I graduated from Vassar College in May 2014. I was the President of the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union, and the anti-Israel fervor found me.
Before we go into this sordid story, it gives us perspective on the times to remember that Vassar College was once a great friend of Israel. In 1975, “Students React Quickly to U.N. Zionism Vote” was a headline in the school paper:
“Concerned Vassar students gathered in the Chapel on a rainy Nov. 12 to protest the U.N. resolution condemning Zionism as racism. Chaplain George Williamson, Jewish Chaplain Derry Baker, Professor Benruy Kraut and two prominent Jewish community leaders, Rabbis Arnold and Zimmet spoke at the student organized rally.”
It took thirty years, but what if I told you today that this same college community now views Zionism as the most insidious form of racism. Would it seem Orwellian?
Two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and JStreetU, were formed last fall. Both liberal, SJP rallies against a two state solution while JStreetU claims to endorse one. At a glance they might seem different, but they share a lot in common when it comes to condemning attempts by me and my group to counter anti-Israel propaganda on campus.
In December 2013, the American Studies Association released a resolution boycotting Israel. Reminiscent of students in 1975, the Vassar administration swiftly rejected this resolution right after New Years 2014.
Soon-after the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) became an Open Hillel, which means they welcome anti-Israel speakers.
Thirty-nine Vassar faculty then wrote a letter condemning Vassar College’s decision. Students for Justice in Palestine proceeded to swoop down on pro-Israel and neutral students. They protested a class taking a trip to Israel inside an academic building and intimidated the professors.
At a Vassar Open forum I attended in May 2014 shortly before graduation, Vassar College President Catharine Hill made clear that she never has condemned the picketing of the class, and any impressions otherwise are wrong:
Following complaints about the picketing of the classroom, the Vassar Committee on Inclusion and Excellence organized an open forum led by Professor Kiese Laymon that de facto established any criticism of SJP was motivated by racism, civility was a “cardboard notion,” and taking a trip to Israel was the equivalent of organizing an outing to Jim Crow Mississippi.
Not surprisingly, the only acceptable thing to say on campus became the lie that Israel is a racist, apartheid state.
In order to show the humanity of the perceived Israeli monster, I began innocuously posting images from the Facebook page “Humans of Tel Aviv” in a Vassar student group Facebook page, to show that Israeli cities are cosmopolitan, socially liberal places that resemble Vassar in some ways. This provoked a leader of SJP to tell me “the devil has enough advocates.”
Weeds often grow in abandoned fields. Looking back, the first sign of weeds was an “Apartheid Wall” that sprang up in the College Center. This is a common BDS tactic which all follow a similar formula in demonizing the Israeli state.
I walked up to SJP and told them that I was raised in a Muslim family. They loosened up immediately and seemed eager to welcome me into their hate. There are not a lot of Arab and Middle Eastern students on campus.
I remembered that a friend had told me about the Wall of Truth, pro-Israel murals that sometimes counters the apartheid walls.
When Prof. William Jacobson contacted us about challenging the SJP faculty allies in a debate, we accepted so there could be an open debate. All of a sudden the faculty members and SJP disappeared. No students protested the talk, and no professors agreed to debate Prof. Jacobson.
A diverse group of students attended the talk, but many did not due to the chilled atmosphere. The many community Jewish members who attended were derided on social media for being old white Zionists.
In response to Prof. Jacobson’s lecture, SJP posted a Nazi poster that portrayed Jewish people, black people, and white Americans in racial stereotypes. As twisted as it was, it bizarrely captured the upside down nightmare lens which SJP had forced on the campus.
We decided to erect the Wall of Truth, which harmlessly countered the 10 Apartheid Wall myths in an eye-catching, bloody font, which is the most tasteful way to depict the consequences of terrorism to Americans short of showing graphic images, which SJP has no reservations doing.
Unused to any resistance, SJP and its allies attacked our Wall of Truth and defaced it. The words used to deface the Wall of Truth included “racist,” “bullshit,” and “lies.”
The Vassar administration did nothing other than take down the Wall of Truth.
The weeds now grew into a full-blown wilderness. Around the same time, there were reports that another mural against racism was attacked in the college center by two unidentified students with a handsaw.
Incredibly, a racial bias complaint was made against me to the Vassar administration based on my posting the Wall of Truth. Fortunately, the bias complaint was denied.
At the open forum in May, President Hill, who goes by “Cappy,” was viciously attacked in person and on Twitter for perceived inequities in condemning the Nazi propaganda while not condemning the Wall of Truth.
I could not help but remember that the professors who led the Israeli study trip < href=”http://miscellanynews.org/2014/04/09/opinions/jordan-river-trip-itinerary-addresses-complexities-of-region/”>complained a few months earlier that the attacks against them had a “gendered” and “racial dimension.” That feeling certainly was present at the May open forum also.
Incredibly, J Street U’s campus representative, in an interview with the school newspaper, played down the impact of the SJP Nazi poster and condemned the Wall of Truth
The image posted by SJP was highly critical of American international intervention but also featured several anti-semitic and racist references and images.
As a member of the Jewish-affiliated but all-inclusive student group, Jstreet U, Michael Iselin ’16 explained, “I don’t think there is any denying that the post was anti-semitic. SJP’s focus is on Israel-Palestine which does not directly relate to Judaism. They are two very different things. I think that this post was an attack toward Jews on campus and in general and I think it was disconnected in a lot of ways from the debate that was going on.” …
On May 15, the issue was made further complicated by a poster that was installed in the Retreat. The poster was titled the “Wall of Truths” and featured several ideas presented as “myths” relating to the Israel-Palestine debate.
Many found the poster to be extremely offensive. As Iselin said, “Jstreet U was upset because the content was unacceptable but furthermore this is why people assume anyone who is ‘pro-existence of a Jewish state’ is radically conservative because of people who post things like this. I’m sure there are some people who assume this was posted by Jstreet U or a group of Jewish students even though it wasn’t. It just isn’t true. A lot of this stuff isn’t right.”
It shocks me that as a Turkish, first-generation college student who grew up celebrating Ramadan, my efforts would be deemed “unacceptable” and “racist.”
When I was in high school during the Bush years, CAIR sent me a scholarly, beautiful copy of the Muslim Holy book to my delight, and I got a new club approved called MECCA (Middle Eastern Cultural Awareness Club).
As the leader, I developed and put up a creative poster series that sympathetically portrayed the destinies of all Middle Eastern nations and people, including both Turks and Kurds, Israelis and Palestinians. Naively idealistic and uninformed, I registered the domain name www.islamofreedom.com one summer and created a website attempting to redefine political Islam in order to counter the term “Islamofascism,” which I gave up after a few months when I realized through careful study that it was impossible.
I am not the one who is intolerant. I have never viscerally rejected the other side; in some instances, I have tried to bridge them as far as the facts would allow or disallow.
My father fled from Cyprus on the eve of tensions between Muslims and Christians on the island. Many students at Vassar have no idea of what it is like to come from a culture that is so divided on religious and ethnic lines.
As a young teenager, I crossed the dividing line and saw how certain speech was labelled “unacceptable” on both sides. In the shadow of the Green Line in Nicosia, I saw murals that were even more graphic than the Apartheid Wall and the Wall of Truth. To share this experience, I built a U.N. tower with my father, which I placed in my school’s lobby. It stood for one week without questions and was not taken down by the administrators. Why are college administrators less liberal than high school administrators?
My informed, mature idealism led me to raise awareness on atrocities like the Holocaust and the Darfur genocide throughout my late teens, which my teachers recognized with a Humanitarian Award.
From freshman year, I was smart enough to realize that such peaceful activism at Vassar was hopeless without academic support. The BDS liberals at Vassar, like the Party in George Orwell’s 1984, want you to imagine a vision of the future where they stamp their boots on an idealistic, human face.
Instead, I am happy to recognize a new human rights group called JUMP (Justice and Uniting for Middle East Peace) started by Boston University junior Raphael Fils, which has the courage and the potential to start a true idealistic and humanitarian student coalition to change campuses. I just hope they realize that the naive is the enemy of the ideal. We have to be informed about the nature of political Islam and the world in order to safeguard human ideals.
It is ominous that Vassar College does not allow a healthy intellectual debate to flourish on campus, which requires even more persistent care-taking than the weeds on the campus lawn. Students should be given space to grow on campus, but they must not be allowed to grow so out of control that they conceal those who bring vandalism and handsaws into Main Building, and with them, the seeds of academic destruction.
Julian Hassan graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Cognitive Science and Russian. He is currently an intern at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D.C. Last year, their “What Will They Learn?” project gave Vassar an “F” ranking for weak curricular standards.