Letter to the Editor: SJP statement following VOICE event protest, Bradley response

Yesterday evening, Nov. 14, 2019, at 5 p.m., around 25 members of Vassar SJP and other Vassar students gathered on the third floor of Rockefeller Hall to oppose a talk given by Hen Mazzig. Mazzig is a former IDF commander who mocks imprisoned Palestinian children and hurls false allegations against activists fighting for solidarity with Palestine, particularly Black and Muslim women. We assembled in opposition to his participation in and glorification of a settler-colonial apartheid state that has claimed 34 lives in Gaza, including those of numerous children, in the past couple of days alone. Please see our earlier statement (available on our social media) for more information on Mazzig’s background and our reasoning for protesting his presence on our campus. 

We remained in the hallway for the duration of our demonstration, holding signs which included phrases like “Stop Pinkwashing,” “Resistance is Not Terrorism,” “Free Palestine,” “Don’t Normalize Zionism” and “Palestinians are Indigenous.” We played music by Palestinian artists, passed out flyers explaining our position and spoke with attendees. Only a handful of students attended the event, outnumbered by administrators, professors and staff. Before the lecture began, after having already entered the lecture room, Mazzig himself returned to the hallway and approached two of our student protesters, asking them provocative questions while a man whom he appeared to know discreetly filmed the students on his phone without their knowledge or consent. 

At around 5:40 p.m., we began chanting outside the doors of the talk, yelling: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “How do you spell justice? BDS!,” “From Kashmir to Palestine, occupation is a crime,” “Stop the killing, stop the hate, Israel is an apartheid state” and “When I say free, you say Palestine! Free—Palestine!” The chants lasted for about 15 minutes before we all left the building and the talk went on. Although we do not believe that Zionism should have a platform, especially not one funded by our student government, we did not prevent anyone from attending the talk or stop Mazzig from speaking. 

After the talk, Mazzig tweeted that one of these chants, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” constituted a call for his death and the genocide of all Jews. This absurd and purposefully incendiary claim was constructed on the basis that “from the river to the sea” is a statement originating from Hamas. This is untrue and demonstrates how Zionists are eager to discredit critics of Israel as “Hamas terrorists.” The phrase is a popular slogan among a wide range of Palestinian resistance and nationalist groups. It was used by the Palestine Liberation Organization in its 1964 founding and served as a rallying cry during the intifadas and other popular uprisings. However, the origin of the slogan comes directly from early Zionists under British Mandatory rule as they were imagining the boundaries of their future state. This inception was later cemented in the 1973 founding charter of Likud, Netanyahu’s political party, which states, “Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” Subverting this rhetoric with their own use of the phrase, Palestinian activists have articulated their right to live freely in the entirety of their homeland. Freedom for Palestine certainly does not translate to the genocide of all Jews. It is a demand for total decolonization, for a recognition of the right of return and for the dismantling of an apartheid regime.

Conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Semitic tactic, as it falsely represents the Jewish community and tells them what they ought to believe. This misrepresentation erases the brave work of many Jewish people who actively speak out against Israeli apartheid. False accusations of anti-Semitism directed at activists acting in solidarity with Palestinians distract from real instances of anti-Semitism. When Zionists hurl these accusations, they are doing so in order to escape legitimate criticism and to divert attention away from the injustices carried out by the Israeli government. We do not hold Jewish liberation and Palestinian liberation as antithetical to one another but see the struggles as intertwined. We believe it is both possible and necessary to stand against anti-Semitism and to stand with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the Palestinian fight for freedom. 

In the early hours of Friday morning, President Elizabeth Bradley released a statement indirectly addressing SJP’s protest of Hen Mazzig. In her statement, she writes: “A group of students disrupted the speaker by chanting outside the lecture hall for some time. People who were in the lecture expressed that the chanting was intimidating and hard to listen to. The words have been associated by some people with anti-Semitism.” The complete lack of context to her statement is irresponsible to the entire student body. By not providing any detail, or even taking a concrete stance in the statement, Bradley’s response plays into Mazzig’s tactic of fear-mongering. Bradley refers to the chant as potentially anti-Semitic, thereby conveying to Jewish students that they have something to fear without specifying anything that actually happened. Students reading the statement with no prior context are left to use their imaginations to fill in what “might” have occurred, with no tools to inform themselves on SJP’s actions yesterday evening, which, as we have explained, were merely expressions of solidarity with Palestinian people across the world. 

Bradley’s reactionary response is to be expected from a president who seems to be more concerned with checking off boxes and deploying buzzwords in defense of her image than dispelling false attacks on students or taking a stance against imperialism. Bradley picks and chooses what she engages with, or what is deemed worthy of addressing, based on the interests of donors, powerful alumnae/i, trustees and the public image of the College. Last night’s statement came mere hours after Zionist backlash emerged on social media. Meanwhile, Bradley has not addressed the fears of Black students on campus after the administration increased the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department’s presence two weeks ago, nor the ongoing investigations of Poughkeepsie Police brutality happening right outside our campus. Bradley’s facade of administrative neutrality and promotion of peaceful dialogue not only erases the racism and violence inherent to Zionism but conceals her own complicity in the oppression of Palestinians. As someone who has traveled to Israel, met with a former IDF general, repeatedly conflated anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and refused to condemn Israeli human rights abuses, Bradley has no authority to instruct us on how to properly protest.

The claim that our chants were “intimidating and hard to listen to” is absurd in light of the actual situation in Palestine—70,000 Palestinians must cross Israeli military checkpoints on their commute to work every day and over 50 Israeli laws discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel. In the few days since our student government approved funding for Mazzig’s talk, Israeli forces have murdered 34 Palestinians. Fighting against an apartheid state should only intimidate those who have a stake in devaluing Palestinian lives. There is “no sense of belonging” on a campus that brings a speaker who promotes racist ideology and has a history of attacking students in SJPs. There is no “flourishing of opposing ideas” when the Israeli government is cutting off two million Gaza residents from access to clean water. There is no room for “diverse viewpoints” around the shooting of unarmed Palestinians point-blank. There is no “free exchange of ideas” to be had about the forced dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

8 Comments

  1. Congratulations SJP-
    If your aim was to intimidate and harass students interested in hearing from a pro-Israel speaker, you succeeded.
    If your goal was to literally silence anyone who dares to express support for the Jewish state, your objective was achieved.
    If you hoped to further alienate Jewish alums from donating to Vassar and engaging with their alma mater, you hit the mark. Let’s hope those withheld donations don’t affect Vassar’s needs blind admissions policies that are intended to benefit students from economically deprived backgrounds.
    If your intent is to make Vassar Judenfrei (look it up) by creating an environment hostile to Jewish and pro-Zionist students, you get a gold star. Keep it up and the federal government may intervene.
    If you are really interested in finding a way to resolve the competing claims of Jews and Palestinians to the land of Israel, well, how is that going for you?
    Megan Tallmer
    Class of 1973

  2. Here’s the thing… To Jews, a zionist is someone who supports Jewish self-determination in their homeland… full stop. That doesn’t insinuate any other political machinations or any sort of ethnic conflict that has been perpetuated by both Palestinian and Israeli leadership. There are two sides to this conflict and when you “zionize” everything with your perverted and toxic definition of a value that is inherent to Jewish culture, and ignore that 95% of Jews in the world are zionists (obviously, because Jews need self-determination for their survival), you are clearly missing the mark and are coming off extremely bigoted. If you actually cared and wanted to impact the conflict in a positive and realistic way, increase your dialogue with those invested in the Jewish state. There’s no other way to seek a resolution, and if you continue to demonize Jewish voices, they aren’t going to include your perspective in any future solutions. Grow up.

  3. Let’s be honest. It doesn’t matter whether “from the river to the sea” is anti-Semitic in intention or not. It doesn’t matter if Jews are a part of SJP, nor do the contents of anyone’s character really matter–not Mazzig’s, not President Bradley’s, not VOICE’s and not SJP’s. The point is that SJP chose to shout a slogan they knew is often associated–rightfully or not–with anti-Semitism. Why not choose a slogan that offers nuance and really stakes out their position? Because slogans can’t offer nuance, and nuance lacks controversy. SJP chose to cast off any concerns for complexity, and the threat of this is that they have created a “safe-space” for anti-Semitism. We don’t know if that space is filled or empty, but we can’t know, and that doesn’t really matter. Anyone shouting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” can say this statement is not from Hamas, not anti-Semitic–but it could be, and they could be, and there is no way to know. This is the spectre of anti-Semitism many Vassar Jewish students sense–the sense PB spoke to–and it is a result of SJP performing controversy–caring more about performative activism than actually engaging in nuance. This spectre is real, whether or not there is anti-Semitism at Vassar. SJP made a choice to not counter the spectre of anti-Semitism that always comes with any anti-Zionist stance. They should have known this, and I think they do know this. It is possible to deconstruct that spectre and still promote anti-Zionism, but they did not do that. SJP is responsible, and they should not be able to escape that fact.

  4. Lol @megan above. Vassar much better off without money from religious jerk-offs with murderous political agendas. Nice job stereotyping Jewish people as the holders of the cash though… I guess this is all about using money to influence politics / to promote religious organizations for some folks. ‘Wouldn’t want kids getting scholarships if they wind up trying to think differently from us!’

    While Bradley seems foggy on this concept and perhaps committed to devolving it, Vassar should be an educational institution. What is an education? Learning information? Being given a gold-leafed piece of paper? No. An education is learning how to think. A place that accomplishes that much more valuable objective is very different from a ‘safe-space’ for people to float merrily along while parroting the vague and arbitrary quasi-religious crap that their parents subjected them to before their neurons gelled. It isn’t a place to crow “I am! I am!” or to appropriate the feelings and experiences of other animals into some kind of comfortable or convenient self-image.

    If there is to be real and rapid dialogue we need a general rethinking of ‘tolerance’. There should be plenty of tolerance for attempting different and new ways of thinking. But no tolerance for the kind of religious thinking (broadly construed to include nationalistic etc…) and ‘identifying’ that isn’t up for debate. If it was something people were open minded about it would be long gone – replaced entirely or fractured beyond recognition by now. And yet it remains — even at Vassar. You have to be open to bring someone other than yourself and to believing something other than what you believe in order to have a real dialogue. We must be intolerant if those who are not able to rapidly question and reformulate themselves and their beliefs.

    If we remain “tolerant” in the conventional sense we will continue to get all kinds of weird behaviors and double standards. If a fanatical catholic anti abortion activist were to be invited by Vassar I’m sure loads of the people defending this Zionist would be up in arms. What if a zealot from ISIL came to extol the virtues of the caliphate? I guess JSIL is a better option?

  5. How does a hiring manager know if this Vassar degree comes with a side of anti-semitism?

    These poor deluded students don’t know what harm they are causing to the Vassar community. When hiring managers look at the education section of alum CV’s and they see Vassar, they have to wonder if this application is one of the “bad” Vassar Grads. How does a hiring manager know if this hire will scream at his Jewish customers or go after their Jewish workers? The liability is just too great.

  6. Hey SJP, aren’t you the same group that posted ACTUAL Nazi propaganda pics on your social media feed a couple of years ago?

    Maybe you should stop chanting slogans that Jewish people are telling you are genocidal and anti Semitic?

    Your track record is not good.

  7. Here is what Bernie Sanders thinks with reference to the policy position asserted by SJP.

    “I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.”

    Moreover, Sanders states:

    “It is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power. I will always call out antisemitism when I see it. My ancestors would expect no less of me. ”

    (Source: “Fighting antisemitism is at the heart of the left’s struggle against oppression,” by Bernie Sanders, The Guardian, November 12, 2019, at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/12/antisemitism-left-jews-multiracial-democracy)

    SJP members should heed Senator Sanders’ words and reject SJP’s antisemitic agenda.

  8. huge support from myself and many others in class of 2018. Keep fighting the good fight — the outcry from zionist alums may seem one-sided, but know that many of us supported SJP in our time at Vassar, and support them after we’ve graduated. Solidarity!

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