By Mark Banschick
A group that I helped form, Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), has begun organizing alumni nationwide to restore their respective alma maters to what they should be: civil marketplaces of ideas, and spaces that soundly reject hate speech, including antisemitism. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has had a head start, and many students, professors and administrators are already intimidated.
Why focus on alumni? Because, we are in a unique position to make a difference. We alumni care about our schools. We provide them with financial resources, good will and, in many cases, our children. Plus, no one grades us, and we’re not worried about tenure. We can freely speak our minds.
ACF is neither “right wing” nor “left wing;” all we ask is that the academy return to being the academy, that scholars return to being scholars, and that schools stop substituting shrill political activism for education. Under these conditions, where controversial matters can be approached truly fairly and objectively, we believe that Israel, and Jewish students in general, will hold their own.
How did ACF begin?
Most people have great memories of their alma maters. They are the places to which you went when you first left home, became intellectually awake and perhaps fell in love. For me, that special place was Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Then BDS came to campus.
It was March 2014, and friends (both Jewish and non-Jewish) reached out to me and others about the detestable “Israel Apartheid Week” at the college, and about the fact that 39 of its professors had publicly supported the boycott resolution then recently passed by the American Studies Association. The notion of singling out the world’s only Jewish state — which has a vastly better human-rights record than any other country in a comparable security situation — was shocking.
But, in fact, the BDS movement was just getting rolling. Before long, wildly provocative terms like “colonialism,” “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” became the language of social-justice activism on campus. Those in opposition to the movement, such as fair-minded alumni or students, were labeled (and then scorned) as “privileged,” and therefore corrupted. We had reports from students lamenting that taking a pro-Israel stance was not something you did if you wanted friends.
With the rise of campus BDS came the loss of campus civility. There is nothing quite as powerful as a first-hand account of what Jewish students were experiencing at Vassar in the spring of 2014. A pair of professors was to lead a class study trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan — to study water and geology issues, not politics — and BDS activists erupted in outrage at the prospect of the class setting foot in Israel, even in the context described. With administrative support, they mobilized a campus open forum to discuss the ethics of the trip, in effect putting the professors (and the students brave enough to take the class) on public trial. Here’s an excerpt from a report on that forum by (ironically) an anti-Israel blogger, who was himself disturbed by the tenor of the forum:
I was at the March 3 meeting… and it was truly unsettling. Over 200 students and faculty jammed a large room of the College Center, and torrents of anger ripped through the gathering. Most of them were directed at Israel or its supporters. Two or three times people shouted at one another. Several said they felt bullied… The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snappin — the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.
It was this awful tale that got us mobilized.
Fast forward two years. Now we have a chapter of almost 300 Vassar alumni, committed to holding a mirror to the school, with the expectation that it provide better balance — and, overall, a civil and safe atmosphere — in telling the story of Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East.
In that time, we have been visiting campus, both supporting pro-Israel events and listening in on anti-Israel programming and propaganda. One important example was when we attended Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar’s notorious lecture on February 3, 2016, that was subsequently condemned by two eminent academics in The Wall Street Journal as “updating the medieval blood libel against the Jews.” We exposed the campus anti-Israel group Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) for posting an actual Nazi propaganda poster on social media, a story subsequently covered by the New York Daily News. We have successfully reached out to other campus stakeholders — the president, the Board of Trustees, faculty, students and other alumni — who, despite widely differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also seek a more balanced, intellectually nuanced and civil campus.
In two short years, in effect, we have redefined the role of Vassar alumni from cheerleaders to active stakeholders in the larger college community, working to change the campus culture for the better.
By early 2016, it was time to expand our model to other schools — so ACF was born with the help of my Vassar colleagues, Susan Julien and Laurie Josephs. In the meantime, alumni at Oberlin College, led by University of Maryland Professor Melissa Landa (UMD), had independently started their own group and decided to join us with their own chapter. Today, the Oberlin ACF chapter numbers over 200, and already are a force to be reckoned with.
Shortly after forming, for example, they discovered the hateful antisemitic Facebook postings by Oberlin Professor Joy Karega that received so much attention during the spring of 2016. The great controversy that followed — including Karega’s being put on leave pending an investigation — was thoroughly covered in the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Algemeiner and elsewhere.
Consequently, Oberlin graduate and Haaretz commentator Rabbi Yehoshua Looks noted the unique value of alumni in bringing about better academic governance when antisemitism and free speech collide:
College administrations too frequently hide behind freedom of expression to avoid confronting academics over their bad behavior. Alumni, as stakeholders… must call them out when they do. When concerned alumni start taking action, college administrations will have to start listening more carefully.
Colleges can easily fail in the task of self-correction, and students need to hear all sides. ACF, now with the gracious backing of the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, has a clear mission: to hold the academy to its own standards, as a civil space and a marketplace of ideas, and to reject hate speech, including antisemitism.
I’m happy to say that my own alma mater, Vassar, is clearly listening now. Next week the administration is bringing prominent Wall Street Journal editor and columnist Bret Stephens to campus to give a talk entitled, “Why I Support Israel and You Should Too.” He will also be dialoguing with Steven Cook, of the Council of Foreign Relations, himself a Vassar graduate.
This event, in my opinion, would not have been possible two years ago.
ACF continues to grow, because the idea — and the need — is compelling. Chapters are now forming at Columbia/Barnard, NYU, UC Riverside, UCLA, Brown/RISD, the University of Chicago, Hunter College, Connecticut College and SUNY Binghamton, with more to come. Our job is to create a national voice for alumni who care about fairness and civility, and to give each chapter the tools required to do the job on their own campuses.
It is indeed time to take back the university.