Thursday, March 27, 2014

BDS and the attack upon academic freedom at Vassar College

Legal Insurrection, the blog maintained by Professor William Jacobson of Cornell University, just posted a story about how the controversy over BDS at Vassar has taken a truly awful turn. I had previously read about the conflict on the Vassar campus on the Mondoweiss website, which I usually find completely unreliable, but Philip Weiss's article seemed fairly responsible to me. Even he seemed a bit unnerved by what's going on at Vassar. Perhaps he can begin to reflect on the damage he is helping to create in the United States around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He reported about a meeting that occurred at Vassar to discuss a study abroad trip to Israel/Palestine (part of a course - International Studies 110) that explored water issues and resources in the region.
I was at the March 3 meeting that so upset Schneiderman [one of the faculty members teaching IS 110], and it was truly unsettling... 
If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement. 
I left the room as soon as the meeting ended. The clash felt too raw, and there was a racial element to the division (privileged Jews versus students of color). Vassar is not my community, and I didn’t want to say anything to make things worse.
(I'm not sure why Weiss assumes that all Jews are privileged, that no Jews are people of color, and that no white students belonged to the pro-BDS side. In fact, the president of the Jewish student union spoke out in favor of the academic boycott of Israel.)

Legal Insurrection gives all of the details about the ongoing conflict, which has given rise to some extremely nasty attacks upon pro-Israel faculty and students. One day the faculty members teaching International Studies 110 were confronted by a picket line of students from the group Students for Justice in Palestine at Vassar.. (The two professors are Rachel Friedman, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies, and Jill Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science and Geography).  The SJP students urged the students in the class to drop it and not go on the study tour of Israel/Palestine. This is a flyer they handed out to them:

From Legal Insurrection [Jacobson interviewed Friedman, and reports on the interview]:
In late February, Friedman arrived at Kenyon Hall on campus for her regularly scheduled class. 
As she entered the lobby of the building, near her class, Friedman was confronted with a line of SJP students holding posters and passing out flyers demanding that students not participate in the class and not go to Israel on the class trip. 
I spoke with Friedman at length about the incident. 
As Friedman describes it, protesters were lined up side-by-side across the lobby such that Friedman and the 28 students in her class had to push through the line to get to the classroom. While not physically blocked, Friedman described that this required her to physically cross the protest line, as the protesters created a space to walk through as she approached. 
The protesters made loud ululating sound similar to what is traditional among women in some Middle Eastern countries.... 
The protesters carried posters with slogans urging students to drop the class. While Friedman doesn’t have photos of the posters, Friedman recalls wording similar to ”It’s not too late to drop the class,” “Indigenous Palestinians don’t want you to take the class,” and wording regarding oppression of Palestinians.
Friedman said that she was “shocked” and “in 17 years at Vassar never experienced anything like this.” She said she “couldn’t believe protestors crossed over into [the] space of classes.” Even though the protesters didn’t enter the classroom itself, they imposed themselves physically in the pathway to the class. 
Friedman considered these physical actions to be a “new kind of transgression.” Friedman felt that the protest was “dangerous” from an academic perspective, and “crossed a line that no other protest crossed.” 
She said she would not have minded if the protest took place outside of the classroom vicinity and in a way that did not impose on those entering the class. SJP frequently leaflets and has a table set up in the student center, and Friedman said she doesn’t mind that. 
The protesters continued to make noise as class started, but eventually quieted down and left. The students in her class looked “shell shocked” according to Friedman. 
The class spent about a half hour talking about what had happened. Student comments during that session included that they “felt unsafe,” “bullied” and “harrassed.” Some other students felt that their “intelligence was insulted” by the protest.
The ASA claimed that their endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel would not have an impact upon individual scholars. They argued that it was aimed only at a boycott of Israeli institutions, not Israeli professors, and would not stop academic exchanges between individuals. Likewise, they argue that the boycott would not affect individual American (or other foreign) scholars.

I believe that this ongoing series of incidents at Vassar proves them wrong. The SJP students harassed both the students taking IS 110 and the professors teaching it. Their aim is to prevent anybody from going to Israel, even if the goal is to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What they are doing is fully in concert with what PACBI and USACBI have advocated.  The academic boycott of Israel is aimed squarely at the academic freedom of Israeli and international scholars. This is a particularly egregious case, in my opinion, because the SJP did its best to disrupt the free conduct of a class, thus damaging the academic freedom of the professors teaching the course and the students taking it.

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