Friday, March 18, 2016

FTI Report on the Webinar - a discussion about current issues and tensions within our community related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

On February 25th, Vassar held a webinar to address alumni/parent concerns in the wake of the recent Wall Street Journal op-ed ("Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar.")  Alums were invited to submit questions beforehand and over 930 alumni/parents listened in. 

Bill Plapinger, Chair of the Board of Trustees, led off the call with a statement extolling "the vibrant academic community at Vassar." He characterized Jasbir Puar's February 3rd talk at Vassar as an expression of a "viewpoint" that might make some students uncomfortable but said the "college cannot take sides."  

But as anyone who has monitored Vassar over the past few years knows, the college does take sides, and has done so repeatedly on many controversial social issues.  

Plapinger concluded by attacking the alumni who have been trying for the past few years to bring the problems he had just outlined to the attention of administration.  Quote:
But while I accept the validity of some of the criticism of the college, I ask you also to remember that the recent cacophony of criticism has come from a relatively small number of alumni who, in some cases, have distorted the facts and have been successful in enlisting concerned but not fully informed outsiders to amplify their views in publications that have not even bothered to ask the college for comment on their articles.  Whatever you may think, that is not how fair minded people act.  
But the Fairness to Israel anti-BDS petition, which garnered over 700 signatures and almost as many scathing comments in a period of just two weeks, tells a different story. 

President Cappy Hill followed, and she repeated the theme that Puar might have been offensive but that the best response was not censorship but "open debate and vigorous challenge." 

Of course, this is one of FTI's chief complaints; there has been no real dialogue or debate regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict and other issues related to Israel.  Using Puar as but the most recent example, not only was her appearance sponsored by 8 academic departments and programs, but she was allowed to spew her libelous claims without any challenge from the audience, which included several faculty members. 

The next three speakers talked about the vibrancy of Jewish life on campus.  Professor Mark Epstein of the Religion Department and Jewish Studies Program acknowledged that "there are some Jewish students who say that, given the campus climate, they feel awkward and self-conscious even mentioning Israel or discussing Zionism."  But for the most part, he attributed these fears to an overall discomfort with "expressing any opinion that is not fully progressive" and suggested that "student self-censorship when it comes to expressing Israel positive sentiments is a part of this larger reality." 

Peter Antelyes, Associate Professor of English and Director of Jewish Studies, in turn read a long list of course offerings from the current Jewish Studies curriculum, which, he claimed, support "open engagement with a diversity of perspectives" and "a rich array of contacts from which any clear understanding of current events must emerge.  That list included mostly cultural events and non-controversial topics (such as Yiddish classes).

Prof. Antelyes emphasized what he said was the special relationships on campus between teachers and students and their constant and open contact, and claimed that he himself had "never talked with a Vassar student who said they felt physically unsafe, or felt that the atmosphere at Vassar was principally antisemitic, or claimed that there were unpassable boundaries to the expression of opinions about Israel Palestine."  

Apparently, Prof. Antelyes does not read the Miscellany News or the VSA tweets, which amply testify to the hostile atmosphere and the shutting down of pro-Israel voices. See, for example:

The third and last voice on the topic of the climate of antisemitism was Sam Speers, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life.  He shared more of the same sentiments, and recited yet another litany of wonderful opportunities on campus for Jewish life: celebrating holidays, hanging mezuzot, cooking Shabbat meals, baking challah for Challah for Hunger, attending the Limud conference and a workshop on wrapping tefillin and building a sukkah on the library lawn.  

All of which was a detour from the issue about which the alumni wanted to hear:  how will Vassar ensure that Jews on campus will be able not only to celebrate their religion but also openly to celebrate Israel. (Interestingly, no speaker referred to the one Jewish organization in which pro-Israel students are encouraged to express their feelings for Israel -- the Chabad student group).

President Hill then directly addressed the issue of the BDS resolution, declaring that the student groups that support BDS "have every right to exist on campus and express their views" within the limits of college rules and regulations.  "At the same time," she said, "the college will not support the use of college resources for the boycott of any goods for political reasons."  Dean of the College Chris Roellke reiterated the administration's opposition to the BDS movement.  He then went on to address a recent incident in which shirts featuring the gun toting image of terrorist and hijacker Leila Khaled emblazoned over the words "Resistance is not terrorism" were sold at an SJP event off campus by an outside organization.  While stressing that no campus policies were violated, Dean Roellke related that SJP had "voluntarily agreed to cease sales of the tee shirt" and had "also disinvited the group, Existence is Resistance, to future SJP events."  

But he failed to address the promotion of this off campus event on SJP's Facebook page, which has not been taken down, and which continues to bear the caption "Check out our friends at Existence is Resistance!!! They will be selling sweet anti-Zionist gear at our events," though the language has been cleaned up. 

Jon Chenette, Dean of the Faculty, was asked to address the perception of lack of balanced programming on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  In response, he stressed that sponsorship of events does not equate with endorsement of the views expressed and repeated the litany of support for free speech.  While acknowledging that "campuses like Vassar attract and invite more speakers from the political left than the political right," he stressed "President Hill’s recent public commitment to develop a series of at least six lectures, panels or other events this spring and next fall, nominated by students, faculty and others with the aim of exploring the spectrum of views on this topic, we hope to widen the field."  He then proceeded to recite a list of events held "in the last 18 months" that he cited as "a counter to any monolithic portrayal of the range of programming on Israel available to our students."  

But the list of events demonstrated no such balance.  Some were misrepresented, most had nothing to do with the Israeli Palestinian conflict and one, William Jacobson’s lecture titled “The Case for Israel and Academic Freedom,” highlighted the imbalance Dean Chenette was seeking to refute.  Jacobson's talk received no faculty or other student sponsorship.  See one alum's Open Letter to Dean Chenette regarding his misleading claims.

Finally, and in a similar vein, Mia Mask, advisor to the class of 2018 and Associate Professor of Film, shared two recent events in which she had been involved as moderator.  One featured Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and outspoken critic of the BDS movement.  

But Eid's appearance was achieved through the hard work of one student, CAMERA campus fellow Jason Storch, working directly with President Hill's Dialogue and Engagement Across Difference initiative.  True to form, it did not receive the sponsorship of a single student group or academic department or program.  

Likewise, the second event Prof. Mask described, "A Conversation on Israel/Palestine” with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Professor Yehezkel Landau, was also sponsored only by President Hill's office and Rev. Speers' Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (**see correction, below**).  Held last November, it was billed as a "Dialogue and Engagement Across Difference" but there was no difference to be found.  Imam Antepli and Prof. Landau, while both acknowledging Israel's right to exist, appeared to agree almost completely in their view of Israel as a deeply flawed state that is unilaterally responsible for most of the ills suffered by Arab Israelis and Arab Palestinians alike and that is in desperate need of drastic reform. 

In conclusion, President Hill and Bill Plapinger reiterated their intention to extend invitations to speakers who would bring a broader spectrum of ideas and viewpoints to campus.  

But in light of the level of obfuscation and misdirection that were rampant on this call and the ongoing failure of the faculty to buy in, we at FTI remain skeptical of their ability to move this project forward successfully.

**Correction:  While not advertised as such, the Antepli/Landau event ultimately was co-sponsored by the Programs of Jewish Studies and Africana Studies and the Departments of History and Religion.