Ululating at Vassar: the Israel/Palestine conflict comes to America

Israel/Palestine
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Vassar College seal

Vassar College seal

Two weeks back, Jill Schneiderman, a professor of Earth Sciences at Vassar College, put up a post on her blog about an angry meeting at the liberal arts school the night before:

last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.

Schneiderman was about to do just that: set foot in Israel. On March 8, she flew to the country with 28 Vassar students and two other professors. As I post this, the group is touring Israel and Palestine studying water issues.

Many of those students are surely thinking about that meeting Schneiderman found belligerent back in New York’s Hudson Valley. For whatever these students think of what they are seeing in the dry hills of the Jordan Valley, they live in an American community; and it is there that they will bring back their ideas and shape them in months and years to come.

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. Two or three times people shouted at one another. Several said they felt bullied. Schneiderman and another leader of the trip, Rachel Friedman, an associate professor of Greek and Roman studies, looked shocked.

As Schneiderman said in her blogpost, rage against Israel was the theme. You would not have known from that night in the life of a prestigious school that the president and faculty dean of Vassar signed a statement opposing boycott of Israel, that 70 miles south a progressive mayor of NY is partnered with Israel on building a major new campus in the city, that California’s Democratic governor welcomed Israel’s prime minister to Silicon Valley this month, or that a leading liberal Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, calls Israel’s creation the “most spectacular political achievement of the 20th century.”

No, the spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.

I left the room as soon as the meeting ended. The clash felt too raw, and there was a racial element to the division (privileged Jews versus students of color). Vassar is not my community, and I didn’t want to say anything to make things worse.

But the meeting shows where the Israel/Palestine conflict is headed: to the United States. The battles we’ve seen so far on campus are just preliminaries. The ugly and intractable Israel-Palestine conflict is set to become a raging conflict inside the American progressive community and spread from there to the broader discourse. And given the liberal establishment’s marriage to Israel (from Pelosi to de Blasio to Jerry Brown to Vassar) things are going to get much more belligerent before there is any understanding.

In fact, that belligerence may be necessary to the resolution.

Here is the Vassar story as I understand it.

Every year the International Studies program at Vassar has a course that includes an overseas trip. The IS program has gone to Russia, Cuba, Spain, Morocco, and Vietnam among other places. The students read up on the place for months, then go on their trip and come home and discuss the issues more. Students who can’t afford the trip get help from the college.

Last year a proposal was put forward by three members of the Jewish Studies program, (all of whom I am told are Jewish) to study water questions in Israel and Palestine. As the proposal moved forward, it drew the attention of a new chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. The itinerary for the $90,000 trip was chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation. The trip’s Israeli character was also reflected by stops at two kibbutzes and the Dead Sea and Masada, classic sites for birthright-style promotional tours. And though the leaders were working with Palestinian NGOs and visiting a Palestinian refugee camp, the trip was being coordinated with the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, a branch of Ben-Gurion University and a partner of the Jewish National Fund, which secures land for Jews (and displaces Bedouins, as Jeff Halper explained to Vassar’s late neighbor Pete Seeger in convincing him to separate himself from the organization, after he’d teamed up when it. Adalah-NY has also targeted Arava for boycott). A course proposal stressed the politics of water usage but never mentioned occupation and twice cited Palestinian cities’ sewage runoff as a problem without a mention of Israeli appropriation of aquifers or settlers’ sewage.

Members of Vassar’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter objected to the nature of the trip and met with the head of International Studies. Then the group staged an action against the class. On Thursday night, February 6, nine members of SJP, all but one a person of color, picketed the class. They gave out leaflets describing Israeli apartheid and Israeli appropriation of Palestinian water. They urged students to drop the class and, citing the Boycott, divestment, sanctions call, said that “the indigenous people of Palestine” did not want students going on this trip.

Friedman and Schneiderman said the demonstration went too far because they and some of their students felt intimidated. They communicated these feelings to college officials. In turn, the protesters said they were being unfairly targeted for complaint. And the racial issue came to the fore.

Because of the controversy, a Vassar administrative body dedicated to diversity– the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence— held a meeting March 3 to discuss guidelines for activism at the school. I attended (informed of it by Schneiderman and Friedman, who liked this piece of mine and who felt that Vassar’s struggle should be openly discussed). A college spokesperson introduced himself to me at the meeting and allowed me to stay on condition that I not record it.

Kiese Laymon, an African-American writer and English professor, led the meeting, saying he wanted a dialogue about activism–“not to be guided by cardboard notions of civility.” Laymon seemed frankly on the SJP side. He stated his concern that students depicted as bullying, intimidating, and threatening were chiefly students of color; also that the trip’s character had the effect of excluding students of Muslim and Arabic background.

The dialogue that followed had little cardboard about it, but it was tense and often painful. It reminded me of stories of the religious/ethnic power divide in the NY teachers’ strike of 1968.

The director of the IS program, Tim Koechlin, was measured and regretful. He said that student protest is an essential part of Vassar– “even making directors and administrators and donors uncomfortable.” Koechlin then conceded that the trip had been designed without a thought given to the issues SJP raised: “virtually no time talking about BDS, and virtually no time talking about the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” A leftwinger, Koechlin said he regretted not taking into account an “important and growingly conspicuous movement.” (And Koechlin signed a faculty statement at Vassar taking on the president’s opposition to boycott).

A couple of students who are going on the trip spoke. An Asian-American and an African woman spoke of their excitement at studying water issues, which are a global problem. The African expressed concern about the “plight of the people of Palestine.”

A student representative of the liberal Zionist group J Street also expressed sympathy for Palestinians. Sarah said that the trip was designed so students would be “exposed to the truth of the injustices that exist in Israel—I’m not denying that they do exist.”

But she said that students were being “disempowered” by the protest.

Students on the north side of the room, the SJP side, called out, How was the protest disempowering?

“My Israel identity is important to me,” she said. “It is super intimidating to walk into the College Center and feel that that identity is questioned. It’s really difficult to come to terms with hearing that a place you call your homeland shouldn’t exist… I’m not saying SJP makes those claims, but a lot of Jewish students feel that way.”

A Jewish woman named Erin took exception. She had spent a lot of time in Israel; and there Palestinians have their identities questioned. As an American, she said it was healthy to take apart one’s identity and see what composes it: “SJP empowers me in that they help me not accept everything I hear or know from my history.”

A Zionist student complained that when he went up to an SJP protest table, he was asked if he had been to the Middle East. “I said I had been to Israel. They laughed at me, I felt trivialized, I felt my opinions not being validated.”

An SJP student said that the student had been confrontational: “he asked an angry, pointed question.”

Rachel Friedman spoke for a while. She offered an appreciation of activism on campus, from J Street to SJP to the new Open Hillel.

“What crossed the line,” Friedman said, was when she walked in to her class February 6 and was greeted by posters telling people to “drop the class, it’s not too late,” and “Indigenous Palestinians don’t want you to come.” Her students felt harassed and bullied by the reception.

And worse, as Friedman went into the class, “I was greeted with this noise.” The dark-haired professor put her head back and wailed in a high aggressive tone for a few seconds, wagging her head to give it a sharp rhythm. She said,

“The protest shocked me frankly. In 17 years of teaching at Vassar, I’ve never witnessed anything like this… My students were upset and shaken up…. We’re in a dangerous place, if suddenly classrooms are being picketed and students made to feel harassed when they are going to class that they’ve chosen.”

Friedman’s demonstration angered a young man from SJP with long braids and glasses. He said:

“I want to address the ululating. That never happened. No one in this group knows how to make such a noise…. [It is] a racist slur used to depict Arab people. The fact that you can remember that when it never happened… puts our group on trial with a false allegation.

“If we’re really going to be using racial slurs in this conversation, I don’t know what we’re going to accomplish. And many in our group don’t feel comfortable.”

There was a lot of finger-snapping in support. A student in Friedman’s class then said she had heard a wail.

The hostility between the sides was now unmasked. When the braided student said the itinerary had been changed, Schneiderman burst out angrily, “That’s absolutely untrue! We have emails we can show you.” Schneiderman also sought to extenuate Israeli conduct by saying, “We have our own occupation here when it comes to native Americans.” But I felt that the comment only served to underline the tension in the room between privileged Jews and outsiders of color.

The SJP now had the meeting. When a Jewish sophomore said that he had come to Vassar in part because there was a large Jewish student body and he felt that he would not face anti-Semitism, till he saw the words “Israeli apartheid” — “and that’s charged language”– people on the other side laughed. The crowd was respectful as a Jewish critic of Israel said that her grandfather had fought in Israel’s war of independence and she had been made very uncomfortable by the allegations against Israel, too, till she looked into them, and came to understand, “My Judaism does not equal Zionism.”

The last portion of the meeting was dominated by an SJP member, a slender woman wearing a keffiyeh who stood two or three times and spoke in an earnest manner. As one of only 8 or 9 Arabs at the school, she said, she sees her college putting thousands of dollars into supporting a government that oppresses people who are like her. There were so many flaws with the trip no one could say it was neutral: it was going to a discriminatory national airport and would travel on apartheid roads. She could not go on this trip because she would be stopped at Ben-Gurion airport on account of the Lebanese stamps in her passport, and because her going would prevent her from traveling to Arab countries.

“How am I to feel when my university is funding a trip going to a place that discriminates against people based on my ethnicity? They are leading a trip that is inherently discriminatory, and no one at this college has spoken out against that except the SJP.”

Kiese Laymon echoed her. He likened the trip to the school sponsoring a trip to Mississippi that black students couldn’t join. Those students have the right to say this professor is bullying me and intimidating me, he said.

Both sides had now expressed sincere feelings of being bullied. The most conciliatory statement was from a young Jewish man on the trip who said that he was thankful for SJP’s intervention, and he would be having a different trip because of that.

As the meeting drew to a close at 7 p.m. after an hour and a half, a friend ran up to Friedman and said, How could she have allowed these people to call Israel an oppressive place? But that friend hadn’t opened her mouth during the meeting.

I left feeling some empathy for Schneiderman and Friedman. The atmosphere was more intimidating to pro-Israel speakers than pro-Palestinian speakers. Norman Finkelstein said some time ago that you can’t be for Israel on college campuses, and I was seeing this before my eyes. Being for Israel makes you a clod.

But who can take issue with SJP’s factual claims? Having been to Gaza and the West Bank many times, I have witnessed discrimination on a racial basis that my country rejected decades ago– humiliating, limiting, murderous and degrading conditions. There are surely ways for a school to design a neutral observing trip; this trip doesn’t seem to be such a thing. As to the effort by the young woman in the keffiyeh to stop a college trip because its destination discriminates against people like her– well, Bill de Blasio has several times now vowed to prevent Saudi Airlines from landing at JFK because it discriminates against Israelis. His moral principle is no different.

The main difference between the two is that de Blasio has power and she does not. I am sure Schneiderman is right, and the SJP students are belligerent. But that tone originates in the experience of powerlessness in the face of a pro-Israel establishment.

The conflict is coming home to America. Our country’s liberal institutions have supported occupation for 47 years, and ethnic cleansing before that; students are demanding an accounting. This is beginning to happen on campuses around the country, as anyone can tell from reading posts on our site. If the SJP students can be obnoxious, their manner is just what feminist Margaret Fuller saw in abolitionists during slavery: tedious, rabid, narrow, prone to exaggeration. And dedicated to a principle worth living and dying for.

Expect many more rage-filled meetings in years to come as the left is broken over this question. How long before students occupy administration buildings of liberal arts colleges that work with Israel? How long before students chain themselves to bulldozers at the Cornell-Technion project in New York city? This conflict has found its natural home, in the United States. Remember there was turmoil and violence in France once the country’s support for Algerian colonization became politically problematic at last after 120 years.

I understand why Jill Schneiderman is upset. She is used to being on the vanguard. An out lesbian with children, she has been a leader in a liberation movement. I imagine what she would have said to me if I had expressed my stodgy discomfort with the idea of gay marriage and lesbian parenting 10 years ago: If you need time to figure this out, just get out of the way. That is what Omar Barghouti is saying to people in the middle now, Get out of the way.  The intellectual labors are done, the activists are moving. The public square will increasingly belong to the warriors of both sides. And Vassar shows us clearly which side will win.

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