Vassar Profs Who Brought Students to Israel Describe Campus ‘Climate of Fear’
Anti-Israel sentiment on the Vassar College campus, in upstate New York, was described as a “climate of fear” by two Jewish professors who led a class trip focused on the Jordan River Valley.
According to a letter they penned for the school newspaper, the Miscellany News, the two professors, Jill Schneiderman, in Earth Science, and Rachel Friedman, in Greco Roman and Jewish studies, said the “climate of fear” coalesced around a student forum held by SJP, Students for Justice in Palestine, to protest their trip.
“Many Vassar students and faculty have expressed their concern that over the last several years, a climate of fear has descended on campus,” they wrote in the newspaper. “This fear was confirmed for them during the spectacle at the Open Forum that was held on March 3.”
The open letter was flagged by William A. Jacobson, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Securities Law Clinic, at Cornell University Law School, and legal rights blogger at LegalInsurrection.com, who has written about Vassar extensively, as the tone on the campus has deteriorated.
Jacobson wrote, “That fury erupted in an Open Forum organized by the Vassar administration at which those professors together with Jewish students were heckled, jeered and belittled in such a frenzy that it shocked even Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss website, who himself is anti-Israel and was present at the event.”
The interrogation they received from students and peers was bad enough, they said, but the situation got worse when those protesters tried to re-frame their case against Israel into allegations of racism.
In the school newspaper, the two professors continued: “In our opinion, the rage unleashed disrespectfully at us at the forum has a gendered as well as a racial dimension.”
“Perhaps one way to begin countering the climate of fear is to work harder campus-wide to engage one another with intellectual openness, listening to the multiple narratives that emanate from the Vassar community,” they said.
“A jumping-off point for this endeavor might be to engage with any one of the 28 breathtakingly thoughtful students who devoted their spring break to the study trip. Though some might caricature these students as having been greenwashed by the two of us or by our itinerary, such spurious depictions underestimate the intelligence of the diverse group of students whom we have been privileged to teach.”
University President Catharine Hill responded to their open letter with her own this week calling for restraint.
“Our International Studies course, the Jordan River Watershed, that included a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, provided an opportunity for deep engagement and learning around some of the most contentious issues of our time,” Hill wrote.
“While there were and continue to be discussions on campus about what kinds of trips take place, I have been moved by comments from the students and faculty who made this trip. Instead of the monolithic opinions some expected to encounter among many in both areas, they found instead a range of viewpoints. Our students and faculty witnessed diverse groups working through intense, difficult discussions to find some understanding and even common ground. There can be no better learning experience. I hope that difficult conversations on campus can have the same impact on our students’ lives.”
“I am cautiously optimistic and encouraged by these and other events,” she said. “As a community we are taking very seriously our responsibility to prepare Vassar’s next generation to speak confidently, listen respectfully, and act responsibly and effectively. Most importantly, drawing on language long associated with our college, we are working to live up to the call to ‘educate the individual imagination to see into the lives of others.'”
The anti-Israel tone on campus ignited in January, after Hill responded to the American Studies Association’s vote in December to boycott Israeli universities, a move that was supported by Vassar’s delegation.
Those professors accused Hill and the administration of being against academic freedom, but her position was supported by a group of Vassar alumni who wrote to the newspaper in support of Jewish students, faculty and Israel.
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.”
In the most recent salvo in the newspaper, Schneiderman and Friedman, who led the trip to Israel on behalf of an International Studies course that has, in years past, brought students to Cuba, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and the USSR, explained how upset allegations of racism had made them and their students.
“One especially vexing aspect of the criticism leveled at us is that it has been racialized,” they wrote, as the conflict on campus “has been characterized by some members of the Vassar community as our use of white privilege to target students of color.”
They noted that many of the participants on their trip “belong to racial and ethnic minority groups” and if “anyone had thought to speak with us before stereotypically labeling us, multiple competing narratives would have emerged.”
Like many Jews, the two professors said they recognized they are perceived as part of the “white majority” externally while part of the “Jewish minority” internally.
“For example, while the two of us have indeed benefited from the privilege of being seen as within the white majority in our society, we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP,” they wrote.