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.
My piece got wide circulation because it said that the conflict was coming to the U.S. And truly, the issue continues to roil the campus.
In the last few days two pieces have been published at Vassar that suggest to me that the pro-Israel side of the discussion is winning: Vassar officials are characterizing angry protest of the trip and Israel as illegitimate.
One is a piece in the college paper by the two professors who led the trip, reporting on it and openly identifying themselves as supportive of Israel. They say that “a climate of fear has descended on campus.”
But before I get to that, more important is a statement by Vassar President Catharine Hill yesterday that takes the professors’ side. Hill seems fearful about the issue upending the campus. She celebrates the student trip to “Israel and the West Bank” and urges students to have civilized disagreement over Israel and Palestine, and not resort to “action and protest,” but “discussion.”
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.
In offering “model” discussions of the conflict, Hill pointedly leaves out the tense March 3 meeting I attended and reported on. So a heated meeting about an important issue in which people say they feel intimidated should not take place at Vassar. Hill urges polite debate:
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.
This is the part where Hill embraces the trip. No reference to Palestine.
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.
As I said, the two professors who led the trip have published a report on it, in the college paper. Rachel Friedman and Jill Schneiderman decry the protest against their class for casting them as privileged and allegedly racializing the issue. They also accuse the critics of sexism without explanation (I believe the reason is that the forum I attended was led by two men, and Schneiderman and Friedman felt they were its targets).
Interestingly, the professors say they come out of Jewish communities that are supportive of Israel (if also critical).
Excerpts of their article in The Miscellany News:
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.
I return to my original piece: the conflict is coming to the United States, and as it heats up, Catharine Hill’s hope for civil disagreement will be beside the point. Katie Miranda addressed that argument in a cartoon at our site, “Both Sides.” It compares the demands for civil dialogue on U.S. campuses with the oppression of Palestinians in our name. That’s why I think rage is inevitable, and maybe necessary. As Hill states herself sometimes action and protest are necessary. Why not in this case? We are talking about an intractable conflict that is intractable in some large measure because the U.S. government and liberal institutions and the official Jewish community are standing with an occupier that has created Jim Crow conditions for nearly 50 years (as countless northern institutions sided with the slave power in the 1850s). We have seen again and again that dialogue doesn’t affect the power arrangements one iota; it only allows supporters of the occupier to feel that they have atoned (we are critical too!) without doing a thing to address the structural inequity.
Thanks to Annie Robbins.