On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 14, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protested a lecture by Zionist activist Hen Mazzig, a speaker invited to campus by Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively (VOICE). Mazzig claims that he was silenced by protesters. SJP students interviewed after the event claim that the protest was recorded for the purpose of doxxing, the online publishing of personal information with the intent of intimidation. In her official statement to the Vassar community, President Elizabeth Bradley condemned the actions of the protesters as anti-Semitic.
Mazzig is a self-professed “Israeli Jewish advocate, writer, [and] speaker.” He also describes himself as a Zionist. Zionism, Mazzig says, is about “Jewish emancipation.” During his lecture, he asserted that the term is not political, and that the Zionist movement is “about the fact that my parents are alive.” He continued, “If anyone has a problem with Zionism, they have a problem with the fact that my parents are alive.”
Approximately 20 attendees gathered inside the auditorium to hear Mazzig’s lecture. The lecture was titled “Forgotten Refugees: Indigenous Jews of the Middle East,” reflecting Mazzig’s own identity as a Mizrahi Jewish person of Tunisian and Iraqi ancestry, as well as a descendant of refugees. According to Mazzig, the Mizrahim remain underrepresented in the public sphere. In an interview with The Miscellany News after the event, Mazzig said he believes that he might be viewed as “one of the only speakers that can properly represent [the Mizrahi Jewish] community.”
Student protesters began gathering outside of Rockefeller 300 at 5 p.m. SJP representatives, who are quoted anonymously per their request, to avoid potential doxxing, estimated that 25 protesters were present. Students stood at the auditorium entrance handing out fliers, playing music and holding signs. The protest culminated in a series of chants, including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase considered by some, including Mazzig, to be explicitly anti-Semitic. Other phrases included “From Kashmir to Palestine, occupation is a crime” and “Stop the killing, stop the hate, Israel is an apartheid state.” The Miscellany News’ audio recordings indicate that students chanted for approximately six minutes during the event. When interviewed after the event, Mazzig said, “[The protesters were] trying to silence my talk, trying to silence my community, trying to erase my community.”
President Bradley issued two statements in response to the incident. The first statement was released in the early morning hours (around 1:30 a.m.) after the protest occurred. Bradley described the controversial chant as “[having] been associated by some people with anti-Semitism.” In the later statement released on Nov. 18, Bradley more explicitly asserted that the student protesters engaged in acts of anti-Semitism. She stated, “In the days following the incident, I have spent time speaking with and learning from students, faculty, alumnae/i, and experts in the field, and I now believe the use of the chant—in this way, directed at this speaker—crossed the line into anti-Semitism.”
SJP defended their use of the controversial chant in a statement released Thursday, Nov. 15 on their official Facebook page, citing the chant’s origin: conceived by ultra-nationalist Zionists from the 1960s and 70s, the phrase was later subverted by Palestinians as a liberatory chant. The statement continued, “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.”
In their official statement, VOICE equated the chant with the sentiment that “Israel has no right to exist,” a sentiment that they claim 84 percent of American Jewish people believe to be anti-Semitic. The statement also noted that VOICE itself was divided over whether the phrase was anti-Semitic.
SJP protesters expressed concern that they had been filmed at the event. The students claim that as they stood in the hall outside of the venue, a man engaged them in conversation about the event. This man was Ron Katz, president of the Tel Aviv Institute, a group associated with Mazzig dedicated to “monitoring, educating and disrupting anti-Semitic contagion.” One of the students claims that Katz then motioned to Mazzig, who approached the student protesters and asked why they were not allowing him speak on his experience as, in his words, a queer Jew of color. In a later interview, one student said, “We do not have a problem with [Mazzig’s] identity, it’s with [Mazzig’s] politics.” The student noted that only they and one other student were engaged in conversation, a move they contend was motivated by the fact that they were the only white students protesting in Mazzigís vicinity. The students said they were alerted by another SJP member that Katz was recording their interaction with Mazzig. They alleged that Katz used a smartphone to record, holding the device low so as to not be perceived. The student described the interaction as “a planned tactic.”
The SJP protesters who alleged that they had been filmed are apprehensive that the images recorded by Katz might be used to doxx them. When approached for comment, VOICE leader Jake Miller said, “We are against that, one hundred percent.” On the interaction between Mazzig and students, Miller said, “We flat out condemn the fact that Hen and his friend went out and spoke to protesters. We told him to stay inside. We were very clear about that.”
Assistant Director of Campus Activities Will Rush and Associate Vice President for Communications Gladwyn Lopez approached Katz after the event because one student told Rush and Lopez that they had been filmed without their consent. Rush and Lopez asked Katz to delete any footage. In an interview after the event, Katz said, “If Channel 7 or 3 or whatever you have up there in Poughkeepsie came in with a reporter and a camera, would you say that freedom of the press is somehow less important than these protesters saying they don’t want to be filmed?” When told that the event was not public, Katz purported that press should not be denied access to the event. At no point during or after the lecture did Katz identify himself as a member of the press. He continued, “I will say, with great clarity and certainty, no one set any conditions on rules for me as a guest.” Katz said that though Rush and Lopez told him that there were rules prohibiting filming on campus, he had been unable to locate those rules.
President Bradley responded to allegations of filming in her correspondence with The Miscellany News. She stated, “I am outraged by it. This is a complete disrespect of our campus as an educational community. I am told by the organizers that they were asked by the speaker if the session could be video recorded, and the organizers of the event told them no. I feel that by video recording without permission and then posting to social media, the speaker used our campus and our students for their own political purposes.”
Mazzig also commented on allegations of filming SJP students in a later interview, saying that he was not aware that any recording had taken place. He claimed that the only videos in his possession were those posted to his Twitter account, and that accusations of recording students constituted a defamatory PR campaign. Mazzig recounted that as he was on his way from the restroom to the venue, he observed Ron Katz speaking with two students. Mazzig said that one of the students may have initiated the conversation with him and Katz. He claimed that one of the students told him that they were a queer Jewish person. He elaborated, “I don’t know why [they] described [themselves] as a queer Jewish person but I guess that it was a way to whitewash the anti-Semitism that surrounded the whole protest.”
Mazzig recounted an exchange in which he says that a student accused him of “pinkwashing,” a term used to describe the use of LGBTQ identity or signifiers to divert attention away from injustice. Mazzig alleged that the student ended the conversation because of his identity. He said, “[They] didn’t want to speak to me after [they] found out I’m a queer Jew of color.” On Monday, Nov. 18 Mazzig tweeted, “I went to the toilet and these 2 students stopped me on the way back and said they reject my existence as ‘white Jews.'”
Both SJP members interviewed said that they revealed their identity to Mazzig as queer Jewish people in order to counter potential assertions that their protest of his lecture was racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic. They noted that the language Mazzig employed to describe his personal identity included terms associated with intersectionality—a term coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. One student who believes that she was recorded by Katz said she felt that Mazzig’s referral to his identity in the context of intersectionality constituted a “weaponization of identity politics…it’s just kind of scary to think that that language can be used against the very people it was created by.”
Mazzig spoke at length about the expropriation of Jewish people by Middle Eastern and North African states, an amount of land that he described as “five-times the size of Israel.” He told several stories of the violent persecution that occurred before and during the Farhud, an ethnic cleansing carried out against the Jewish population of Baghdad in 1941, and told the story of his grandmother’s struggle to maintain her Iraqi identity while living as a refugee in Israel.
Mazzig noted that “there is a conversation to be had about refugees that were created in this conflict,” referring to the fact that Palestinian communities faced violence in the creation of the state of Israel. Neither community, said Mazzig, “ever received their justice.” He referenced Palestine several times throughout the talk, mostly when speaking about his experience as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Mazzig served in the IDF for five years, achieving the rank of officer. He characterized his involvement with the IDF as “humanitarian,” alluding to a hospital constructed with the help of his unit and his role in the diffusion of a bomb with which Palestinian children were playing. He also mentioned his belief in a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
When interviewed after the event, Mazzig indicated that he felt threatened by the protests and that he would not have come to campus if he had known the protest would occur. Mazzig stated that disinviting him to speak through official channels would have been preferable to the demonstration that occurred. VSA President Carlos Espina ’20 stated that SJP students would have been able to contest Mazzigís invitation to campus at the Nov. 10 VSA meeting, the agenda for which included a discussion of the speaker fund allocation for the lecture. An email notifying student organizations of the agenda had been sent on Nov. 7. SJP members countered that they were not made aware of the event before the Nov. 10 VSA meeting, and as such had insufficient time to appeal the decision to invite Mazzig to campus.
Mazzig also believes that the statement released by VOICE may have been written in an attempt by VOICE members to “align with the administration.” Mazzig said, “I saw the post by VOICE, the Israeli student group, and I think it’s a fear. They’re writing out of fear.” Mazzig went on to mention that he thinks that “Jewish students are afraid…Vassar is known for its anti-Semitic history.” Although he did not allude to any fear VOICE may have felt when composing their statement, Miller described the actions of protesters as “really intimidating.” He explained, “We did have about as many people as they did outside at the end of the day, but if you’re walking in there alone and about 25 people out there are chanting ‘Don’t go in, don’t go in…It’s just very intimidating.”
SJP members also reported feeling fear of repercussions, especially at the prospect of being profiled on websites like Canary Mission. The site documents and publishes identifying information of students and faculty who have been active in pro-Palestine movements such as SJP and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) as well as instances of perceived “hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses” (Canary Mission, 2019). In her response to The Miscellany News’ inquiry as to what she has done to protect students’ rights to intellectual freedom, President Bradley admitted that efforts by Vassar’s administration to remove students’ profiles from Canary Mission have been unsuccessful.
The VSA’s rules of protest conduct state that “[I]t is protesters’ right to protest, and chant/cheer outside of the event building as people walk in, as long as it does not interfere with the speaker’s right to speak during the event … Protesters can make and hold signs, but cannot call out, interrupt or prevent the event from continuing. This includes chanting, cheering, etc.” As of Nov. 21, SJP is being investigated by the VSA. Funding for the organization has been restricted.
At the VSA meeting on Sunday Nov. 17, VSA Chair of Finance Emily Janoski ’20 explained, “If you’re being investigated, it’s best to take a pause on things that are currently happening. We’re not restricting their budget, just special purpose funds.” In a later interview, SJP members stated to The Miscellany News that they did not feel that the protest silenced Mazzig, as he could be heard over the chanting. The statement released by VOICE also responded to the issue: “In the past, SJP has hosted very controversial speakers, and individual members of VOICE chose to attend those events peacefully, despite disagreements. Additionally, as a dialogue-based group, we would have appreciated input about concerns regarding Hen before the event, and we still welcome dialogue moving forward.”
When approached by The Miscellany News the day after the incident, President Bradley described Vassar as “a community that welcomes speakers, and protests. Both are critical elements of preserving free speech and the free exchange of ideas.” She also responded to concerns that the College might have a financial incentive in condemning the protest, as comments of Vassar alumnae/i on social media called for the cessation of donations to the College. In that statement to The Miscellany News, Bradley said, “I am focused on promoting open dialogue and exchange of ideas as core values at Vassar. Financial support for our mission will flow from those principles, as they are central to high quality education.” Protesters, she claimed, were made aware of the rules of protest conduct. President Bradley went on to say that protesters had committed to adhering to the rules and that SJP’s disruption constituted a code violation.
President Bradley indicated that the College has initiated an investigation of the incident. Per her Nov. 19 statement, “We have begun our adjudication processes, which by federal law are confidential.”