Do you want to major in anti-Semitism? According to the Wall Street Journal, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is the place for you.
As a junior, I’ve begun the quest for college, and there are so many aspects to consider when on the hunt.
On Feb. 17 the WSJ published an opinion piece on recent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on Vassar’s campus.
The writers stated that in 2014 students boycotted and picketed a course in the International Studies Program because it included a trip to Israel.
More recently, Jasbir K. Puar, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, visited Vassar on Feb. 3 as a guest speaker.
According to the WSJ, Puar said in her presentation that Israel had “mined for organs for scientific research from dead Palestinians” and that “Israelis attempted to give Palestinians the bare minimum for survival.”
The WSJ doesn’t say where it procured the information on Puar’s speech, nor does it quote any student or teacher from Vassar, so we can only presume that Puar did indeed make these accusations.
Because Vassar has received a flood of negative press regarding this WSJ op-ed, the president of the Vassar Jewish Union, junior Abigail Johnson, responded with an article in The Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper.
She reprimands the WSJ for not interviewing a Vassar student and states that this “hotbed of anti-Semitism” the WSJ has alleged is simply not true.
Johnson acknowledges that she has experienced anti-Semitism at Vassar, but no more than she has in other public spaces and that the administration was quick to denounce it.
She added that she has been more involved in Jewish activities since attending Vassar and that university is “the place where I am most Jewish.”
Although Johnson doesn’t speak for all Jews on campus, her article, in stark contrast to the WSJ’s, makes Vassar seem like a much more welcoming space for Jewish people.
Anna Wiley, ‘15, a freshman at Vassar, who isn’t Jewish, said her observation of anti-Semitic remarks were confined to the app Yik Yak, an app that allows people to make text posts, which will be seen by those in the same geographical area. The anti-Semitic comments were downvoted. (Users can downvote posts if they do not like the post. Each upvote is a +1 and each downvote is a -1. If the downvotes and upvotes combined add to -5, the post is deleted.)
“There was an email sent out by the administration basically telling us to be nice,” she said.
Because Yik Yak works in the surrounding area, there isn’t confirmation that a Vassar student posted the comments, said sophomore Connor Martin, ‘14, who also isn’t Jewish.
Wiley said the question of being Jewish at Vassar was discussed at a Shabbat dinner she attended with a friend.
“They discussed how it can be uncomfortable to be a minority on a college campus,” she said. “They said that there’s value in that discomfort to learn.”
From my research, there are three groups at Vassar with different opinions regarding the Israel-Palestine issue.
For example, Martin has seen students wearing Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions pins. BDS doesn’t take a stance on the one or two-state solution and “opposes the occupation.”
The two other organizations at Vassar with Israel-Palestine focuses are J Street, a Zionist organization that opposes the occupation and supports a two-state solution, and Students for the Justice of Palestine (SJP), which is anti-Zionist.
Vassar’s SJP Facebook page advertises a hoodie featuring plane hijacker Leila Khaled’s face with the text “Resistance is not terrorism.”
Although all the groups seem to share anger about Israel’s actions to varying degrees, Wiley said that SJP refused to collaborate with J Street.
After talking with both alumni, it seems to me that the administration at Vassar has done little besides sending emails.
An email went out to Wiley’s dorm specifically because a swastika had been carved into a door, although, “it wasn’t aimed at a particular Jewish student,” she said.
And a Feb. 16 campus-wide email told students to be mindful of the handbook’s policies of tolerance and sensitivity. However, this email didn’t mention any anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiments.
Then on March 29 Vassar’s president, Catharine Hill, announced that she will be concluding her presidency in June 2017.
She states that this decision was part of the contract she signed in 2012. However, with all the recent press about Hill’s departure, her contract for only five years doesn’t seem widely known. This makes me wonder if there could be alternative reasons for her resignation. Or perhaps the timing of her announcement has been influenced by recent events.
Some professors have discussed Vassar’s recent political climate with their students.
“I’m taking Jewish studies, and the professor said that if we were feeling uncomfortable or needed someone to talk to, his door was open,” Wiley said.
Martin says he knows students who are fiercely pro-Palestine, but he also added, “Oftentimes I feel like people take strong stances for their own benefit, so they can go to sleep at night feeling morally and socially superior.”
According to Martin, these aggressively anti-Israel students are in the minority, though a vocal one.
“People jump to the left without thinking because, to them, the left has become synonymous with virtue and progress,” Martin said.
“Unfortunately, Vassar students are surrendering their critical thinking skills. It’s more like a competition of who can be more liberal.”
Wiley, who has also been disheartened by this far-left tilt said, “Vassar is polarized, and it can be tiring not hearing the other side of these issues.”
According to Wiley, this political polarization can be common at liberal arts schools.
As for me, whether or not BDS or SJP is active on campus will not factor into my decision to attend a university. However, there is a large gray area between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and I do not want to attend a school where I would be marginalized for being Jewish.
College is supposed to be a place to learn new points of view and develop new opinions within an educated and safe environment, right?
I want to hear a multitude of perspectives on all issues and situations and be sure that these perspectives are well thought out and fact-based.
This political polarization isn’t the environment I want to live and learn in for four years. So, sorry, Vassar, you probably won’t read my application next year.
—By Nicole Wolkov