Over the last few weeks, faculty groups and student organizers have worked to create safe spaces to educate the community about the conflict between Israel and Palestine as well as expand conversation beyond the combative online narratives.
On Oct. 31, a group of faculty led a teach-in held in Rockefeller Hall. Professor of Philosophy and Media Studies Giovanna Borradori, Director of Engaged Pluralism and Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn and Professor of History Joshua Schreier intended to help students to make sense of the violence in the region. Borradori said, “Such [media] narratives have not educated public opinion in an accurate and responsible manner, opting instead to inflame, indeed weaponise, a binary rhetoric. As a consequence, even more intensely than the public at large, college campuses have been asked to endorse opposing camps, in which the only position to take is ‘for’ or ‘against.’”
In response to the rise of community concerns, Dean of the College Luis Inoa, Chair of the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT), has emailed students multiple times about a rise in antisemitic, anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian hate speech. In an email on Friday, Nov. 10, he wrote, “Acts that dehumanize or disrespect others violate our community standards and undermine the very principles we stand for. Such actions, mainly when they target specific communities, are hurtful, escalate tensions and move us further away from listening to and empathizing with others.”
The effort of a teach-in, according to Borradori, is to combat the polarizing language that is engulfing many students around the country, including here at Vassar. She said, “Such polarized and polarizing rhetoric lacks fundamental historical knowledge of how this conflict developed, regionally and geopolitically, its phases and motivations, which date long before Oct. 7, 2023. Therefore, in order to ‘respond to current violences with nuance,’ academic institutions need to honour their intellectual and pedagogical mission, not just in words but with their actions.”
On Nov. 3, President Elizabeth Bradley called on faculty and staff to initiate the Restorative Response Group, a new short-term working group, to provide spaces for collective listening. The group hosts listening circles under the New Office of Restorative Practices and shares mental and academic resources.
“These circles are specifically designed for people at Vassar who are grieving the loss of life and want to process the current state of affairs by connecting with one another,” the website states. The working group welcomes input from the Vassar community as they continue to plan further restorative practices.
Bradley, in a written correspondence with The Miscellany News, underscored that the teach-ins have been beneficial to creating safe spaces on campus. She said, “These are initiated by the faculty and we appreciate their efforts to teach about nuanced, complicated issues and also hold spaces for healthy and informed dialogue.”
Additional assistance for students to process includes Vassar Counseling Services with daily walk-in appointments, academic extensions by talking to individual professors or the Class Advisor and submitting a report of bias to the Bias Incident Response Team. Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life and Assistant Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices Rabbi Bryan Mann is also offering one-on-one sessions with students.
Borradori emphasized how valuable experiences like these can be for students in such difficult and chaotic times, “The students that attended the teach-in asked critical questions that already showed superior historical knowledge of the region, without which no informed opinion can be formulated, or position taken. The exchange Professor Joshua Schreier and I had with the audience made me proud of teaching at Vassar, especially in the general political climate that, sadly, criminalises precisely such exchanges.”
Schreier, who presented on the history of the Gaza Strip, stressed the importance of the presenters and academics of the region to not influence the teach-in with their own opinions.
“We all agreed it was important to create a space where students coming from different personal and political perspectives could ask questions freely,” Schreier said. “Most of all, I wanted to try to answer questions the students had.”
The nuanced student interaction also contributed to safety of the event. “The atmosphere was warm and supportive, emotional at times and devoted to an honest exchange of information and critical questions. I will remember this teach-in as a deeply moving occasion, in which the best of Vassar pedagogy was in full display,” Borradi said.
The teach-in began with a clip of a video panel titled “Gaza In Context Teach-In: First Session, Gaza 101,” featuring academics in the Middle East hosted by an e-zine of the Arab Studies Institute, Jadaliyya. Kahn then opened the discussion by inviting students to engage with the teach-in from a position of “I don’t know.”
“What I asked was that people listen and ask questions that emerge from a genuine place of uncertainty, and to consider just how enormous the amount of space this approach affords us to ask pointed and powerful questions,” Kahn said.
Bradley commended the professors for opening up these conversations, saying, “Spaces where faculty encourage dialogue and expression of different points of view on complex, contemporary issues are very much in keeping with having an effective learning community. Having faculty engage in these conversations and teach-ins can be an effective strategy for modeling how to talk about difficult issues while centering care and compassion for everyone in our community.”
Student organizers have also opened spaces for discourse. On Oct. 5, Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted the New York City chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) to cover a brief history of the Palestinian resistance. Attendees learned the history of Palestine directly from Palestinians and Palestinian organizers in an effort to contextualize current violences. The teach-in covered Palestinian history, modern day resistance efforts and the role of the U.S. in foreign affairs.
“As of right now, we do not have more teach-ins planned, but we look forward to bringing in more community counterparts and hosting student-led teach-ins in the near future,” SJP said in a written statement. “We are also always open to request[s] from students or faculty on who they would like us to host or what they would like to learn about.”
The safety of organizers and members was prioritized throughout SJP’s event. The group was offered security but, because the cost would come from the organization’s budget, decided against it, and self-monitored the event.
“We were not confronted with any direct threats to this event specifically, but Palestinian students and organizers and their pro-Palestine counterparts are highly vulnerable to harrassment and doxxing at this time. SJP members who attended the event remained active in observing who was attending the event, and luckily there was no disruption that occurred,” SJP said.
Other groups on campus are also working to create spaces where students can feel comfortable engaging in discussions with their peers and professors. On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Schreier and Kahn, sponsored by the Restorative Response Group, the Office of Restorative Practices and Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices, held a conversation dinner in Pratt House about building understanding across differences on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Borradori is working with the other professors to encourage more teach-ins and opportunities for students to engage in critical dialogue on Israel-Palestine. She said, “On a college campus, we need to be able to discuss the full and historically informed picture of the siege on Gaza, the status of the occupied West Bank and the role of Israel vis-à-vis both, without fear of being censured, doxed, disciplined or even fired. It is indeed disheartening to see the opposite: namely, colleges and universities all over the country caving in to external and internal repressive measures.”