Anti-Liberalism at Vassar: Will the Professors Please Stand Up?

Last month, the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine posted a Nazi propaganda poster on its Tumblr site. The poster depicted, among other things, a big nosed man carrying a moneybag. The SJP had previously posted material from an anti-Semitic magazine, using the classic “fifth columnist” trope to describe Israel’s American defenders.

At that time, a Vassar alum and “proud left winger,” writing anonymously for the Daily Kos, claimed that this incident was no anomaly. He recalled “a non-white friend, who dated a Jewish woman during college, being ridiculed for it by some of the minoritized students who are behind [the anti-Israel] campaign.” That was “on top of the anti-Semitic comments [he] occasionally heard uttered during classroom discussions.” He concluded that “Jewish-phobia is rampant” at Vassar.”

The Nazi propaganda poster was only the most recent development in the fight over Israel at Vassar this year. You can find an account of that fight here. I will focus on just one episode involving an International Studies course that included a trip to Israel. That trip was organized by liberal professors and, by all appearances, presented Palestinian points of view. Nonetheless, Rachel Friedman, one of the trip’s organizers, reported that SJP students picketed an on-campus session of her class, compelling her and her students to cross their picket line, passing out flyers urging students to drop the class, and making a loud “ululating sound.”

Vassar’s Committee on Inclusion and Excellence, then held an open forum because they were “really concerned.” They were concerned, that is, that SJP was being described as “threatening, bullying, etc.” and that the Vassar community may not know about “the raced connotations of those words.” The forum, described by the anti-Israel blogger Philip Weiss, who attended, was not a discussion at all: “if a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence.” For Weiss that is a plus. Responding to the charge that dialogue was shut down at the forum, Weiss offers this explicitly anti-liberal sentiment: we “have seen again and again that dialogue doesn’t affect the power arrangements one iota; it only allows supporters of the occupier to feel that they have atoned.”

In a recent opinion piece, Julian Hassan, who graduated this year, describes the inroads this anti-liberal sentiment has made at Vassar. Hassan tells of his attempts to balance the criticism of Israel on his campus. When he posts images of Israelis in Tel Aviv, to make the point that Israelis they are human beings who resemble Vassar students, he is told “the devil has enough advocates.” When he puts up a “Wall of Truth,” that is certainly no more extreme than the material put up during “Israeli Apartheid Week,” it is defaced. The “only acceptable thing to say on campus” is “that Israel is a racist, apartheid state.” According to Fairness to Israel, an alumni group formed in reaction to the atmosphere Hassan describes, Hassan’s is one of several “first-hand reports from students that taking a pro-Israel stance was not something you [do] if you [want] friends.”

It is heartening that alumni are concerned but distressing that Vassar faculty have not stepped forward to reject the argument, so antithetical to the mission of liberal arts colleges, that discussion must be rejected because it distracts from the battle against oppression. Only Rachel Friedman and Jill Schneiderman, the professors targeted for the Israel trip, have said what they claim many others think, that there is a “climate of fear” at Vassar.

(Photo: Nazi propaganda posted on, and later removed from, Vassar SJP’s Tumblr page. Credit: Mystical Politics.)

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks, author of "Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education," is professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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