On Oct. 18, politically charged posters slandering members of the Vassar community were found plastered throughout campus. Mere minutes after their discovery, the David Horowitz Freedom Center claimed responsibility in an unsolicited statement emailed to The Miscellany News and various administrative offices. “Vassar College is the latest of several campuses targeted by the Freedom Center’s poster campaign,” read one particularly concerning excerpt, revealing that the effort was a part of a national movement to denounce sympathizers of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS). Other targeted institutions ranged from the University of Chicago to San Francisco State University—all deemed “schools supporting terrorists” in a top-10 list published to the center’s website.
David Horowitz founded his namesake organization in 1988. Throughout his time in the public eye, the pundit has championed conservative causes, primarily those concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He frequently speaks out against BDS advocates, whose core goals include ending Israeli occupation of disputed territories and protecting the civil rights of all Palestinians. During a polarizing talk at San Diego State University, Horowitz accused the 11-year-old grassroots campaign of being composed of ill-informed activists. “They support a movement to strangle Israel that was inspired by terrorist organizations…and is funded by a Hamas network,” he declared in front of students.
Horowitz’s extremist tendencies have led the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to classify him as the leader of one of the 892 hate groups in its burgeoning “hatewatch” database, deeming his brainchild anti-Muslim. In an online dossier created by the SPLC cataloguing his problematic actions, Horowitz was quoted saying, “The problem is when you have a religion which preaches war and violence and hate, rationality is never gonna take over.” Aside from speaking out against Islam, Horowitz is a fierce critic of President Obama, whom he accused of being racist in a Twitter post, and Black Lives Matter, an organization he has publicly dubbed a hate group (Southern Poverty Law Center, “David Horowitz”).
In an effort to influence millennials, who, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in May, support Palestine in greater numbers than in 2006, the Maccabee Task Force was born. Supported by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the Horowitz Center and other influential donors, the group focuses on garnering the support of college students. In the past, they’ve hosted peace-tents on campuses to challenge pro-Palestinian events as well as cultural events and subsidized educational trips to the Jewish State. Horowitz, inspired by Maccabee’s executive director David Brog, created the poster campaign entitled “Stop the Jew Hatred.” “What the Maccabees are doing is an important service not just to Jews but to all Americans,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the one hope we have. I wish there were more” (Los Angeles Times, “How a casino tycoon is trying to combat an exploding pro-Palestinian movement on campuses,” 08.21.2016).
Last August, foreshadowing what would eventually befall Vassar, Horowitz Center members distributed posters throughout UCLA accusing its student chapter of BDS of “Jew hatred” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Anti-BDS group distances itself from conservative foundation’s poster campaign,” 08.23.2016).
The extreme tactics of the campaign have made it a point of contention. Moderate Jewish student groups J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace have both publicly condemned the more radical efforts of Horowitz and his cohorts. Jerry Kang, the Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at University of California Los Angeles, called the poster campaigns of Horowitz and his cohorts “thuggish intimidation,” accusing the effort of utilizing “guilt by association, of using blacklists, of ethnic slander and sensationalized images engineered to trigger racially tinged fear.”
Members of the Vassar community also expressed displeasure. “Those in our community who were singled out in these postings deserve our unconditional support,” wrote Vassar Interim President Jon Chenette in a campus-wide email a day after the posters had been taken down and destroyed. Dovetailing off of Chenette’s sentiments was the creation of an all-campus dialogue organized by Associate Dean of Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman, which will take place in two separate sessions, the first on Oct. 25 and the second on Nov. 1. Pittman explained how his office supports students, saying, “Our best approach in these situations is to stand ready to support those who are impacted. It’s such a politically fueled issue that words and sometimes images are used to hurt, threaten and intimidate others because of their views. In Campus Life and Diversity, our goal is to support students and to offer counter opportunities for discourse.”
This is not the first time Vassar has been targeted by organizations such as the Horowitz Center. Instigated by the proposition and eventual passage of the BDS resolution last spring, the Canary Foundation, an extremist website that regularly defames critics of the Israeli government, began harassing the Vassar student chapter of BDS. Members were surprised to discover that their private information had been uploaded to a virtual blacklist–the same blacklists that orchestrators of the Oct. 8 poster campaign used to pick out professors. In a phone interview, one victim, a recent alum who chose to remain anonymous, expressed his frustration with the lack of support he and other victims received from Vassar’s administration in the wake of the cyber attack. After the radicalist group had publicized their social media accounts, members found themselves overwhelmed with death threats.
“One of my friends was told to drown herself with bleach,” he said, referring to misogynistic messages female members were forced to endure. Rape threats became commonplace, often punctuated with racist and sexist epithets. Fearing the safety of himself and the group, the alum, then a student contending with a brimming course load and the looming prospect of post grad life, reported the worst harassers to one of Vassar’s Title IX coordinators. He called the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department at the behest of a lawyer for the college. Days passed. The police said there was nothing they could do. No arrests were made. No administrators sent emails directly denouncing the actions of Canary. “The administration is willing to defend its faculty, which is great,” said the alum. “But when it comes down to it, it won’t do the same for its students.”
Thinking about the infamous VSA meeting on the resolution, during which BDS members were reported to have been laughing and showing disrespect to those with whom they disagreed, by one attendee in an interview, he paused. “The people who were laughing were people of color,” he mused, “people who come from marginalized identities who regularly experience occupation and oppression in their everyday lives…laughter became a sign of resignation of an absurd situation of people saying Palestinians were being treated fairly.”
After learning of the events of Oct. 8, an anonymous Jewish Vassar student said in an online interview, “I don’t support the Horowitz Center at all. They’re too right-leaning.” The senior went on to explain his desire for more peaceful discourse, all the while detailing his support for a two-state solution and his displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked about his stance on the Vassar’s chapter of BDS, he took a brief moment to think. A pregnant moment passed by. “I don’t think it’s the answer considering that its members have bullied people and excused fashionable antisemitism among their ranks,” he went on. “They deny the existence of a Jewish culture, peoplehood and ethnicity too, which some people get irked by. And often they don’t actually know that much about Israel at all when you talk to them.”