The following is from a letter sent to the alumnae/i of Vassar College and to the parents of the students currently attending the college from President Catherine Bond Hill prior to a discussion to address “…current issues and tensions within our community related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This writer is taking no sides in the current debate (yet), but feels that all sides require an airing out, since constructive engagement is clearly the only thing lacking at this juncture. As such, in the words of Shakespeare, “Judge when you hear”:
Vassar has as an abiding principle of “going to the source.” As you likely know, it comes from history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon, who at the turn of the 20th century encouraged her Vassar students to use primary sources to do their research. With so much being written in the media and on social media about these issues at Vassar, much of it without the benefit of primary sources at the college, we want to provide our alums and parents the opportunity to hear what is really happening on campus.
I would suggest that the op-ed about Vassar earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal fell far short of the principle of going to the source. It would have been useful for the authors to come to campus to find out for themselves what is actually going on before writing the piece. I have extended an invitation to them both to come to campus next week to meet with students, faculty, and members of the administration during our annual All College Days.
If they accept, they will see a vital community, grappling with some of the toughest issues of our time. Activist students, supporting a variety of issues, are not necessarily committed to dialogue. And, encouraging balanced programing and opportunities for discussion has been difficult. But, we are making some progress.
Earlier this week, Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and political analyst, spoke out against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to a supportive audience. Late last month our Jewish Studies program sponsored a lecture by anthropologist Aomar Boum, who discussed his research at the United States Holocaust Museum detailing a partnership between North African Jews and Muslims to fight racism and anti-Semitism.
In late January, with support from my office, the elected leaders of our student government, the Vassar Student Association, along with members from a variety of student groups with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attended a training provided by the National Coalition Building Institute on addressing difficult issues. These kinds of events make us hopeful for even more productive and respectful exchanges.
This is not to say that we do not face difficult issues, we absolutely do. And, this includes incidents of anti-Semitism. Such incidents are in violation of our college regulations and policies and we do not tolerate them. We denounce them. A recent e-mail I sent to the community denounced anonymous anti-Semitic comments on the social media platform Yik Yak, and our Dean of the College emailed students this week, urging them to treat each other with the respect that is called for by, and is central to, our code of conduct as a community. I have called on our students to think about the impact of their actions on others in our community. I also have asked our community to call out actions that offend and harm others.
The recent speaker to campus who has attracted so much attention has also spoken at Harvard, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Wellesley to name only a few institutions both in the United States and abroad. As academic institutions, we must be committed to academic freedom and free speech. Just as I objected to the call for the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I will defend the faculty’s right to bring speakers of their choice to campus. I also will let the faculty who invited the recent lecturer speak for themselves.
Along with many others in the Vassar community, I am dissatisfied with the range of perspectives being presented on campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are working to fill this gap. While many people on campus work hard to do this, the megaphone effect of those who think they know what is going on but really don’t, damages those efforts. As I have said before, Vassar deserves, and demands, better.
The real tragedy here, of course, is that Vassar College needed to have this conversation at all. But it is foolish to assume that in the great halls of academia where freedom of thought, inquiry and opinion reign that prejudice does not exist. It does. It always has and it always will. Perhaps some important perspective will be found in the days and weeks to come and perhaps not. One thing is certain. A great institution of higher learning has some explaining to do. Such explanations, however, will do little if people of good will are unwilling to listen. This is essential as listening is the foundation of understanding. It is necessary as understanding leads to healing.
We must remember, however, that bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism are intolerable in a civilized society. As such, if there is a cancer in this place which so many of us love, it must be cut out, as surely as if were afflicting our own bodies. But a biopsy must nevertheless be done to determine how extensive the problem is. Is it a powerful malignancy comprised of many or the benign idiocy of a few? This we will determine. Some have suggested the patient is already too far gone; that we should now turn our backs and focus our efforts on those still worth saving.
I defy this notion.
Until Vassar College is dead and relegated to history, I, for one, will not allow those who seek to rip us apart because of our religious beliefs, who want wholesale bigotry to define this community, who have already decided that it is an irretrievable cesspool of prejudice or want only their side to be heard and no one else’s any semblance of victory of comfort.
We are Vassar. We are many and we are strong. Do not fuck with us.