Circling the Wagons at Vassar

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It has now been about a month since Jasbir Puar gave her infamous talk at Vassar College, about which I wrote here. Thanks to a strong reaction by Fairness to Israel, a Vassar alumni group, and the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), a new group devoted to combating the propagandistic treatment of the Israel-Palestinian issue on college campuses, the College is facing criticism. That criticism culminated in this Wall St. Journal op-ed, written by Mark Yudof and Kenneth Waltzer, board chair and executive director respectively of AEN. The Wall Street Journal has a circulation of 2.3 million. So Vassar, whose response had been muted, recently held a webinar, listened in on by 930 alums and parents, and featuring, among others, board chair Bill Plapinger, President Catharine Hill, and Peter Antelyes, director of Jewish Studies. The gist of their message: look over there!

Consider Bill Plapinger’s remarks. Puar, recall, accused Israel of harvesting organs for scientific research and of maiming children in order to acquire body parts for the same purpose. Plapinger says: “I believe that speakers should not be censored, even when many, if not most of us find the speech disagreeable, deeply offensive, immoral or wrong-headed, as did many in considering Professor Puar’s recent lecture.” None of Vassar’s serious critics have called for censoring Puar. What they have called for is a clear administrative and faculty response to Puar’s remarks, which went unchallenged in a room well-stocked with Vassar faculty. Plapinger doesn’t even place himself among those who found Puar’s remarks troubling. Perhaps that is because he “[believes] that the college cannot take sides.” That’s absurd. College president Catharine Hill is already on record against academic boycotts of Israel. Why shouldn’t administrators also object when a speaker, sponsored by eight departments, regales a room full of students with anti-Semitic tropes?

Although Plapinger acknowledges one failure on Vassar’s part, that it does not provide balanced programming on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he reserves all of his anger for one group, which Vassar evidently regards as the prime villain in this story, a “relatively small number of alumni who, in some cases, have distorted the facts and have been successful in enlisting concerned but not fully informed outsiders to amplify their views.” That is, while Plapinger is neutral between the “side” that characterizes the Jewish state as supernaturally evil and the “side” that objects, he is absolutely clear where he stands on alums and parents who, relying on first-hand knowledge and a recording of what Puar said, dare to go public: they are dishonest meddlers.

At least President Hill allows, in passing, that she considers Puar’s remarks offensive. But if you are going to say, as she does, that we must “respond to offensive and hateful speech with condemnation and open and vigorous challenge, not by censoring or suppressing speech,” it behooves you to note that this is precisely what Hill and others stand accused of neglecting. In her public remarks about the Puar incident prior to the webinar, President Hill said only that  “Some found at least parts of [Puar’s] talk offensive to Jews” but that Vassar’s “commitments to academic freedom and free speech demand that we not censor speakers.” And if you are going to lament, as President Hill does, that “social media”  challenges our capacity to “hear and think critically,” it behooves you not to cast “critical thinking” to the wind by responding to a straw man; to repeat, Vassar’s critics call precisely for “condemnation and open and vigorous challenge,” not censorship.

If the webinar is any indication, Peter Antelyes has nothing to say about why the Jewish Studies program he chairs sponsored Puar’s talk. Nor does he have anything to report about why the Jewish Studies faculty present, apparently including Antelyes himself, did not see fit to question Puar’s assertions or condemn them afterward. He does think his program offers terrific courses, though. Look over there!

Vassar faculty and administrators do make a persuasive case that there is more to Jewish life on campus than the toxic brew of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that has been in the news for the past two years. Moreover, fairness compels me to report that Vassar’s response to a BDS proposal Vassar’s student assembly votes on this Sunday has been vigorous. Although that is worth getting on record, it refutes a claim that no one has made. What the critics have said is that Vassar has a big problem and that when faculty members and administrators fail to distance themselves from, or even sponsor and defend, modernized blood libel, make that problem worse.

Offered a chance to defend themselves against that charge, or to admit it and begin to make amends, Vassar’s leaders chose to blame the messenger, mischaracterize their arguments, and otherwise circle the wagons.

Circling the Wagons at Vassar

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Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and publishes in modern and contemporary political philosophy in journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, the Journal of American Political Science, and the Review of Politics. He is the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Marks also has written on higher education for InsideHigherEd, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. He blogs occasionally at Commentary Magazine.

Read all stories by Jonathan Marks