Vassar College
Vassar College. Photo by Google Street View
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An ugly confrontation took place at Vassar College March 3 between pro-BDS activists and a group of students and professors who were about to embark on a college-sponsored trip to study water issues in Israel and Palestine. A college forum convened to discuss the tensions surrounding the trip - and more specifically, the protests against it - brought out what one pro-Palestinian blogger, Philip Weiss, called a “raw” and “unsettling” display of rage tinged with racial resentment directed against the Jewish students.

The shouting and name-calling session, formally known as an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” is getting some passionate scrutiny on the right. Commentary’s Jonathan Marks has weighed in, as has Caroline Glick in her Jerusalem Post column.

What’s particularly interesting is that they both rely for the facts on a gripping eye-witness account by Philip Weiss, whose MondoWeiss.net blog is a platform for pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel Jews whose vehemence sometimes makes even Weiss himself uncomfortable.

Weiss takes a very dim view of Israel’s role in the conflict and sees no place for an independent Jewish state, but he also brings a tone of thoughtfulness, civility and, well, regret to his writing that are rare in the anti-Israel camp. In his blog post about the Vassar forum he gets into some apocalyptic predictions about where campus discourse on Israel is headed and how the mounting “belligerence may be necessary to the resolution.” But he also manages to separate his reporting of the events from his philosophizing about the rights and wrongs.

Weiss had been asked to come and watch the Vassar proceedings by the two professors who led the Israel trip, earth sciences prof Jill Schneiderman and Greek and Roman studies prof Rachel Friedman. The event seems to be another instance where the venom of the anti-Israel side left Weiss feeling shaken. He calls it “unsettling.”

He also discusses an aspect of the confrontation that nobody else seems to have wanted to touch on: a raw, angry racial divide. Students of color displaying rage toward supporters of Israel. It seems pretty one-sided, at least on the surface: rage on one side, hurt and fear on the other. Weiss writes:

The clash felt too raw, and there was a racial element to the division (privileged Jews versus students of color).

The trip had been in the works since last year, Weiss writes, and “drew the attention of a new chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.” On February 6, “nine members of SJP, all but one a person of color, picketed the class” that was preparing for the trip. Weiss continues:

Friedman and Schneiderman said the demonstration went too far because they and some of their students felt intimidated. They communicated these feelings to college officials. In turn, the protesters said they were being unfairly targeted for complaint. And the racial issue came to the fore.

Because of the controversy, a Vassar administrative body dedicated to diversity– the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence– held a meeting March 3 to discuss guidelines for activism at the school. I attended (informed of it by Schneiderman and Friedman, who liked this piece of mine and who felt that Vassar’s struggle should be openly discussed). A college spokesperson introduced himself to me at the meeting and allowed me to stay on condition that I not record it.

Kiese Laymon, an African-American writer and English professor, led the meeting, saying he wanted a dialogue about activism–“not to be guided by cardboard notions of civility.” Laymon seemed frankly on the SJP side. He stated his concern that students depicted as bullying, intimidating, and threatening were chiefly students of color; also that the trip’s character had the effect of excluding students of Muslim and Arabic background.

The dialogue that followed had little cardboard about it, but it was tense and often painful. It reminded me of stories of the religious/ethnic power divide in the NY teachers’ strike of 1968.

If you want to dig deeper into the Vassar dustup, this blog post from conservative legal scholar William Jacobson’s LegalInsurrection blog provides a good deal of documentation and background I haven’t found elsewhere, including tying the trip dispute to the recent fuss over Vassar’s Open Hillel.

Among other things, Jacobson points to the fact that the director of Vassar’s Jewish Studies Program is himself leaning toward sympathy with the BDS movement. Jacobson exaggerates the case: he says the director, history prof Joshua Schreier, “supports the academic boycott of Israel,” but the source he provides, a feature story in the Vassar student paper focused on the administration’s rejection of BDS, actually says Schreier has found himself rethinking as he listens to the tactical arguments pro and con, and that his “opinion is evolving, but I am currently leaning in favor of it.” Yes, tenured professors get to think out loud and let the rest of us watch their opinions evolve.

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