Israeli-Palestinian discourse and Jewish life at Vassar College: a fuller picture

Click photo to download. Caption: Thompson Library at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Credit: Noteremote via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: Thompson Library at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Credit: Noteremote via Wikimedia Commons.

By Vassar College staff/

(The seven authors of this article are noted below.)

As is the case with colleges and universities around the world, Vassar College, its students, and its educators are greatly tested by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggles. Complicated as these issues may be, however, perceptions of how they have been addressed at Vassar in recent years have led to a mischaracterization of the college. We who work here would like to offer a broader view.

But first we acknowledge the concerns being raised. Israel has indeed come under increasing criticism here and elsewhere, and there has also been a spike in global anti-Semitism. There are anti-Semitic incidents here and at other colleges across the country. Vassar views and acts on anti-Semitism as the discrimination it is. We are also concerned when some students tell us they hesitate to voice views about Israel because they feel they will not be well received on campus. As educators, our charge to uphold freedom of expression means that we are obligated to support all of our students and their differing perspectives; this is essential for Vassar to be an affirming campus community for all.

Similarly, we listen closely when all students raise concerns about discrimination. They are taught in their first year about the options to file a formal complaint, which is then rigorously reviewed and addressed. To be sure not all such incidents are easy to address: we have increasingly found students reporting subtler forms of disrespect—what have come to be called micro-aggressions. These acts are harmful and we are vigilant in teaching students how to identify and best respond to these behaviors.

While these incidents are indeed troubling they don’t define Vassar. And while Israeli-Palestinian issues will understandably remain contentious, we do not see this contentiousness as incompatible with what is, in fact, a lively and engaged Jewish academic and cultural life. Since Vassar’s liberal arts environment encourages a diversity of viewpoints, this is a challenging place for undergraduates learning how to engage these differences with thoughtfulness and respect.

Regarding the curriculum, for instance, Vassar’s Jewish Studies program dates back to 2000 and offers a rich variety of courses taught by professors from many different disciplines. Within the last two years students could study such subjects as “American Jewish Literature,” “Medieval Jewish Art,” “Psychological Perspectives on the Holocaust,” “Israeli Media,” and “Tel-Aviv/Jaffa and Jerusalem in the Israeli Cultural Imagination,” as well as “Israel/Palestine.” Every year, a number of students take not only Hebrew but also Yiddish; in fact, the program just created an additional course for next semester in Yiddish language and culture for a group of six eager seniors. Our courses are also regularly enhanced with guest speakers; for instance, the students in the “Psychological Perspectives on the Holocaust” class last year had the opportunity to meet with survivors.

Vassar Jewish Studies has also organized and helped sponsor lecturers for the full campus on a wide range of subjects. Last year, for instance, Rutgers University scholar Jeffrey Shandler gave a riveting talk on the use of videos in Holocaust testimony. This year, Prof. Yehezkel Landau from the Hartford Seminary and Imam Abdullah Antepli from Duke University provided a thoughtful and respectful dialogue on Israeli-Palestinian issues from their very different religious and personal perspectives.

The latter event was part of the college’s new project on “Dialogue and Engagement Across Difference.” Two of our offices—Campus Life and Diversity and Religious, and Spiritual Life—have actively supported many of these programs, such as a visit by facilitators from the National Coalition Building Institute, who trained both employees and students in how to talk and listen when it comes to controversial issues, and most importantly, in how to open one’s mind to others’ perspectives when they differ from one’s own strongly felt viewpoints. In an earlier visit, Prof. Landau led workshops with administrators on how to recognize and acknowledge the diverse viewpoints specifically associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including how to distinguish between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. He also led an evening workshop on conflict transformation for student leaders from religious, activist, and identity-based groups that often navigate heated issues on campus. Student groups initiated their own educational forums, hosting Vassar professors to speak about their own relationships to Israel and the Palestinian territories, encouraging in still another way an open exchange of ideas in the best liberal arts tradition.

Vassar also has a dynamic Jewish student life program supported by its full-time campus rabbi. Fresh perspectives are brought to holiday services, and students delight in rituals such as constructing a Sukkah for the center of campus. We have a considerable weekly turnout for student-cooked Shabbat dinner and student-led Shabbat services at the Bayit, the college’s Jewish student cultural center, and students tell us over and again how important this Shabbat community is to their Vassar experience.

Vassar has many vital Jewish student organizations, as well as interest groups in which Jewish students are active. The largest and most wide-ranging in its programming continues to be the Vassar Jewish Union. Each week, members of the Vassar chapter of “Challah for Hunger” bake and sell loaves of the ceremonial bread on campus to raise funds for hunger action programs. Vassar has student chapters of the political organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street U. There is a new Chabad-Lubavitch group. Indeed, there is a broad spectrum of ways in which Vassar’s diverse Jewish students learn to feel at home.

This richness of Jewish life on campus does not, of course, guarantee that there will be no difficulties in discussions surrounding Jewishness, particularly the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do these discussions sometimes include criticisms of Israel? Yes, they do. Do these discussions sometimes make some of our Jewish students uncomfortable? Yes, just as other students sometimes feel uncomfortable in discussions of controversial and identity-based topics. A college education provides students an opportunity to be challenged and taught to think critically. At Vassar, they learn to address complex and intersectional issues pertaining to race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. We also work hard to educate our students to recognize when disagreements cross the line into threat and intimidation. But passionate disagreement does not necessarily cross that line, nor does discomfort confirm that it has been crossed.

As we’ve noted, this challenging climate is not just found at Vassar, nor at Vassar is it limited to the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and anti-Semitism. Not unlike what we currently see on our national stage, proclamations of positions are heard more often than genuine dialogue. We believe that the curriculum and teaching we provide, the student deliberations and interactions we encourage, and the student life initiatives we support are the ways to cultivate a more meaningful conversation dedicated to the free, open, and respectful exchange of ideas.

This op-ed was written by the following Vassar College faculty and staff members: Peter Antelyes, associate professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies program; Catherine Baer, vice president of alumnae/i affairs and development; Jonathon Kahn, associate professor of religion; Jeffrey Kosmacher, director of media relations and public affairs; Mia Mask, associate professor of film; Edward Pittman, associate dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity; Rev. Samuel Speers, director of religious and spiritual life.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Voice newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Dutchess County, N.Y.

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