Vassar SJP stages walkout

The Miscellany News.

Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), following the lead of their parent organization National SJP, staged a walkout on Wednesday, Oct. 25, to call on the College to hear their demands in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, amid the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

The walkout began at 2 p.m. on the Library Lawn at the steps of Rockefeller Hall. Beginning as a rally of over 150 students, the crowd then marched around campus in the vicinity of Main Building. The group demanded the College to divest from weapons’ manufacturers arming Israel while publicizing its independent contractors’ investments, boycott two study abroad programs in Israel and call for an end to the blockade of Gaza and U.S. funds to Israel. Further, the group asked the Vassar Student Association to re-introduce Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) legislation. Organizers specified guidelines prior to the march to ensure the safety of the protesters, including not to take pictures of protesters’ faces and not to engage with counter protesters. A student-led teach-in followed, detailing the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the United States’ role in the region and funding of Israel.

“I would say that given the response from the administration, participating in this kind of event and seeing the involvement and support from my peers has been really encouraging simply because the response from President Bradley and the administration was so disappointing, so that’s why I feel like this event for me personally is really powerful and important to be a participant in,” said an anonymous student at the protest.

During the initial rally and the march that followed, attendees chanted a number of call-and-response slogans demanding Palestinian liberation such as “when people are occupied, resistance is justified” and “not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel’s crimes.” However, some of the chants used during the protest received backlash for antisemitic connotations. An anonymous Jewish student who did not attend the protest shared, “People’s concerns about the rally Wednesday were because of the chant ‘from the river to the sea,’ which is often seen as antisemitic because it is advocating for the eradication of Israel completely.” 

The following day, Oct. 26, President of the College Elizabeth Bradley sent an email entitled “Campus Climate” which referenced the walkout and reemphasized her commitment to speak out against antisemitic, anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian prejudice on campus. She noted comments she had received, writing, “The protesters may not have intended harm to the Vassar community but the harmful impact nonetheless has been significant. Within hours of the event, I received multiple inquiries from faculty members, employees, and students—who have expressed feeling unsafe and/or highly upset by the protesters’ actions.”

Additionally, since the walkout was an unregistered student protest and several individuals submitted bias reports, she noted that SJP would go through both the Community Expectations process and the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) process. “These two processes are educational ones and are intended to lead to deeper discussion and learning. Real learning about these issues happens in community,” wrote Bradley.

Prior to October Break, SJP hosted a demonstration of solidarity and a vigil on the National Day of Resistance, Oct 12. Vassar Chabad hosted a Jewish Solidarity Rally the day prior on Oct 11. 

In a written statement to The Miscellany News, SJP responded to some of Bradley’s statements, affirming their decision not to register the protest and rejecting accusations that it was antisemitic. “We intentionally did not register the walkout with the institution that we were protesting against, as we believed that would be counterintuitive. We deny the allegations that ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free’ constitutes hate speech,” wrote SJP.

SJP declared their interpretation of the quote at the beginning of the walkout: “We clarified the meaning of this chant, explaining that it calls for ‘decolonization and dismantling the racism of the settler colony of Israel, and replacing it with a state where human rights are available for everyone: people of all backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities.’” 

Bradley argued that this declaration went mute as protestors marched throughout campus: “The students made an attempt to mitigate harm caused by their chants through introductory statements. These introductions, however, were lost as the march proceeded around campus,” she wrote in her email.

This charge was similarly rejected by SJP: “While President Bradley recognized this effort in her email, she claimed this explanation ‘lost its meaning’ as we marched through campus. Given the impracticality of restating our explanation every time we recited the chant, we reject this accusation.”

SJP expressed frustration that the email distracted from the main goal of the protest, which was their list of demands for the administration. “By obfuscating these demands, [Bradley] consciously ignored hundreds of student voices. We condemn [Bradley’s] failure to acknowledge the reason for the protest and her continued unwillingness to name and denounce the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”

Bradley responded to some of SJP’s demands in a written statement to The Miscellany News: “Vassar will not support a boycott of Israel or Israeli products and services. Not only do we as an institution not support such a boycott, in New York State boycotts of this nature subject the College to ineligibility for state funding in key areas. Additionally, Vassar has alums, students and family, and faculty ties to the region as a whole and a long history of student travel to Israel which we will continue to support.” The Vassar Student Association (VSA) has also communicated with SJP the legal limits to boycotting Israel given that the VSA is also subject to state anti-BDS laws.

The VSA, with guidance of Vassar’s General Counsel, is exploring the possibility of sending out a list of corporations with ties to Israel to student organizations so their leadership can decide independently to divest. 

VSA President Olivia Gross ’24 commented, “We are still figuring out what we can legally do in terms of providing a list of companies that orgs may choose to no longer purchase from and we are in contact with legal experts for advice.”

She added, “The VSA Equity Executive, Traci Francis, and I are currently in an ongoing conversation with SJP about how we can support them and they’ve been understanding of our limitations. The VSA remains a space for all students to feel safe, heard, and represented.”

In her statement responding to SJP’s demands, Bradley again appealed to unity and mutual understanding at the College in this challenging time. “On this campus, we must listen more, ask more questions, consider multiple perspectives, and engage in meaningful dialogue that is respectful, non-threatening, illuminates our collective humanity, and sustains our community.”

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