), which was co-sponsored by no less than seven academic programs and departments.
Finally, it is puzzling that you would try to convince the alumni on the call that programming on the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been balanced when President Hill has herself acknowledged in several public statements that Vassar has failed to provide “adequate opportunities to hear and discuss multiple perspectives on these issues.” If you really wish to counter the perception that Vassar does not foster balanced programming on this issue, you will need to actually introduce and encourage that balance rather than point to examples that only serve to prove that the imbalance is all too real. The Puar lecture, and the resultant publicity, alerted alumni and much of the world to the bias against Israel that permeates so many Vassar academic departments and programs. I sincerely hope that in its wake the faculty who thus far have successfully resisted bringing in more diverse views will fulfill their responsibilities as educators and affirmatively work toward a truly balanced programming on these very complex and important issues.
Lynn J. Benswanger
Class of 1975