Faculty letter squelches campus voices

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The “Open Letter in Defense of Academic Freedom in Palestine/Israel and the United States,” signed by 39 Vassar professors and published March 1st, is a disturbing document, although not in the way intended. To many alumni, it is a jarring signal that Vassar is no longer the open, innovative institution that transformed our lives, a college which stimulated — indeed compelled — independent and critical thinking. Rather, faculty and student supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel have hijacked campus discourse and imposed an anti-intellectual atmosphere in which professors are ranting activists, not scholars, and students who disagree with the prevailing “progressive” ideology are intimidated into a deafening silence.

This letter is submitted on behalf of Fairness to Israel, a growing group of Vassar alumni, parents of Vassar students, and others, who are deeply concerned with this sorry state of affairs. We will vigorously support Vassar’s president in her efforts to restore sanity, tolerance and civil dialogue to campus.

In their letter (manifesto, actually), the 39 professors assert that Vassar’s condemnation of a resolution by the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions has a “chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and opinions.” As they see it, the “real threat to academic freedom” is the “frenzied” campaign launched against the ASA in response to its boycott resolution. This Orwellian view of who is being silenced would be laughable if the matter were less serious.

Did Vassar’s condemnation of the Israel boycott stop the professors from publishing their open letter in The Miscellany News? Did it prevent Israel Apartheid week, the recent seven-day hate fest in which Vassar’s bathrooms were littered with anti- Israel fliers and its hallways decked with posters accusing the sole Jewish state of being apartheid and racist? What of the “open conversation” held on March 3rd, in which faculty and students were invited to discuss the “ethics” of a planned trip to Israel and the West Bank arranged by the International Studies program? Although the trip’s itinerary confirms that its purpose is to convince students that Israel is unfairly depriving Palestinians of water (a favored but false BDS accusation), the mere fact that Vassar students would land in Israel was enough to drive the pro-BDS Vassar community into a frenzy. A shouting match ensued with faculty promoting the trip stressing their anti- Israel credentials in a futile attempt to pacify an even more radical anti-Israel contingent. As one of the professors leading the trip later admitted online, she was “knocked off- center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.” (Source)

The 39 faculty members so afraid of being bullied about their anti-Israel views are curiously undisturbed by the chilling effect their activities have on those in their community who might oppose academic boycotts or reject the ASA’s targeting and demonization of Israel. They failed to consider the impact of their manifesto on students attending the “open conversation” about the Israel/West Bank trip two days later or worse, deliberately timed it to silence pro-Israel voices. Certainly, their fear of inhibiting an open exchange of ideas has not inspired them to present a balanced view of the Israel/Palestinian history in their classes (as one of the signatories once candidly admitted in his course description, students should not expect “an ‘objective’ account of a ‘two- sided’ conflict”). Nor has it compelled them to invite speakers who might present an alternative view of the Jewish state from the racist, apartheid one portrayed by the anti- Zionist guests who are regularly invited. (In the last 12 months alone, Vassar hosted Judith Butler and a Palestinian slam poet, both of whom — like the leaders of BDS — advocate the elimination of the Jewish state.) We can only imagine the repressive effect of the pro-BDS hostility on students worried that their stridently anti-Israel professors will grade them harshly for expressing contrary views and that their apartheid-chanting peers will ostracize them unless they keep silent. Indeed, this bullying has been so effective that the only public voices so far supporting President Hill’s denunciation of the ASA boycott or protesting the anti-Israel ethos have come from alumni and one brave Vassar student in a letter to The Wall Street Journal.

What of this ASA boycott that the 39 professors assert is essential to promoting academic freedom? Well, we are to take it as fact — because these professors and some similar-minded organizations say so — that Israel is a major human rights abuser deserving of having its academic institutions shunned. Never mind that the ASA has never before boycotted academic institutions in any other country. Not in China, which occupies Tibet. Not in Russia, which is currently attempting to take over Ukraine and continues to control Chechnya. Not in Turkey, which occupies parts of Cyprus and Kurdistan. Not in Saudi Arabia, Iran or other Middle Eastern countries that persecute gays, restrict women’s rights, execute political dissenters and commit other horrendous crimes. Not in Sudan, Syria and other nations that deny academic freedom. No, the ASA has targeted Israel, the only country in the Middle East that, according to the US NGO Freedom House, ranks as “free” — the highest rank possible. (Yes, the West Bank and Gaza rank lower — but Israel long ago withdrew from Gaza, which is now ruled by Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization, and the West Bank is administered by the Palestinian Authority, so infected with corruption that it cannot account for the billions of dollars of aid that have been given to it.)

Israel is not perfect, but to blame Israel alone, as the 39 professors do, ignores facts and does nothing to promote the “open, honest and principled discussion” the professors, who are completely silent with regard to Israel’s side of the story, claim to want. Their letter constitutes propaganda against the Jewish state. Whether intended or not, it shows a blatant bias against Israel, a glaring attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state and yes, outright anti-Semitism.

Our group, Fairness to Israel, supports academic freedom in the true sense of the term — the freedom of all sides to present their views and the facts that support them, and to honestly and open-mindedly discuss contentious issues. We oppose academic freedom that is really academic brainwashing, where students are exposed only to the views of activists posing as professors, who pretend there is a “chilling” of their speech when the only chilling is of voices that dissent from their anti-Israel agenda. The latter type of “academic freedom” is a disgraceful misnomer unworthy of Vassar’s great traditions.

—This letter is signed by 66 alumnae/i and parents of Vassar College. 

Leah McClement Alexander ’57

Mindy Aloff ’69

Wendy S. Aronson, M.D. ’64

Shari Rosen Ascher P’16

Toby Anne Axelrod ’78

Jessica Bacal, Esq. ’65

Rita Banner ’78

Mark Banschick, M.D. ’78

Lynn J. Benswanger, J.D., LL.M. ’75

Jane Cohen Bergner, Esq. ’64

Grace Chang ’79

Ruth Prager Cogen ’57

Royce E. Cohen ’66

Ruth Cohen, M.D.’63

Ziva E. Dahl ’65

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David (Andrew Nemlich) ’77

Marlene R. Eckstein, M.D. ’70

Andrew Eisen ’85

Sharon Spitz Fagin, Ph.D. ’78

Julie Feibush ’78

Rabbi Tara Feldman ’89

[Sara] Rivkah Duker Fishman ’67

Neal E. Friedman ’78

Bernice Feuer Garbade ’79

Edith Mendelson Gelfand ’65

Miriam Gold ’53

Larry Goldberg ’75

Esther L. Goldman ’55

Joan Moskowitz Goldstein ’66

William D. Goren, J.D., LL.M. ’82

Melissa E. Green ’78

Michael Grunberg ’79

Åse Margrethe Hansen ’77

Wendy Pronin Herst ’92

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs ’92

Laurie R. Josephs ’78, P’12

Charlene Freadman Kahn ex ’78

Joanne Brecher Kay ’66

Cheryl C. Kagan ’83

Anita Fink Kaufman ’57

Roberta Schuman Kline ’78

Jane Kramer ’78

Renee Orlan Lerner ’57

Hanna Farber Levenson ’67

Jeffrey A. Levitt ’81

Susan Julien-Levitt ’82

Andrea Lieber, Ph.D. ’89

Ellen Moskowitz ’78

Nancy Rubin Nachman ’57

Brenda Oestreich ’57

Dorrie Pariser ’66

Ellen Radish ’80

James Raker, M.D. ’78

Karen M. Rappaport ’78

Berenice Rosenfeld ’65

Scott B. Schaffer, J.D. ’78

Vera Savin Schwarcz, Ph.D. ’69

Gail Diamond Schwartz ’57

Julius R. Schwarz ’92

Ellen Smithberg ’78

Ilene Slass Spear, Ph.D. ’62

Rabbi Ken Spiro ’81

Rabbi Susan Berman Stone ’78

David A. Weintraub ’81

Audrey Laibson Wolf ’57

Gregory Zimet, Ph.D. ’78

Faculty letter squelches campus voices

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