Stephens, Schreier rekindle Israel-Palestine VC discussion

On Sept. 20, speakers Steven Cook and Bret Stephens engaged Vassar students and faculty alike on a familiar topic with a seldom-heard approach: why to be pro-Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo by Laurel Hennen Vigil/The Miscellany News
On Sept. 20, speakers Steven Cook and Bret Stephens engaged Vassar students and faculty alike on a familiar topic with a seldom-heard approach: why to be pro-Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo by Laurel Hennen Vigil/The Miscellany News
On Sept. 20, speakers Steven Cook and Bret Stephens engaged Vassar students and faculty alike on a familiar topic with a seldom-heard approach: why to be pro-Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo by Laurel Hennen Vigil/The Miscellany News

The arrival of a pro-Israel speaker on campus on Sept. 20 rapidly reignited students and faculty in the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict. Continuing the series of events supported by the President Office’s Dialogue and Engagement Across Difference Fund, Council on Foreign Rela­tions Senior Fellow Steven Cook hosted the inter­view “Why I Support Israel and You Should Too” with Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. Two days later, the campus community responded with the event “Reflecting on Bret Stephens” host­ed by Professor of History Joshua Schreier.

Cook began the session by asking Stephens to respond to the titular question: why one might support Israel in this contentious debate. Stephens said, “Look, it’s actually…a very complicated ques­tion. It involves two main points: one is identity, and the other is values.” Explaining that his own Jewish ancestry and love of Israel motivated him to argue for the integrity of its political borders, Stephens argued that negotiation for a two-state solution has stalled from the refusal of groups like Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamental­ist organization, to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Interim President Jonathan Chenette explained that President Emerita Catharine Bond Hill decid­ed to invite Stephens and Cook to campus to en­courage intersectional, respectful thought. Chen­ette continued, “Cook did a good job of asking questions that audience members might have had about the topic. Stephens had a clear position that he articulated with conviction while acknowledg­ing some contrary viewpoints.”

During the second half of the session, the audi­ence was invited to pose questions to the speak­ers. Chenette commented, “The questions from students were well-informed, engaged and chal­lenging. I appreciated one student’s willingness to challenge some assumptions about the audience conveyed by Stephens in his opening remarks and Stephens’s sincere apology for those remarks.”

For example, Stephens suggested that the youth­ful idealism of students in activist movements could disconnect them from political realities. Schreier, however, disagreed. “I am continually im­pressed by the intelligence, engagement and curi­osity of so many Vassar students,” he declared. Cit­ing student challenges to Stephens’s arguments, he explained, “As for questions, a number dealt with Stephens’s implicit argument that JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] / SJP [Students for Justice in Pal­estine]’s activism is to be condemned because gay rights and women’s rights are respected in Israel. Other questions related to his vague, straw dog ar­guments resting on the false dichotomy between those who are ‘pro-Israel’ and those who feel Israel ‘does not have a right to exist.’ He was ignoring, of course, the fact that the major student movements at North American campuses advocating a boycott (notably SJP and JVP) are not calling for the elim­ination, expulsion or subjugation of any national group, but rather for equal rights.”

The rhetoric of individuals like Stephens, a journalist at a renowned publication like the Wall Street Journal, carries weight in forming U.S. for­eign policy and public perceptions of the Middle East. Acknowledging this influence, SJP reported in an emailed statement, “It is important to re­spond to Bret Stephens, because his opinions do not sit on the racist fringe where they belong, but rather represent more or less the mainstream per­spective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the U.S. The new, 38 billion dollar aid-deal to Israel is evidence enough of this. It should never be for­gotten that the Occupation of Palestine exists only with the complicity [of] Western governments and corporations, and that Bret Stephens and others like him have an important role in normalizing the Occupation in the mind of the American public. It is for these reasons that it is necessary to constant­ly challenge him and his viewpoints.”

Chabad on the Fulton Directors Rabbi Daniel Sa­noff and Dalia Sanoff reflected, “In thinking about this issue, we are reminded of a section of the Tal­mud which relates to the manner in which scholar­ly debates were conducted two thousand years ago between two competing Jewish groups–the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. The Sanoffs continued, “The Talmud (Mishnah, page 13b) notes that when one group borrowed utensils used for ritual food preparation, the borrowing group would follow the lending group’s rules even where they contradicted their own practices. Both groups understood they could be respectful of the other’s beliefs without diminishing their commitment to their own principles.”

Some members of the community, however, prefer to focus on the College’s ethical obligations to human rights. SJP stated, “SJP’s goal is not to re­solve tensions, because tension is not the problem. The problem is the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and the human rights violations that occur there. SJP hopes that the administration, faculty and stu­dent body will altogether realize the moral impera­tive of the situation and collectively decide to fight the Occupation through BDS and other methods.”

Keeping the focus on morality, Schreier added, “For those looking to make a ‘positive contribu­tion,’ I suggest rejecting all overt or veiled racist, anti-Arab or antisemitic assumptions and support­ing the non-violent movement to pressure Israel to change their laws and guarantee equality for every­one, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity.”

The Sanoffs reiterate the importance of devel­oping mutual understanding through dialogue saying, “Our hope for this school year is that ev­eryone can take a lesson from Shammai and Hillel; have strong ideas and be passionate about your beliefs, but in doing so ensure that your neighbor also has a safe space to do the same. Push yourself to critically examine your own views, engage your neighbor in challenging conversations, allow each person’s voice to be heard and through this come to a greater understanding of each other.”

4 Comments

  1. Professor Schreirer is quoted as saying “He was ignoring, of course, the fact that the major student movements at North American campuses advocating a boycott (notably SJP and JVP) are not calling for the elim­ination, expulsion or subjugation of any national group, but rather for equal rights.”

    This is hard to swallow given Vassar SJP’s posting of Nazi propaganda and sale of “sweet fucking anti Zionist gear” including tshirts featuring a picture of a convicted terrorist holding an AK-47.

  2. Following on my prior comment it is laughable that Vassar SJP condemns Stephens to the “racist fringe” given their own history with Nazi propaganda and promotion of terrorist icons.

  3. It is interesting that Stephens’ talk was sponsored by the Dialogue and Engagement Across Difference Fund also known as the D.E.A.D. fund.

  4. Please name me one Muslim majority country or territory i.e. Gaza where decency, respect for other religions, respect for women, gay rights, and general civil behavior occurs. There at at least 40 such areas and all are examples of brutality and incivility. It’s laughable to hear student organizations discuss Israel as a violator of human rights while the people they support still reside in twelfth century morality. Try being openly gay and living in Gaza or Nablus and see how well you do. The narcicism of Jewish professors at Vassar who beat their chest and show ” how moral am I” by condemning Israel and getting love from those who would gladly chop their heads off is pathetic. At least this administraton is trying to have a little balance as opposed to last few years disgrace

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