Vassar Student Group
After months of simmering anti-Semitism at Vassar, the Students for Justice in Palestine at the college in Poughkeepsie, NY posted a cartoon to a social media site, forcing the administration to launch an investigation into the group’s status as a campus organization. The cartoon, titled “The Liberators,” is anti-Israeli, anti-American, and anti-Semitic. The Times of Israel describes it as “a many-limbed monster decorated with the U.S. flag, holding a money bag grasped by a long-nosed banker, and wearing a Star of David as a loin cloth, stomp[ing] on houses of the innocent.” (5-16-14)
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) exists on more than 80 U.S. college campuses. Calling for boycotts of businesses and organizations that deal with Israel and accusing Israel of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, some call SJP a hate group. Students for Justice in Palestine at Vassar College is a proponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, modeled on the movement launched against South Africa in the last century. The American Studies Association (ASA) has called for an academic boycott of Israel. Although most colleges, including Vassar, have rejected the ASA boycott, the call has emboldened anti-Israel campus groups. Vassar College, like others, rejected the ASA boycott on the basis of academic freedom, rather than out of any support for Israel.
The Vassar investigation of what they are calling a “bias incident” comes after months of escalating tension during which the administration did nothing to rein in anti-Israel activists. Once administrators launched an investigation into the legitimacy of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as an authorized student group, SJP issued an apology of sorts, blaming one individual’s poor judgment. The SJP claims the social media manager acted unilaterally in posting the cartoon. But the SJP calls for the destruction of Israel, and portrays the Jewish state as illegitimate and as engaging in genocide.
The problems at Vassar are representative of the national shutdown of public discourse that threatens to halt free speech and end rational, civil communication on college campuses when the discussion does not follow campus progressives’ leftist agenda.
Anti-Israel Campus Activity Earlier in the year, SJP Vassar initiated an anti-apartheid week that ran from February 24 to March 2. The event included the erection of a Wall of Apartheid on which at least 75 pages of anti-Israel posters and diatribes were hung, accusing Israel of all sorts of horrors. In response, the Vassar Conservative-Libertarian Union erected what they called a Wall of Truth, to counter the Anti-Apartheid wall, but it was promptly defaced with profanities and defamatory statements. College administrators, seeming to support the vandals, ordered that the Jewish wall be removed. David Horowitz stated, “Vassar University Administrators are not merely cowards. They are endorsers of anti-Jewish hatred.” (HorowitzFreedomCenter.org, 5-21-14)
Hillel House, the Vassar Jewish Union, has become an “Open Hillel.” A traditional refuge for Jewish students, the Vassar Hillel House opened its doors to speakers “who demonize Israel or believe the Jewish state shouldn’t exist,” as described in the Wall Street Journal by an alumna. The change to an Open Hillel was pushed by the Vassar Jewish Union president who signed an article in the student newspaper, along with the SJP hierarchy, calling for the boycott of Israel and condemning the Vassar administration for not signing on to the ASA academic boycott of Israel.
Prof. Joshua Schreier, head of the Vassar Jewish Studies Program, also changed his formerly held opinion and decided to support both the academic boycott and the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. (Wall Street Journal, 2-23-14)
Students and Professors Intimidated Professors and students in the Vassar International Studies program had an ongoing conflict with SJP this spring. Two professors and 28 students planned a Spring Break trip to Israel, intending to study water issues. Prof. Jill Schneiderman wrote on her blog, “In early February, SJP students picketed our course [International Study Travel] causing some of our students to express feelings of harassment and intimidation upon entering the space of the classroom.” Protesters who lined the corridor outside the classroom held posters with slogans urging students to drop the class and made mocking noises at students and the professor. Schneiderman called the incident “a new kind of transgression” and stated that she “in 17 years at Vassar never experienced anything like this.” (LegalInsurrection.com, 3-27-14)
In early March, SJP members disrupted an open forum called by the Vassar Committee on Inclusion to discuss both sides of the issue of the controversial trip to Israel. The March incident was a campus forum in which professors Schneiderman and Friedman and their students “were belittled, heckled and mocked in such crude ways that it left even critics of Israel shaken.” (LegalInsurrection.com, 3-27-14)
Schneiderman stated on her blog, “I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.” A writer at the pro-Palestinian website Mondoweiss.net wrote: “I was at the March 3 meeting that so upset Schneiderman, and it was truly unsettling. Over 200 students and faculty jammed a large room of the College Center, and torrents of anger ripped through the gathering. Most of them were directed at Israel or its supporters.” (3-20-14)
Critics of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement point out that at the Vassar forum “it was not even possible to have a debate about the desirability of BDS because the students who support BDS have no intention of engaging in a debate or even letting their opponents speak without disrupting them.” (Commentary, 3-26-14)
Prof. Schneiderman states that water is “a problem on which Arabs, Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have worked together with integrity and compassion.” (EarthDharma.org, 3-4-14) After the successful Spring Break trip with 28 students, Professors Schneiderman and Friedman concluded, “We feel confident that as a result of traveling to the region and talking with Arab and Jewish Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, our students can now speak knowledgeably about the complex realities of this conflict-ridden place.” (EarthDharma.org, 4-10-14)
It is hoped that American college campuses would be free of racism and anti-Semitism; if universities become places that cannot engage in rational discourse because of disruption, students will be unable to learn. At Vassar College it seems that liberal anti-Zionist professors, instead of giving students insight into the complexities that exist in the region, have turned many students, even some who are Jewish, against Israel.