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.