Op-Ed: Regarding the Vassar College IS-SJP Controversy
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a grass roots organization of over 30,000 academic members, expresses its great concern with recent events at Vassar College, growing out of a student and faculty response to the “International Studies 110” class (IS) which traveled over Spring break to Israel:
The IS trip was taught and led by Vassar professor of Earth Science and Geography, Jill Schneiderman, and associate professor of Greek and Roman Studies, Rachel Friedman. Its educational purpose was to look “at issues of water rights and access to the Jordan River, as well as disparities in water distribution in Palestine and Israel.” Locations visited by students in the class included sites throughout Israeli and Palestinian Authority controlled territories and a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem.
Professor Schneiderman’s teaching objective was inclusive. “I was motivated to propose and teach such a course because from my perspective as an earth scientist,” she wrote in a blog, “I understand how daily and future access to clean water in ample supply is one of the key issues about which people in the region fight. It is also a problem on which Arabs, Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have worked together with integrity and compassion.”
For 25 years IS trips had been offered without dispute. Only this year did the issue of the propriety of visiting a specific country—in this case, Israel—become a topic of discussion and condemnation—led by Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
SJP is very clear in its opposition to the Jewish state, and they regularly vilify Israel, Zionism, and supporters of Israel; SJP previously constructed a mock security wall on Vassar’s campus.
SPME is very concerned that through SJP’s response to the IS course—and the subsequent the meeting held by Vassar’s Committee on Inclusion and Excellence on March 3rd to discuss guidelines for activism at the school in the context of the trip—SJP has created a climate of fear and intimidation that has enveloped the Vassar campus, particularly for Jewish students and faculty, and others who might support Israel.
On February 6th, nine members of SJP appeared at the classroom for the IS course and formed a human barricade to impede students from entering the classroom. An SJP leaflet distributed to students described Israel as sponsoring apartheid and asserted that “the indigenous people of Palestine” did not want students going on the trip.
Professors Friedman and Schneiderman have noted that the demonstration by SJP was inappropriate because it took place at the classroom itself, misguided because it misrepresented both the purpose and substance of the course, and threatening and intimidating to students enrolled in the class because of the physical presence of the demonstrators and the ululating and heckling that accompanied the protest. When the class did finally begin, protestors continued to shout and students inside the classroom told the professor that they “felt unsafe,” “bullied,” and “harassed.”
SPME believes protestors do not have the right to “occupy” classroom spaces and to physically insert themselves between students and faculty in teaching situations at any time.
SPME is also troubled by the fact that the SJP’s interference with the conduct and teaching of the course was met, not with sanctions from the administration, but in fact with another opportunity to further denigrate Israel and Israelis in a school-wide public panel held on March 3 by Vassar’s Committee on Inclusion and Excellence to discuss guidelines for activism at the school. In fact, that meeting was arranged primarily because SJP members had complained to the administration.
SPME is also concerned that this March 3rd meeting, called an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” which some 200 people attended, was arranged by the administration solely for the purpose of giving SJP members and their supporters on campus additional opportunities to demonize and attempt to delegitimize Israel—in the context of the IS trip—and to repeat misinformation and slanders, rather than to seriously examine the events that took place. The few pro-Israel speakers at the meeting were heckled with finger snapping and made to feel unwelcomed in the discussion, leading Professor Schneiderman to feel that “last night was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel,” as she expressed in a blog posting.
“Vassar’s Committee on Inclusion and Excellence may have had good intentions in opening up dialogue about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” said Dr. Richard L. Cravatts, president of SPME, “but it appears that the meeting to do so was called, not to facilitate an academic discussion of an area of concern, but as a way of assuaging the SJP’s disingenuous complaints about the supposed racism they experienced for having their radicalism questioned by the targets of their invective.”
SPME feels that the Vassar administration enabled an unjust and inappropriate violation of healthy academic debate, both by giving SJP and other anti-Israel individuals a platform for their corrosive rhetorical attacks and by not insuring that the March 3rd meeting did not further contribute to a climate of intimidation, harassment, and incivility for Jewish students and other supports of Israel.
SPME calls on the administration of Vassar College to address the very clear radicalism and hatred embodied in the tactics of Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as the developing hostile environment towards Jewish supporters of Israel manifesting itself on the Vassar campus, in an unambiguous, public, and forceful way, just as universities immediately have done when hate speech or acts of racism or prejudice have been directed at other minority groups on campus. Responsible leadership needs to address the intimidating environment that has developed, including when Jewish students and other supporters of Israel are targeted for scorn or enmity for their actual or perceived support of Israel, or for the views about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the Middle East they may express.
Most importantly, we call on the Vassar administration to ensure that all students are able to attend classes and participate in academic activities without fear of violence, victimization by hate speech, or threats of harm.
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Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is not-for-profit , grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially in regard to Middle East issues. We believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines, and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.
The peace we seek in the Middle East is consistent both with Israel's right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within safe and secure borders, and with the rights and legitimate aspirations of her neighbors.
Our mission is to inform, motivate, and encourage faculty to use their academic skills and disciplines on campus, in classrooms, and in academic publications to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders, which poison debate and work against peace. SPME welcomes scholars from all disciplines, faiths groups and nationalities who share our desire for peace and our commitment to academic integrity and honest debate.