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April 6, 2014 11:25 pm

Vassar College Alums Strike Back at Anti-Israel Movement on Campus

avatar by Joshua Levitt

Vassar College. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Alumni of Vassar College, an elite, liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York, struck back against the rising anti-Israel tide on campus, protesting in a widely-read letter to the campus newspaper against recent moves by a group of faculty and students to vilify the Jewish state and intimidate pro-Israel voices.

The open letter, initially signed by 66 alums, was printed by the Miscellany News, the campus newspaper of record since 1866, and quickly attracted dozens of comments from alums worldwide who agreed with the content of their protest.

In their letter, the alumni said that “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.”

They said that their letter was “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.”

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The alumni said they were responding to a letter, published a month earlier and signed by 39 school faculty, who were protesting the decision by Vassar College President Catharine Hill to condemn the December vote by the American Studies Association to approve a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, a move that was condemned by over 250 universities in the weeks following the decision.

In the faculty letter, headlined ‘Open letter in defense of academic freedom in Palestine/Israel and in the United States,’ they threw the academic freedom charges back at the school administration, saying they had to “dissent because, rather than upholding the principle of academic freedom in its most expansive sense, their condemnatory statement could have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and opinions on our campus and across the broader society.”

The faculty claimed that the world was ignoring the Arab fight for “self-determination, freedom, and basic human rights” in Israel. “While Palestinians have been fighting for their freedom since their dispossession in 1948, the world has remained largely silent with regard to this humanitarian crisis.”

The alumni responded to the content of the faculty letter, which they said “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,” the alumni wrote. “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.”

Discourse about Israel at Vassar has also gone beyond faculty support of, and administration objection to, the ASA vote.

In February, some of the school’s Jews adopted the “Open Hillel” platform, meaning the on-campus Hillel Jewish student group would break the Hillel International guidelines, by inviting groups that espoused anti-Israel beliefs to speak to their student congregation.

The most confrontational incident happened a month later, when the International Studies 100 travel class chose to spend their Spring Break vacation on a trip to Israel.

According to coverage by the campus newspaper, the trip, led by Jill Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science and Geography, and Rachel Friedman, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies, “looked at issues of water rights and access to the Jordan River, as well as disparities in water distribution in Palestine and Israel.”

The newspaper wrote: “According to a student in the class, along with traveling around Israel, the class also took trips into the West Bank, visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem.”

However, the paper said, “Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have claimed that the travel class makes Vassar complicit in supporting Israel and perpetuating oppressive policies and actions against Palestinians. Members of SJP have protested the class and organized a display in the Retreat called ‘Israel Apartheid Week.'”

Timothy Koechlin, Vassar’s Director of International Studies, said the sudden “backlash against this year’s IS trip came as a surprise to him and his colleagues.”

“The course has received a level of scrutiny and protest that, I think, no one expected,” he wrote in an emailed statement to Miscellany News. “Previous IS classes have visited countries like Cuba, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and, in 1989, the USSR, but no recent trip has generated the same level of debate.”

The protest by the SJP, which has recently been banned at Northeastern University for intimidating students, compelled the school to hold a “public forum” to discuss the Israel trip. At other campuses, including University of Michigan, similar groups have raised the specter of pressuring the university to boycott companies that do business with Israel.

But, at Vassar, rather than participate in the forum as a group, the SJP declined the invitation, it said, in an email, to prevent the forum becoming a discussion on its behavior rather than the situation in Israel, which is exactly what happened, anyway.

According to the school newspaper, one of the professors on the panel, Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon, “expressed surprise that it was the Israel and Palestinian conflict that has captured the campus’ attention, even while local issues escape the same level of scrutiny. He wishes that more students would draw connections between injustices committed half a world away and those a few blocks down the road.”

“Personally, I’m amazed that with all sanctioned racialized terror happening in Poughkeepsie, and all the sexual assaults on and off campus, that this Israel/Palestine issue is what is getting folks excited,” Laymon wrote in an email to the Miscellany News.

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