Vassar College may be the most anti-Israel school in the country.
It is one of the only colleges whose faculty has come out in large numbers in favor of the American Studies Association boycott of Israel. A couple of years ago, it was the scene of an open forum in which a planned student trip to Israel was denounced so vehemently that even the ardently anti-Israeli Philip Weiss found it “truly unsettling.” That incident led the trip organizers, whose left wing credentials are impeccable, to write of a “climate of fear” that had settled over Vassar and made serious discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible. Vassar’s Students for Justice in Palestine found itself in the news for tweeting anti-Semitic material, including a Nazi propaganda poster. A recent alum, a “proud left winger,” wrote in response to that incident that anti-Semitism was not uncommon at Vassar, in spite of its large Jewish population.
The ensuing bad publicity has led to at least one feeble attempt at balance, where balance consists in weighing the opinion that Israel, though awful, should be permitted to exist, against the opinion that it is too awful to merit existence. But generally speaking, the anti-Israel train has rolled on there. Students have now turned their attention to trying to pass a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.
In response to such incidents, some of Vassar’s alums and parents of Vassar students formed Fairness to Israel (FTI), which promotes “open and balanced debate about the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict in an atmosphere of tolerance that is the cornerstone of a liberal arts institution.”
In spite of FTI’s best efforts, Vassar’s faculty persists in rolling out the red carpet for the likes of Jasbir K. Puar, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. The lecture description has been lampooned as gibberish — it is, indeed, the kind of description that can be lampooned merely by repeating it. But Puar evidently thinks that Israel deliberately maims Palestinians because Israelis are in the grips of “fantasies,” “about power,” “about bodies,” “about resistance” and “about politics.”
Puar is among the originators of the “pinkwashing” charge against Israel, the charge that Israel’s relative tolerance of homosexuality is a publicity stunt meant to distract the world from its mistreatment of the Palestinians. Puar’s claim that Israelis deliberately maim Palestinians is still more perverse. She argues, in all seriousness, that Israel’s failure to kill the Palestinians, as less sophisticated commentators accuse Israel of doing, is a form of refined cruelty: “It is as if withholding death — will not let or make die — becomes an act of dehumanization: the Palestinians are not even human enough for death.” In fairness, Puar doesn’t think the Israeli’s are motivated solely by cruelty. They are also greedy — one can’t exploit dead Palestinians.
The American Studies program — no surprise — is the main sponsor of this venom. But several departments and programs have signed on as co-sponsors, including, astoundingly, the Jewish Studies Program. Laurie Josephs, an alum and a co-founder of Fairness to Israel, has given me permission to quote the letter she sent to the Jewish Studies faculty. She asks: “What relevance to Jewish Studies does this talk have? . . . What has this to do with Jewish people? Is there some thought that Jews inherently wish to control others by physically disabling them? That Jews inherently fantasize about the bodies of populations they wish to control? Doesn’t it seem to you that such talk sounds as if it were lifted straight out of Der Sturmer?”
Josephs also observes that Jewish Studies has neither sponsored nor co-sponsored talks on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. “What message are you sending by not addressing current day anti-Semitism while you co-sponsor someone like Puar?” The question is easy to answer, but not out loud, which may be why Josephs, as of this writing, has not heard back from anyone.
A second alum who wishes to remain anonymous has written to Vassar’s President, Catharine Bond Hill. After explaining why inviting Puar was a poor decision that was nonetheless perfectly in line with the campus’s approach to Israel, the letter concludes: “Next year is my fiftieth reunion… But given the situation at Vassar today, I do not think people like me — namely Jews who regard Israel as important to their identity… would be welcome on campus.”
It would be too optimistic to think that Vassar will prove the writer wrong anytime soon, but alumni engagement in the struggle to preserve the integrity of their colleges and universities, an engagement not limited to Vassar, is a welcome and hopeful sign.