For those who watch how Israel and those Jews who refuse to despise it are treated on college campuses, Vassar has been a depressingly reliable source of bad news. Just this month, at this heart of righteous progressive thinking, a swastika was placed on a student’s door. But the more fundamental problem at Vassar has been a relentless campaign against Israel, led by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. This campaign has at times involved antisemitism of a not very subtle sort. At other times, it has involved merely attempts to derail and intimidate into silence any faculty member or student who take anything other than the hardest line against Israel. Here is just one example: activists apparently attempted to deny funding to Vassar’s chapter of J-Street, a liberal, anti-occupation group supportive of a two-state solution, to travel to a conference sponsored by the liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz because, well, Zionism is racism, or something like that.
This academic year, Students for Justice in Palestine sponsored a resolution in support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, as well as an amendment to the Vassar Student Association (VSA) Bylaws prohibiting the use of VSA funds to purchase from certain companies, like Hewlett-Packard, deemed unclean for allegedly profiting from the oppression of Palestinians. The VSA Council passed the BDS resolution handily, 15-7. So eager was the Council to stick it to Israel that a 12-10 majority also supported the amendment. This majority was secured even though Vassar’s administration had suggested it might take away the VSA’s power to distribute funds if the amendment passed. In short, the Council was prepared to be stripped of power rather than abandon its self-assigned Middle East policymaking responsibilities. The amendment did not pass only because it required 2/3 majority.
One observer recounts the tone of the debate that preceded the vote: “students who raised concerns about the effects of the unending BDS campaign on Vassar’s Jewish community were heckled and laughed at. One Jewish student talked about how the BDS campaign had invoked every anxiety nightmare she had ever had. She was crying as she spoke. Pro-BDS students laughed at her.”
But, at last, there is some good news to report out of Vassar. Students secured enough signatures to bring both the resolution and the amendment to a referendum. To be honest, I felt certain that, at the very least, the BDS resolution would pass. I know of almost no campus at which the pro-BDS forces have seemed stronger. But both measures failed convincingly. The resolution, lost 573-503, and the amendment failed 601-475.
The margin was not nearly as great as it was in the BDS loss at Bowdoin last April, in which BDS gained a mere, humiliating, 14 percent of the vote. Still, Vassar must be a devastating loss not only for pro-boycott Vassar students but for BDS movement enthusiasts nationally. Recall that Vassar is the place where even an ardent supporter of the boycott was shocked at the extent of anti-Israel sentiment he encountered there: “the spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization… If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence.” Selling BDS there should have been like selling water in the desert.
Though the BDS movement has suffered many setbacks, the failure at Vassar may be its biggest failure yet.