Concentrated, intense anti-Israel activity at Vassar College in early 2014 resulted in gross displays of anti-Jewish hostility, as I documented at the time, Anti-Israel academic boycott turns ugly at Vassar.
Thirty-nine Vassar professors signed a letter in the student newspaper supporting the academic boycott of Israel, and aggressive protests by Students for Justice in Palestine created a pervasive climate of fear on campus. When I was invited by a student group to speak on campus, no academic department would co-sponsor my appearance despite the fact that several departments co-sponsored the appearance the week before of the anti-Israel activists Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal. The hostility following my appearance on campus was so intense that Vassar SJP circulated on social media a Nazi cartoon.
Since then, there has been near continuous anti-Israel activism on campus, including an appearance by the leader of national Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and a dining hall boycott of Sabra Hummus (which later was reversed).
There also recently was a college-sponsored "Conversation About Israel/Palestine" which was described by one alumni attendee as follows:
Recently I attended a Vassar College event sponsored by the "Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences" program, established by the president of the college to help students and faculty discuss contentious issues.
The chosen topic, "Conversation About Israel/Palestine," is one that, in the real world, generates striking differences of opinion. The underlying assumption of a "dialogue across differences" is that participants hold different opinions. However, the two speakers, Hartford Seminary's Professor Yehezkel Landau and Duke University's Turkish Imam Abdullah Antepli, differing in nationality, religion and life history, espoused the same opinions, i.e., that although Israel has a right to exist, it is an oppressive human rights abuser of innocent, victimized Palestinians. Landau and Antepli called each other "soul brothers" and their message represents the prevailing campus narrative about Israel. Their views are well known at the Poughkeepsie college, and predictably, their conversation was a duet rather than a dialogue.
The turn from BDS to overt anti-Semitism may be happening again at Vassar.
On February 1, 2016, Vassar SJP and Vassar JVP officially launched a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to divest from numerous companies, including Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, that allegedly contribute to oppression of Palestinians.
The teaming up of SJP and JVP in a BDS coalition was contemporaneous with a similar SJP-JVP coalition for a Columbia University BDS campaign, and also the distribution by national and NYC JVP of a phony supplement to the NY Times attacking Israel.
On Feburary 3, SJP also hosted a virulent anti-Israel speaker, Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar, someone influential in the academic boycott movement against Israel and who argues:
... that Israel manifests an implicit claim to the 'right to maim' and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to a scientifically authorized humanitarian economy. In this context, the essay tracks the permeating relations between living and dying that complicate Michel Foucault's foundational mapping of biopower, in this case, the practice of deliberate maiming. In doing so it demonstrates the limitations of the idea of 'collateral damage' that disarticulates the effects of warfare from the perpetration of violence, and notes that the policy of maiming is a productive one, a form of weaponized epigenetics through the profitability of a speculative rehabilitative economy.
We may have more on Puar's appearance at Vassar in a later post. A Vassar alumna expressed concern in advance that the nature of Puar's anti-Israelism had anti-Semitic overtones:
The description of Puar's upcoming talk indicates that she will be spewing the vitriol that Gaza is an "experimental laboratory for the Israeli military apparatuses, infrastructural chaos and metric manipulation," and that she will be inviting her audience to imagine what types of Israeli "fantasies" about "power, about bodies, about resistance, about politics" might be driving the Israelis. Just substitute the word "Jew" for "Israeli" and you could certainly be excused for thinking this was lifted straight out of Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda paper that regularly portrayed Jews as filthy manipulators driven by a mad lust for power, intent on destroying the German nation.
Yes, even hate speech is protected speech and someone like Professor Puar is free to emit such garbage. And yes, she is even free to gussy it up with pretentious jargon in a pathetic effort to make it seem as if it had some academic or intellectual basis. But Vassar's promotion and endorsement of such antisemitic speech through sponsorship by the American Studies program is entirely unfathomable and inexcusable.
The launch of the Vassar BDS campaign was announced at the Puar event to huge cheers from the packed room, which included about a dozen Vassar professors. The event was co-sponsored by several Vassar academic departments, including Jewish Studies.
In Facebook posts today, both JVP and SJP report that on the campus anonymous Yik Yak, apparently overnight, there were anti-Jewish messages posted by numerous students in the context of arguing about Zionism. Vassar JVP reports:
Yesterday, presumably a number of students posted hurtful anti-Jewish sentiments on the anonymous social media platform Yik Yak. Responding "F**k Jews" to Zionistic arguments is neither funny nor politically apt; rather it is harmful, bigoted, and foolish. The arguments we make and the political movements we support are sound in their resolute rejection of Zionism and Israeli militarism and settler-colonialism. There is no room in our work for anti-Jewish bigotry nor has there ever been. Do better.
Vassar SJP joined in the criticism:
To whoever posted "F**k Jews", there is no room in BDS for you or your anti-Semitism. This kind of language insults the work of our Jewish comrades, and perpetuates the vicious myth that Jewishness is inextricably linked with Zionism. Know that you do NOTHING but delay the ending of the conflict and the liberation of the Palestinian people.
Assuming the reports by JVP and SJP are accurate (and it's not in their interest to make it up), Vassar clearly needs to examine the role that gross demonization and dehumanization of Israel plays in fostering anti-Semitism.
It's a conversation just starting at Oberlin, and one that needs to take place on many campuses.
At Vassar the situation appears to be particularly acute, as the college and professors are active participants in the problem.