Standing side by side, Vassar College students and faculty collectively held a candlelight vigil to honor the 11 individuals killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, PA. This horrid anti-Semitic attack illuminates the hostile climate in which many Jews find themselves today. However, rather than act as a bystander to such hatred, the Vassar community seeks to combat anti-Semitism head on.
Universities can change and people can respectfully talk to one another about difficult topics. This transformation is exactly what we have seen here at Vassar. What used to be a rather malicious environment for Jewish and pro-Israel students has become a safe space for conversations to take place, thanks to pushback from students and the administration against anti-Semitic and anti-Israel movements.
When I first arrived on campus, Vassar was not the friendliest environment for a Jewish, pro-Israel student like me. The Jewish newspaper Algemeiner Journal had just ranked Vassar as the number two most anti-Semitic school in the United States and Canada, which came as a result of the school’s weak response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign dedicated to degrading Israel and her supporters (The Algemeiner, “The Algemeiner’s 1st Annual List of the US and Canada’s Worst Campuses for Jewish Students,” 2016).
Initially, only a few brave students actively opposed the anti-Israel movement. In fact, one Jewish student leader who penned an op-ed in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in March 2016 said that the atmosphere was so vitriolic that Jewish students found it uncomfortable to openly express their Jewish heritage on campus, especially if one supported Israel (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Op-Ed: Mob mentality at Vassar BDS vote typical of school’s Israel climate,” 03.15.2016). The 2015–16 academic year was the peak of anti-Israel activity at Vassar. Former Vassar student Jason Storch described a “mob mentality” taking shape on campus, with vocal activists shouting down Israel supporters and intimidating others to hide in submission. Although their scare tactics successfully pressured the student government to pass an anti-Israel BDS resolution in March 2016, the college rejected BDS as a campus-wide referendum, proving that the campus community did not support BDS. Furthermore, anti-Israel activists’ product boycott failed, and the administration came out in strong opposition to the BDS measures (The Miscellany News, “VSA statement regarding BDS vote,” 03.04.2016).
According to Vassar alumnus and founding member of Alums for Campus Fairness Dr. Mark Banschick ’78, this turning point served as a watershed moment in the Israeli-Palestinian campus debate. He claimed that the defeat of the BDS resolutions at Vassar should serve as major encouragement to students everywhere who may feel ready to fight for an academy free of intimidation.
“Because if at Vassar—where the pro-Israel voice has been silenced for years—students have had enough, that speaks well for what can happen elsewhere,” Banschick stated (The Algemeiner, “Vassar Alumnus Calls Defeat of BDS Resolution at College a ‘Watershed Moment,’” 05.03.2016).
Banschick was right.
Around the country, other campuses have faced increasingly hostile anti-Israel groups and an uptick in anti-Semitic activity in recent years. In contrast, in my opinion, Vassar has seen a decline in anti-Israel activity, and Jewish and pro-Israel students can feel prouder and more empowered than ever to stand up for Israel on campus.
Even when egregious incidents occurred this year, like the provocation to “slap a Zionist” that appeared in a “disorientation guide” sent to more than 400 students and the Daily Stormer distributing anti-Semitic fliers on campus, President Elizabeth Bradley was quick to release public statements condemning these anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attacks (The Algemeiner, “Vassar College Condemns ‘Provocative’ Disorientation Guide That Urged Students to ‘Slap a Zionist,’” 09.04.2018; The Miscellany News, “College bans suspect in anti-Semitic poster campaign,” 10.10.2018).
It seems like common sense for a university administration to do whatever it can to protect its students. However, that was not the case at Vassar just a few short years ago, and unfortunately, many of my Jewish and/ or pro-Israel peers studying at other universities are not afforded the same level of security and respect.
“Jewish and pro-Israel students can feel prouder and more empowered than ever to stand up for Israel on campus.”
Likewise, in the wake of the anti-Semitic poster incident on campus several weeks ago, a number of students asked the Jewish Studies Department to offer some sort of academic response to the event. The Steering Committee responded immediately, proposing a new course titled “From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism” for the 2018–2019 school year. The course will explore the origins of (religious) anti-Judaism beginning in antiquity and its transformation into (political/ racial) anti-Semitism in modernity through the present.
Not only are the administration, faculty and students no longer accepting anti-Semitic or anti-Israel rhetoric, but they are also supporting efforts to bring communities together by advocating for respectful communication among different ideological groups.
A few years ago, in response to Vassar being ranked as a top 10 most anti-Semitic school, a group of students and I unified to form Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively (VOICE). What makes VOICE unique is that, rather than acting as another polarizing group on campus to advocate for a particular stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, org aims to bring all perspectives surrounding Israeli affairs and the conflict together to generate educational and robust conversations. We host weekly meetings and invite speakers from a variety of fields and perspectives to discuss topics surrounding the Jewish State.
VOICE prides itself on its members, who maintain a variety of political, social and economic attitudes toward the State of Israel. We support discussions about different opinions, which we encourage in order to facilitate true educational and personal growth. For example, last year, we hosted a constructive conversation about Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) and the Nakba, which signify historical events that shed light on the real and differing experiences of Israelis and Palestinians since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Moreover, we openly discuss and debate Israeli policies, including controversial topics, like the continuing military occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s recent Nation State Law, on which many of our members have adopted a passionate position. Only through conversations such as these can we build trust, and only through building trust in our relationships can effective change occur.
I hope to see all Vassar students attend a VOICE meeting to share their thoughts with us and engage in respectful robust dialogue. Support for Jewish and pro-Israel students at Vassar has never been better—let’s keep it going.