On the morning of Oct. 18, over Vassar’s fall break, “[A]t least thirty posters appeared at various outdoor locations on campus targeting specific members of Vassar’s community … The posters were immediately removed, and both campus security and Poughkeepsie police were called,” according to an all-campus e-mail that was sent out by Interim President Jon Chenette.
The posters targeted student and faculty supporters of Vassar’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel that took flight last semester. The name of the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s website was printed at the bottom of each poster. Given David Horowitz’s consistent and virulent criticisms of political correctness on college campuses and Palestinian solidarity efforts, this act, sadly, comes as no surprise.
One poster likened campus activists to “Hamas terrorists” and listed their names and organizational affiliations. The full poster read, “Do you want to show your support for Hamas terrorists, whose stated goal is the elimination of the Jewish people and the Jewish state? Join us! Students for Justice in Palestine at Vassar College.” A drawing of a militant, dressed in a keffiyeh and armed with an AK-47, accompanies the text, pointing directly at the viewer.
Some of the students listed on the poster graduated last May, and one of the professors listed no longer teaches at Vassar.
Another poster personally attacked a Vassar history professor, bearing his caricatured likeness and the words, “SJP Supporter, BDS Supporter, Anti-Israel Activist, Vassar Professor, #JEWHATRED.” This professor teaches a popular class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To be clear, I do not seek to make any statement supporting or condemning the BDS Movement, Vassar SJP/JVP or other critics of Israel in this piece. While I generally find the concept of being apolitical or neutral to be nonsense, I am not a member of any of these organizations and am not speaking on any of their behalves. If you care to know my (ever-evolving) beliefs about Palestine/Israel and the occupation, feel free to send me an e-mail or flag me down in person–I’m never short of opinions.
That being said, this type of McCarthyist persecution transcends any political inclinations. To single out students and faculty members for acting on their consciences and engaging with a complex international issue is antithetical to the notions of academic freedom that David Horowitz and his cronies claim to champion.
The posters, instead, unjustly slander students and faculty for their human rights activism. They are meant to fear-monger and incite violence against the people listed. I cannot fathom the cowardice of the individuals who put up these signs while faculty and students were taking a much-deserved break from the academic year.
Moreover, the laziness and investigative sloppiness of those engaged in this smear campaign imbues the posters with a layer of pathetic sensationalism. As stated above, many of the students listed graduated (or transferred) last spring, and one faculty member is no longer employed by the College. A simple Facebook search would have provided that information.
This is not the first time campus activists were targeted by entities from outside the college. Last spring, conservative supporters of Israel created Canary Mission, a database of college-age SJP and JVP members across the country, as well as their faculty supporters. Many of the entries included personal information, amalgamations of social media posts and photos. In addition, various tidbits of an activists’ out-of-context quotes, often historically inaccurate information to “contradict” activist claims and the actions of the organizations with which they are affiliated accompany each entry.
Each individual was sorted by institution, creating complex networks of stigmatization. The effect of this website is to essentially blacklist student activists in order to hinder their prospects for employment or graduate school.
Several Vassar students and two faculty members are currently listed on Canary Mission. Those same individuals’ names were on the posters circulated around campus. The flyer campaign, therefore, fits into a larger narrative of right-wing intimidation against campus critics of Israel.
The sensationalized dissemination of personal information serves to mobilize and energize a fringe base of right-wing, pro-Israel advocates for purposes of harassment and intimidation. The website implicitly encourages all kinds of physical and intellectual violence to pressure activists to cease their solidarity work. This is unacceptable.
Do Palestinian solidarity movements often cross into antisemitic territory? Absolutely. This deserves to be called out and reckoned with, just like the racism and Islamophobia that often mars pro-Israel rhetoric. Social justice work is messy and riddled with rhetorical misfires, some grander and more harmful than others.
However, to conflate all criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism is intellectually dishonest and often weaponized by staunch pro-Israel advocates as a silencing tactic. It is deeply ironic that David Horowitz founded a national student organization called “Students for Academic Freedom” back in 2003.
It is important to note that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Horowitz as a purveyor of hate speech.
Moreover, to blacklist people you have never met with baseless accusations is violent. To liken a group of 18- to 22-year-old activists to Hamas is not only absurd, but deeply offensive. To illustrate the likeness of a Jewish professor with the hashtag “Jew Hatred” not only evokes antisemitic imagery from Nazi-era propaganda, but also perpetuates the toxic stereotype of Jewish critics of Israel as being “self-hating.” If you don’t like or agree with BDS or SJP or JVP, this isn’t the way.
Towards the end of his email, Interim President Chenette further commented, “This was not an exercise of free speech – this was bullying and intimidation in its truest form and it will not be tolerated … Those in our community who were singled out in these postings deserve our unconditional support.”
We, as a campus, need to support and support unconditionally, as Interim President Chenette wrote, those in our community who are being targeted for their beliefs. For one, Vassar faculty members can go to againstcanarymission.org and sign their names to take a stand against Canary Mission and David Horowitz-style intimidation tactics. This type of institutional support can go a long way, especially for students who now have a producible document that functions to delegitimate these public blacklists.
For students, reach out to your friends, classmates and acquaintances whose names were listed. See if they’re doing okay. Offer them support. Ideological disagreements aside, no one deserves to be threatened in the way that our student activists have been. Take classes taught by our professors who are singled out by these hateful campaigns. Buy their books and support their scholarship.
For administrators, a direct acknowledgment from the President’s Office was a productive first step in protecting the voices of student activists, especially considering the lack of institutional support for those who were threatened and harassed in the wake of last semester’s BDS campaign.
Moving forward, ensuring the safety of student and faculty activists from outside threats must become a priority. We cease to be an academic community when those with controversial views are left to fend for themselves against hate-filled intimidation maneuvers.
I do not consider myself an authority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t say this as a cop-out from taking a stance, for I am a work in progress who is still grappling with the nuances and complexities of this issue. However, I do know that controversial activism needs to be protected, especially on college campuses.
Efforts to malign and silence students have become an ever-present trend in the realm of higher education. We need to actively combat bullying and fear-mongering in all of its ugliness.
To those targeted by the posters, I offer my full and unequivocal support and solidarity. As long as I’m editor, your voices will always have a place in the Opinions section of The Miscellany News.