Breaking from the run-of-the-mill law and order of chair updates and speedy consensus agendas, all attending the March 24 VSA Senate paused to hone in on a series of images, projected loud and clear onto the wall of Rocky 112. In one, an illustrated bust of a Palestinian woman takes an impassive glare as silhouettes of men toting guns run down the length of her burqa. In another, a man is honored on the anniversary of his martyrdom.
These images—initially shared by Palestinian activist Zachariah Barghouti on Facebook—raised concerns for members of VSA Finance, leading the committee to first withhold funding requested by Students For Justice in Palestine (SJP) to bring Barghouti to campus. SJP was planning on having Barghouti speak on a panel, “One Year Later,” scheduled for Thursday, April 4.
In an emailed statement to The Miscellany News, the VSA executive board explained their discomfort with potential insinuations of violence implied by Barghouti’s shares. “Mindful of the great diversity of experiences represented on campus, we recognize that appeals to violence are counterproductive to dialogue and engagement across differences,” they wrote. “The Finance Committee was not comfortable funding this speaker without some kind of statement addressing the concerns with some of the content housed in Barghouti’s online presence.”
Responding to a potential connection to a controversial lecture on hate speech delivered by Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson last year, the VSA indicated that precedent requires potentially contentious speakers to prepare a statement attesting to their “productive contribution” to campus.
Following the VSA’s request for a statement from Barghouti on March 3, SJP agreed to solicit one, but first argued that the interpretation of Barghouti’s social media posts stemmed from his page on the pro-Israel website Canary Mission. The website, which also hosts pages for some Vassar students involved with SJP and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, wrote “Barghouti…has glorified violence, minimized Jewish persecution, spread religious anti-Zionism, defended terrorists and demonized Israel” (Canary Mission, “Zachariah Barghouti,” 02.17.2019).
In his statement, Barghouti offered a rebuttal to this representation, which SJP representatives brought to the Senate meeting on March 24. “Of course, people have a right to be angry when their family members are being shot and murdered in cold blood,” Barghouti wrote, referring to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which has been particularly fierce in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
He went on to attach two flyers for speeches he delivered on pinkwashing and queer Palestinian activism at the California Institute of Integral Studies and San Francisco State University. Also central to the statement, Barghouti condemned what he perceives as VSA’s legitimization of Canary Mission. “[I]t is important to note the irony in that the Vassar College community has been held hostage by the very same entities that attempt to smear my reputation as a human rights activist,” he wrote. “It is hard to imagine that the VSA would choose to believe the narrative of a non-transparent, unaccountable and secretive organization that has been condemned by hundreds of professors, students, and Jewish organizations across the country.” SJP rep Leanna Faimon ’22, who was in attendance at the VSA Senate meeting, further asserted, “The information received from Canary Mission is biased and is a blacklist.”
Ensuing discussion at the meeting led some in attendance, including Chair of Finance Mendel Jimenéz—the point person in the initial decision to withhold funding—to question whether Barghouti had sufficiently addressed the concerns about endorsing martyrdom. Jimenéz did not respond to multiple requests for direct comment.
2019 Senator of Student Affairs Jesser Horowitz [Full Disclosure: Horowitz is a columnist for The Miscellany News] was one of the more vocal VSA members at the meeting. “Zachariah Barghouti has a troubling association with an organization that has financed acts of violence against civilians; and his rhetoric invoking Jesus in his attacks on Israel are deeply troubling,” Horowitz wrote to The Misc in an emailed statement. “I believe that he is an anti-semite and I do not want him on this campus.”
On the basis of free speech, however, Horowitz did not contest Barghouti coming to campus. After about 20 minutes of discussion, the VSA ultimately concurred with Horowitz, approving the remaining funding for SJP.
“We were assured that the speaker would not include appeals to violence during the panel,” the VSA Executive Board wrote. “We are also mindful of the experience and perspectives he could bring to campus as a queer, Palestinian activist…the statement was considered with all of the information, context, and conversations that were involved in the process that started in late February. After the discussion, by consensus, the allocation was made.”
Since Barghouti’s approval, other students and alumnae/i have raised concerns about his presence on campus, according to Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll. “First, our team looked into the event, and at this time we do not believe Mr. Barghouti speaking here poses a threat to safety,” Duga-Carroll wrote in an email. “Second, as we have done in other instances, we have spoken with the event organizers about ways to reduce the likelihood of bias-related incidents and help the group have a successful event.”
SJP rep Paul Kennedy ’19 implored the campus community to approach Barghouti’s panel with an open mind. “To any student who feels uncomfortable by Zachariah’s social media posts, I would encourage them to come to the event that Zachariah will be at, and to listen to Zachariah talk. If they do so, they will see that Zachariah is not anti-Semitic, but is coming from a place of passionately demanding justice for the Palestinian people.”
When asked if he was surprised by the hesitation to fund Barghouti, Kennedy responded: “We were slightly taken aback, but at the same time not all that surprised, because it is common for Palestinian speakers to face an extra level of scrutiny.” He qualified, “But frankly, because it all went through, we’re thankful that the VSA handled it responsibly, and we have no beef with the VSA.”
Barghouti’s appearance on campus will roughly correspond with the one-year anniversary of the 2018 Gaza border protests, or as Palestinian activists call it, the Great March of Return.