As a graduate of Vassar College, I have been involved in the discussion surrounding the well-publicized situation on campus. I have heard from students and faculty who have been impacted by the pro-BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) and anti-Israel sentiments on campus. At a recent campus lecture, visiting Professor Jasbir Puar delivered a message that was not simply anti-Israel, it was dangerous, hateful and anti-Semitic. Jewish students and faculty who are pro-Israel have shared with alumni and others that the feeling on campus is threatening. Many pro-Israel students keep their beliefs to themselves because they do not want to be labeled and attacked. Late last month, The Vassar Student Association wrestled with whether a vote on BDS policy be anonymous as a way to protect those who vote from harassment.
As I shared with you a few weeks ago, I believe we should embrace healthy disagreement. The idea of free, open, respectful debate surrounding Israel (or any topic) is a beautiful idea. But, as we have seen at Vassar, free, open debate is not often respectful and has the ability to become hateful. In addition, we know that attempts to bring anti-BDS speakers to campus have not been embraced by campus leaders. Just last night, however, Peter Beinart spoke at Vassar. While still a controversial speaker when it comes to Israel, his presence was a very small step towards a more balanced discussion.
When it comes to Israel, divisive, hateful speech has become part of the conversation on many campuses (including, most recently, Oberlin). Many state that our college students deserve the opportunity to hear a myriad of opinions on Israel – even those that are anti-Semitic – and should be given the ability to make up their own minds. Unfortunately, we know that the anti-Israel, pro-BDS voices are often controlling the conversation, making it very difficult for voices that disagree with them to be heard. As a result, pro-Israel students can feel alienated and are too often threatened because of their beliefs.
Judaism teaches us that we are obligated to put a fence around the Torah. We have to protect what is near and dear to us. We live in an extremely polarized society. The art of debate is gone. Anger is running high. People are grasping for ways to defend their turf. Some have dangerous, manipulative agendas that can severely hurt a community. While we might not need a towering wall to protect ourselves, a well-defined boundary that demarcates what is fair, just and moral from what is deceptive, dangerous and hateful is necessary. Our communal boundaries need to be built upon the values of the organizations and groups of which we are a part. Judaism teaches us that once we establish these boundaries, we are obligated to ensure that those we invite into our community respect our values. This does not mean that our guests always need to agree with us – but they must understand that we expect them to respect who we are and what we stand for.
Within the larger Jewish community, specifically within Hillels, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, I believe that we owe it to our respective communities to make certain that everyone who wants to be a part of the group feels welcome, included, safe and receives the spiritual nourishment they need. I do believe in free speech, but I also believe in the sanctity of the Jewish community. Outside of our Hillels, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, there are ample opportunities for anti-Semitic voices to be heard loud and clear. Why do they need to be welcomed into our sacred spaces?
In the larger community, specifically our college campuses, free speech and open debate should be encouraged and welcomed. Academic freedom is an essential part of the learning process. This being said, academic integrity must be upheld. Colleges must establish clear boundaries by promoting scholarship that is grounded in research and truth while denouncing hate that is based on a radicalized agenda. In this day and age, creating and maintaining such boundaries is no easy task. It requires academic institutions to think long and hard about what they stand for, articulate their core values and ensure that these values are upheld on campus. It also requires that college administrators ensure that scholarly debate is balanced and students are taught how to engage in respectful discussion with each other. Furthermore, it requires swift and appropriate responses to hateful speech and actions. Perhaps, if more of our nation’s colleges established boundaries that support free, academic speech and balanced, healthy debate, the division that we see playing out on the national political stage would begin to heal and the “other” would become our friend.