NEW YORK — Vassar alum Mark Banschick was deeply troubled. It was 2014 and the American Studies Association had voted to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions.
While Vassar's president opposed the idea, 39 of the college's professors openly supported the boycott. Wondering what had become of his alma mater, Banschick started digging. He didn't like what he found.
There was the college-sponsored trip to Israel that toured the Jordan Valley and falsely claimed Israel was misappropriating the water, as well as the time students plastered posters in dorms and bathroom stalls depicting Palestinian victims of alleged IDF violence.
Recognizing that alumni could contribute more than dollars to former schools, Banschick and two fellow graduates founded what would become the non-profit Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF).
"We are all about mobilizing alumni who care about their schools," Banschick said. "When they see their schools going off the rails they want to do something."
"While we care about Israel, at its core ACF is about holding a mirror to college campuses and asking that they return to their essential mission: civility, a marketplace of ideas, and a rejection of anti-Semitism along with other forms of hate speech," he said.
Today ACF works to ensure universities uphold standards of free and fair dialogue regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. So far it has successfully highlighted the issue, publishing opinion pieces in major news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the NY Daily News. It has grown to 28 chapters and several hundred members.
Yet, even as ACF has made inroads in getting administrations to confront the anti-Semitism it says is spreading like a contagion across American campuses, challenges remain.
An incident at Columbia University at the close of last semester illustrates the situation.
In May, Prof. Hamid Dabashi, who teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, referred to Zionists as "laughing hyaenas (sic)" in a Facebook post. In the post he also blamed "treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world" on Israel and the "Fifth Column Zionists." After the university failed to act, the 300 alums of ACF-Columbia/Barnard petitioned Columbia President Lee Bollinger.
Aside from calling for Dabashi to be relieved of his teaching duties, ACF wants Bollinger to issue a formal, public statement condemning Dabashi's anti-Semitic postings as antithetical to Columbia University's liberal values. They also want Bollinger to state unequivocally that the university welcomes Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel students, for whom Zionism and the right of Jewish self-determination are core values.
"As alumni we have a vested interest in making sure schools uphold their standards to be fair. It's our goal to get administrations to educate their faculty and staff on what is acceptable and what is not," said Avi D. Gordon, ACF executive director.
While the university's provost answered the ACF letter, Bollinger has yet to respond. Gordon said he wasn't ready to share the letter until the chapter and ACF headquarters could consider their response.
From where Melissa Landa, Oberlin-ACF president sits, Oberlin continues to have a problem. In 2016 assistant professor Joy Karega made anti-Semitic comments online. Additionally a professor's home was vandalized with an anti-Semitic message and the campus was littered with fliers calling for the end of "Jewish privilege."
Ultimately Karega was fired and a new president was appointed; steps which initially encouraged Landa.
However, President Carmen Twilie Amber has since decreased transparency with her policy of keeping anti-Semitic incidents on campus a secret, Landa said. During the fall of 2017, there were 16 anti-Israel events on the campus. Then there was a promise to rebalance Israel programming through a "Speakers Series," made to alumni leaders last autumn, which never materialized.
"When addressing alumni at large, they readily express concern over negative or embarrassing media coverage. However, our chapter has been repeatedly rebuffed by the administration when we propose dialogue with them," Landa said.
Oberlin issued two different statements countering Landa's assertion, saying it promotes Jewish life and chose not to publicize incidents because divisive groups "want a microphone. Our community's goal should be to turn off their sound."
"While we appreciate the concerns of the Alumni for Campus Fairness, we feel the picture they paint is not an accurate representation of Oberlin College and contemporary Jewish life on our campus. Approximately 23 percent of our students identify as Jewish… Oberlin's institutional commitment to Jewish life and scholarship is broad and deep," Ambar said in a statement.
Across the country, Joyce Craig, co-founder of the UCLA-ACF chapter, said she has had enough.
"We are frustrated. We want the chancellor to come out and make a public statement about the principles against intolerance but he is loath to do that. We're not asking for anything new. We're asking for what was promised," Craig said, referring to the UC Regents 2016 approval of the "Principles Against Intolerance."
During a Students Supporting Israel (SSI) event that highlighted Armenian, Jewish, and Kurdish communities in the Middle East, the UCLA chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine harassed and shouted down students, allegedly assaulting one. The SSI students filed a criminal complaint with campus police and an investigation is ongoing.
And while Craig is frustrated with the current chancellor's silence, the sheer number of UCLA-ACF members – 700 strong and counting – encourages her.
"That's 700 or more alumni donors with a voice. We do get in the door. Our members want to protect the value of their degree. They don't want the school to fail. We all agree on free speech, even when it's negative and nasty, but the lid is off on what is proper behavior. There is a 'Zionophobia' and it's no different than attacking somebody for their religion, their sexual status or any other part of their identity," said Craig.
Nevertheless, President Emeritus and Professor of Law Emeritus at UC Berkeley School of Law Mark Yudof, who "greatly admires ACF," sees glimmers of progress.
As chair of the advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network, a group addressing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities as they arise, Yudof pays close attention to the current academic climate.
He said newly appointed Vassar president Elizabeth Bradley ensured a recent talk given by law professor William Jacobson occurred without interruption. Yudof also pointed to a May 2018 incident at Tufts University where a student shredded an Israeli flag in front of a class with her instructor's approval.
"When students complained, they didn't receive a satisfactory response from either the instructor or the administration. When Tufts ACF intervened, they elicited a response from the board and an investigation by the administration," Yudof said.
David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, said college campuses definitely need outside organizations to "to take a stand against anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism."
"Too often Jewish groups on campus seem more concerned with preserving their relationships with 'social justice' groups, or perhaps avoiding bad publicity that might drive away Jewish students, than in standing up against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity from the left," Bernstein said.
Today ACF is affiliated with StandWithUs, a non-profit organization that equips pro-Israel students to fight against anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. SWU stays in the background, only offering help when asked, Gordon said.
For its part, because it can act without fear of repercussion, ACF sees itself as another means of supporting students.
"Alumni can confront faculty on matters of curriculum or offensive public statements about Jews or Israel. Unlike students, we do not have to fear retaliation in the form of lowered grades, being socially ostracized, or poor letters of recommendation for graduate school," Landa said.
Aside from firing off sharply worded letters to presidents and provosts, some individual alums advocate withholding financial contributions from universities as means of applying pressure. While understanding the sentiment behind that approach, it should be a method of last resort, Gordon said.
"We don't want it to come to that. Our goal is to hold administrations accountable to standards they have set," Gordon said.
Vassar alum Banschick agrees. Instead of withholding, other alumni are targeting their donations to more specific programs or student scholarships.
"Choosing not to give sends a strong message, but perhaps more importantly, alumni can show up at campus and see that Jewish students often feel marginalized, particularly if they support Israel," Banschick said.
"Letting the college president know that this is unacceptable carries weight. We are changing the role of alumni from being cheerleaders to being stakeholders," he said.