As it goes, most alumni enjoy their college or university from afar. They donate, help recruit students, hang out at reunions and share great stories. And, that’s exactly what Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York was to me. Coming from Long Island, UPenn felt too familiar and transferring landed me in a completely different kind of place. Vassar’s picture perfect campus (think Sunset Lake!), bright, quirky students, and available professors made the world crisper, more interesting and vital. Like so many others before me, I loved Vassar College because it changed my life.
Now, 36 years later, BDS has come to campus.
I am a member of a fast-growing, diverse group of Vassar alumni called Fairness to Israel (FTI). Until a few months ago, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was an upsetting part of the college landscape; we knew about Columbia, Northeastern and Michigan’s problems, but it had not hit home, until now.
In December, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions, a major BDS agenda. To her credit, Vassar President Catherine Hill did the right thing and issued a strong critique of the ASA boycott.
Alerted to what was happening on and off campus, a few concerned alumni joined together to support Hill for her stance. The group – now called Fairness to Israel – was founded in response to reports that Jewish students who cared about Israel were feeling uncomfortable at Vassar.
What happened next was a shocker for me.
On March 1st, 39 Vassar professors, including heads of departments, wrote an open letter opposing President Hill’s stance – the very stance we had congratulated her for.
They wrote, in part: The ASA statement, far from limiting academic freedom, represents the fruits of a free and open discussion among academics who refuse to dismiss the internationally-recognized right of people under colonial and foreign occupation to resist their occupiers and assert their dignity.
Their response propelled FTI into full engagement. After all, President Hill had an insurrection of sorts on her hands, with academics at Vassar supporting a one-sided and distorted narrative of a colonialist Israel. There was no mention of balance, of protecting the rights of others who see a more nuanced version of the conflict. ASA cherry-picked Israel and Israeli actions for condemnation, and 39 of our professors went along.
Where was sober academic debate, like how relentless suicide bombings, Arab rejectionism, dead Israeli children, Hamas rockets and spurned peace offerings may have affected the Israeli psyche? And where were the professors at Vassar who disagreed with the 39?
We investigated further and found real problems.
- The Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) had recently sponsored a propaganda event called Israel Apartheid Week. As we later found out, the calculated association of race tinged terms with Israel is standard BDS protocol. They got away with it, without push back.
- The Chair of the Jewish Studies Department was one of the 39 professors who sided with the ASA right to boycott Israel, and casually tells us that Israel Apartheid Week should be seen as an example of lively debate.
- Terms like the Occupation, Colonialism, Ethnic Cleansing, and Israel’s “Apartheid Wall” had become the language of anti-Israel activism on campus. And, those in opposition, like fair-minded alumni or students are often labeled as privileged, and therefore, corrupt.
- Posters portraying Palestinian victims (as if there are no Israeli victims in all this) were found in dorms and elsewhere on campus, including in bathroom stalls.
- Vassar’s Hillel became the second in the country after Swarthmore that welcomed BDS programming within its four walls. Was there a safe place on campus to be pro-Israel?
- Palestinian activists had been invited to campus, with little balance in programming.
- A college sponsored trip to Israel featured a tour of the Jordan Valley, touting Israel’s alleged misuse of the water supply, a less than credible libel that has old anti-Semitic roots. (We are still not satisfied that this trip was anything other than political propaganda.)
- And we had first-hand reports from students that taking a pro-Israel stance was not something you did if you wanted friends.
Perhaps we should have all studied Kafka at Vassar. Apparently, with real faculty support, Vassar’s BDS inspired students had turned Martin Luther King, Jr. into Yasser Arafat; the world turned on its head.
Is BDS benign? Not according to Judea Pearl, who can speak from experience about these matters. Pearl teaches at UCLA, grew up in Israel, and lost his son, Wall Street reporter Daniel Pearl to Islamists. He is a supporter of a two-state solution, but not of BDS:
According to Professor Pearl:
(BDS’s) ultimate goal is not to end the occupation, and surely not to promote peace or coexistence, but to choreograph an arena whereby the “criminality” of Israel is debated and her character defamed… Net effect: bullying pro-coexistence voices into silence.
Loud and angry voices often get their way, and young minds are at stake. Members of FTI have grown increasingly concerned, and vigilant.
As we looked we found out more. An international studies class was disrupted by SJP students with vocal protests, and apparently no reprimand. This is our Vassar? Hatred boiled over at a March 3rd community meeting touted to support open discussion about the upcoming international studies trip to Israel. It turned into a fiasco of intimidation, which was reported in blogs and Jewish media.
In fact, a rabidly anti-Israel blogger Philip Weiss even found the event extreme. This guy apparently can’t stand Israel, so the meeting must have been truly outrageous.
Weiss wrote: I was at the March 3 meeting … and it was truly unsettling. Over 200 students and faculty jammed a large room of the College Center, and torrents of anger ripped through the gathering. Most of them were directed at Israel or its supporters. Two or three times people shouted at one another. Several said they felt bullied.
… the spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.
With a huge problem so clearly defined, our group mobilized with remarkable speed. Here’s what we’ve done and plan to do:
- Alumni are important. As alumni stakeholders (along with students, faculty and administration) of a larger Vassar community, we’re working to change the campus culture for the better.
- Educate ourselves. We’re reading the student paper, following social media and learning about institutional bias against Israel. It’s been an eye-opener that’s included bizarre attempts to belittle the Holocaust with neo-Nazi propaganda and demonize Israel with race baiting politics. We are finding specious attacks on Israel both from the right and from the left – half truths and innuendo. To be blunt, we’re up against a slimy smear campaign.
- Work with the administration. We are in contact with President Hill, and support her recent campus wide statement asserting that civility will be enforced as standard college policy. Our advocacy seems to be working given her recent call to have SJP investigated. Soon, we’re scheduled for a meeting to discuss more steps to restore civility on campus and gain support for better programming.
- Outreach to professors and students. We are already in touch with professors and students of all political views who support civil and open discussion about the Middle East, and other issues as well. We want Vassar to return to its mission of informed education.
- Programming balance. Programming will be an important agenda going forward. Both students and faculty must be exposed to the many voices in this debate, both on the left and on the right. For instance, we encouraged an event on April 3rd featuring two Israeli soldiers telling their stories, and co-sponsored Professor Jacobson’s May 5th lecture on the ASA boycott. (It was originally promoted as a debate, but not one of the notorious 39 professors stepped up.)
- Assist Israel-friendly organizations on campus. We will support Jewish professionals like Rabbi Sanoff with their outreach efforts, and trust that Vassar will grow in providing a warm place for Jewish young people, whether observant or not.
- Expose activist/scholars. We will raise awareness about Vassar academics who appear to be one sided, as alumna Laurie Josephs did in her recent article in the school paper. The goal is to affect hiring and enable the administration to be more active in assessing how a teacher fits or doesn’t fit in the Vassar milieu.
- Making visits a priority. We plan to visit the campus more often, both in support of programming (a number of us came up for the Israeli soldier and Jacobson events) and dialogue with fair-minded folks on campus. It is encouraging for students and faculty to see engaged alumni.
- Enlist an ever widening circle of alums. We are reaching out to alumni who have widely differing views on the conflict, but who all want civility to return to campus. Fairness to Israel is growing quickly and we hope it will be replicated at other universities and colleges as well. We are developing a start-up package to enable other alumni groups to form with less of a learning curve.
- Alert the public to BDS misinformation. We are using social media, news media and old fashioned networking to inform the public and encourage activism. We have a strong belief that the public is a stakeholder at Vassar as well. For more information, take a look at our blog.
It’s time that we come together, we at Vassar and alumni groups at other schools. There’s a lot at stake, because Judea Pearl is correct. The BDS movement is not really about boycotting Israel. It’s about repeating a lie as loudly and as often as possible, in hopes it will be believed.
And, as everyone knows, the big lie is a strategy that has wreaked destruction many times in Jewish history.
We’d like to hear from you.
Mark Banschick, MD is a graduate of Vassar College, Tel Aviv University Medical School and is a member of Fairness to Israel, an alumni organization devoted to fair campus debate.