Amid ‘climate of fear’ at Vassar, president comes out against ‘action and protest’ re Israel
Three weeks ago I did a piece on tensions at Vassar College over a class trip to Israel and Palestine whose itinerary struck many as oblivious of the occupation. The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter picketed the class in February, and a month later the college held an angry forum over that protest. People on both sides said they felt bullied. Days after that, the students left on their trip.
I have heard from many of you, on campus as well as alumnae/i and parents, who are concerned, as am I, about campus tensions stemming from different viewpoints about Israel and Palestine. I know that people have very deep feelings about these issues and emotions can be raw….Some people will argue that action and protest are the only way to effect change at a particular moment in time at a particular place, that discussion will have little impact. At times that has and certainly will be true. But at Vassar our greatest strength is in the power of argument and reason….We need to treat each other civilly and with respect. If we don’t, we shut down and shut out important voices. People may then withdraw from the discussion. This is a loss of ideas and perspectives.
There also have been campus lectures on various sides of the issues related to Israel and Palestine in the past few weeks that happened with respectful disagreement but without disruptive conflict.
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. 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.
We have, of course, followed the maelstrom of reactions to the trip. We, as the instructors of the trip, have personally been attacked from both left and right. In one account, we are “white settler colonialists” oppressing the Palestinians; in the other, we are “self-hating Jews” pursuing an “anti-Israel agenda.” In fact, people who made little, if any effort to examine the details of our course subject and itinerary have reduced us to stereotypical caricatures. If their narrative is that the two of us are bent on destroying Israel, it is because our support for many of the goals of Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) and the Open Hillel movement seems irreconcilable with our involvement in our Jewish communities and support (albeit critical) of Israel. If their narrative is that we support a white colonialist regime in Israel, then perhaps they refuse to look at the ways in which we are committed to fighting injustice against Palestinians. Though unsurprised by these reactions, they sadden us, particularly as educators….One especially vexing aspect of the criticism leveled at us is that it has been racialized. In early February, SJP students picketed our course causing some of our students to express feelings of harassment and intimidation upon entering the space of the classroom. We objected to the picket because of its negative effect on those who already felt beleaguered by ill-informed criticisms across campus for enrolling in the course.Discussing the picket during class, our students asked us to relay to administrators in the Dean of the College office and the International Studies program the request for a facilitated discussion between them and SJP members. Despite our repeated requests for such an intervention, none transpired.Since then, our objection to the picket has been characterized by some members of the Vassar community as our use of white privilege to target students of color. If we and our students had been consulted before this conclusion was drawn, listeners would have learned that our students—many of whom belong to racial and ethnic minority groups—were as surprised as we were that the group of SJP protesters were characterized as being “of color.” Furthermore, it would have become clear that we supported the right of SJP students to protest in any number of ways, including ongoing tabling in the College Center, but not inside an academic building at our classroom door….Many Vassar students and faculty have expressed their concern that over the last several years, a climate of fear has descended on campus. This fear was confirmed for them during the spectacle at the Open Forum that was held on March 3.In our opinion, the rage unleashed disrespectfully at us at the forum has a gendered as well as a racial dimension.