Monday, August 29, 2011

Campus Climate: Continuing Concerns and Cautious Hopes


One never knows what the arrival of September and the new academic year will bring.

This year, that question takes on a different color and special urgency in light of coming controversies involving the Middle East: the symbolic Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN and the controversial “Durban III” conference on racism marking the 10th anniversary of the “Durban I,” widely criticized as a platform for antisemitism (1, 2).
Here, at Hampshire College, a forthcoming report on a revised socially responsible investment policy may provide for additional heat, to the extent that it fuels still-simmering fires over the faux divestment controversy of 2009, in which activists made headlines by falsely claiming that the College had divested “from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” As I have already noted in these pages, a growing number of faculty and staff, as well as students, have become concerned about a campus atmosphere in which political orthodoxy threatens open academic debate, people are afraid to speak honestly about controversial issues, and civility is regarded as a retreat rather than an obligation.

A defining characteristic of the news business, amplified and exaggerated in the blogosphere, is the rush to publish first rather than best. When it comes to coverage of college politics and academic culture, shoddy or sensationalistic reporting does a great deal of damage. Among other things, it all too often creates a vicious circle, prompting the institutions in question to respond dismissively or defensively to this "outside interference" and making follow-up and dialogue all the more difficult. The academy pulls its wagons into a circle, and the fourth estate brings up bigger guns. Few listen, and still fewer learn.

The coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict is Exhibit No. 1. Every controversy attracts the scrutiny of numerous parties, from curious individuals to political watchdog groups of all colors. Serious discussion of potential problems is too often smothered in the blizzard of charges of “racism,” “antisemitism,” and “Islamophobia.”

It is therefore welcome to see a reporter take the time to do proper research rather than rushing to press with a rumor and a headline. Leah Burrows of Boston's Jewish Advocate worked for several months on this piece, interviewing current and former students, faculty, and administrators on all sides of the issue. Those of us to whom she spoke can attest to her thoroughness. (As always, there are a few minor errors of fact, but they do not materially affect the basic solidity of the piece.)

Her article was published behind a subscriber paywall, but I have received permission to reproduce it here in its entirety. [I have added links to sources referenced in the article.] It should help to stimulate a much-needed debate that it is just beginning.

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The Jewish Advocate, August 19, 2011

"What's up with Hampshire College?
A small Bay State campus becomes a hotbed of anti-Israel fervor"

By Leah Burrows
Advocate Staff

Pro-Palestinian students protested at a lecture given by an IDF veteran at Hampshire College in February. Clashing signs were draped in the lobby. These images are from video posted on YouTube. It began with a call for civility and ended in a cacophony of accusations.

On Feb. 3, some 300 students from five Amherst area campuses packed into a Hampshire College lecture hall to hear Benjamin Anthony speak about his experiences as a sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Some came to listen; many came to protest. [video]

Anthony was interrupted again and again by pro-Palestinian students, many from local Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, and the evening quickly devolved from a lecture to a shouting match, as can be seen in videos of the event posted on YouTube. [raw video footage] [Students for Justice in Palestine video]

Pro-Palestinian students held up signs reading "Free Palestine." They shouted names of Palestinians killed in the conflict. They blew whistles. They chanted. They hurled insults.

All this after an assistant dean, Amnat Chittaphong, opened the evening by saying he wanted "to ensure that you all as students, feel this is a safe place where we can have discourse, where we can be intelligent young men and women." [video: speaking first, Special Presidential Assistant for Diversity and Multicultural Education Professor Jaime Dávila; second: Assistant Dean of Students Amnat Chittaphong]

Over the next hour or so, Chittaphong returned to the microphone at least twice to urge students to be civil. When that failed, he asked some to leave. A few were escorted out by campus security.

On the YouTube video, Chittaphong can be seen reminding the audience that a student had been harassed earlier in the year for her views about Israel.

"Not true," someone yelled.

The dean appealed to the students' sense of community.

"Don't talk about harassment with that man by your side," another yelled.

"Stop the show, stop the show, take your racist lies and go," students chanted.

Hundreds of students and community members exchanged heated chants in the lobby of a Hampshire College auditorium last February before a speech by an IDF veteran [video]. Anthony announced he would end his lecture early. Some students cheered.

"It was disgusting," recalled Samantha Mandeles, a Hampshire alumna who organized the event. "The students were behaving like apes."

Hampshire College generates more complaints about students being targeted for pro- Israel beliefs than any other campus in the New England region of the Anti-Defamation League, according to its director, Derrek Shulman. (The region does not include Connecticut.)

While Shulman declined to provide exact figures, anecdotal evidence suggests that February's furor erupted after years of tension. Here are examples:

Hampshire College was founded as an alternative to traditional education. Lihi Benisty, a Hampshire senior, said she was verbally harassed for a week after attending a pro-Israel lecture at the nearby UMass.- Amherst last December. Benisty, 20, said she was the only pro-Israel student on the campus shuttle bus to the event; the others were pro- Palestinian students who went to protest.

While she wasn't personally confronted at the event, Benisty said the following week she was taunted with insults such as "racist bitch" and "apartheid lover" as she walked through campus at night. She said she heard different voices, but couldn't see anyone.

At the end of the week, Benisty said she received an anonymous email that said: "Do the world a favor and die slow."

She filed an incident report with campus safety officials, who investigated the claim but found no culprits.

Benisty is completing her senior year off campus.

When Amir Fogel was a freshman, he hung an Israeli flag and a fact sheet about Israel on the door of his freshman dorm room. One day during his second semester, Fogel returned home and said he found his flag ripped off his door and the Israeli fact sheet torn up and placed in a neat pile in front of his room.

Fogel said he reported the incident to public safety then told his advisor.

"The most disappointing thing was that they weren't surprised," Fogel recalled. "[The advisor] said, 'I'm surprised you had it up for that long.'"

Fogel is going into his junior year.

Danielle Lubin said she transferred from Hampshire College after her freshman year because she said she felt uncomfortable expressing her Zionist views.

"Being a Zionist at Hampshire College is a challenging endeavor." Lubin wrote in her transfer application to UMass-Amherst, which she provided to the Advocate in lieu of an interview. "I had been singled out and isolated. I felt uncomfortable in social situations, and in the dining hall, the epicenter of first-year Hampshire social life, I experienced numerous attacks on my beliefs."

Lubin graduated from UMass this year.

There has been at least one report of anti-Palestinian activity. Alex Van Leer, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said a jar of urine was left outside an SJP meeting last year, with a note attached that read "From Palestine."

The 'Hampshire bubble'

How did it come to this? How did a small, liberal arts college nestled in the valley of Western Massachusetts become so vitriolic?

Hampshire opened its doors in 1970 as a place for experimental education. Instead of grades, Hampshire has written evaluations. Instead of majors, students create their own concentrations.

It is part of the Five College Consortium along with Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and UMass-Amherst. Students can float among schools, taking classes at any of the five.

Hampshire prides itself on its political activism - in 1977, it became the first American college to divest from South Africa in protest of Apartheid.

"People call it the 'Hampshire bubble,'" said Mandeles, the alumna who brought the IDF veteran to campus. "Students here live, eat, sleep and breathe their concentrations. I've never found a college like that. . Students think, 'I have to be a political mover and shaker.

. "And then there is Israel, and it's just perfect" as a target for activists, she added.

Mandeles, who graduated last year, now works for CAMERA, the watchdog group that monitors the media for anti-Israel bias.

"You barely get the tape off the windows from one protest before you hang the signs for the next," said Marlene Gerber Fried, a long-time Hampshire professor of philosophy and reproductive rights. Last year, Fried served as interim president while the college searched to replace President Ralph Hexter.

It was under Hexter's administration that the university was first thrust into the national spotlight over Israel.

In 2009, Hampshire's SJP chapter and other Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) groups claimed they had successfully petitioned the administration to divest from Israel. The college strenuously denied that to be the case.

After the divestment dispute, the ADL began working with faculty and staff on campus, running dialogue sessions and sensitivity training. The David Project, a pro- Israel educational organization, also began working on campus, according to former campus coordinator Michal Adut, who worked with Hampshire students among others. She called Hampshire the "toughest campus to work on for a pro-Israel organization." The David Project runs pro- Israel programs on about 150 college campuses across the country.

Strong Jewish presence

While the Hampshire campus may be perceived as hostile to Israel, the college has a strong Jewish community.

In 1997, the National Yiddish Book Center, home to the largest collection of Yiddish books in the world, opened its headquarters at Hampshire.

Hampshire has always boasted a large number of Jewish students. In 2010, some 20 percent of its 1,500 students were Jewish, the college estimates.

The campus has a full-time rabbi, a Jewish Student Union, a student-run kosher kitchen and an LGBT Jewish student group. Hampshire does not have a Hillel chapter, but does have a pro-Israel student group, SPICI, Students Promoting Israeli Culture and Information. SPICI focuses more on promoting Israeli culture and innovation than politics or Zionism, according to students.

In spite, or perhaps because of the large number of Jewish students at Hampshire, many of the students active in SJP or other Palestinian solidarity movements are Jewish.

Alex Van Leer grew up in a Jewish home and attended Jewish camps. An active member of SJP and a "proud Jew," Van Leer said that Jewish students are more aware of the Middle East conflict than their peers coming into college and thus probably more likely to participate in the debate.

Benisty and a few other students said they felt that some of the attacks against Israel bordered on anti-Semitism but many students involved in the Palestinian movement said they make a point to separate Judaism and Zionism. That distinction became the focus of contention after Benisty's report of harassment went public.

In December, Fried issued a letter to the campus community, condemning the attacks and urging civility.

The then-interim president wrote: "[W]e will not tolerate attacks and discrimination in any form against any individual or group. The instances of vandalism against the property of students who identify either with Israel, Judaism, or who express particular opinions about the Israel/ Palestine situation in the Middle East, go against the values of inclusiveness that we want to foster in our community."

In response, SJP released a letter condemning the attacks, but criticizing Fried for not distinguishing between Judaism and Zionism.

"What is very clear to us is that the letter issued to every member of the Hampshire community was not primarily concerned with acts of anti-Semitism, but with vocal opposition towards expressions of Zionism," SJP wrote. "Hampshire is choosing to create a safety net for people whose political beliefs are actively being called into question on campus."

SJP member Ilana Rossoff, who is also Jewish, said while no student should feel unsafe, pro-Israel students shouldn't take attacks against their beliefs personally or construe them as anti-Semitic.

"Calling someone a racist isn't a personal attack," Rossoff, 22, said. "I'm not going to say it's not unpleasant to be called that, but it's not about you. It's about the Palestinians. You're not speaking for the movement if you call someone a racist bitch, but we should all emotionally be able to handle that most mild harassment."

Rossoff graduated this year.

Alex Van Leer, also 22, said Jewish students should be careful about labeling political views as anti-Semitic.

"Let's call out real anti-Semitism," Van Leer said. "Calling everything anti-Semitic devalues real anti-Semitism."

Van Leer also noted that the name-calling goes both ways, saying that he's been called a "selfhating Jew" on several occasions.

A fervent few

Although the debate on Hampshire's quad or in student centers can be loud and, at times nasty, it involves a relatively small number of students.

Amir Fogel, chair of SPICI, estimated that there are about 15 to 30 active pro-Israel students and 15 to 20 active pro-Palestinian students, with another 50 to 100 students who are peripherally involved in SJP.

"The rest are students who don't care or are too scared to get into the conflict," Fog[e]l said.

Despite the relatively few number of students involved in the debate, Professor James [Wald] said that the pro-Israel voice has been "marginalized" on campus.

"It's not just that people are critical of Israel," Wald said. "It's an atmosphere that assumes that people think a certain way, and increasingly in recent years, one gets the sense that a lot of people feel that if you support Israel, it is not a serious or legitimate position."

Wald has been a professor of European history at Hampshire for almost 20 years. He said he started noticing an increase of hostility on campus during Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza invasion, at the end of 2008 and during the divestment scandal of 2009.

"The atmosphere became unhealthy and distorted," Wald said. "It should be possible for people to say, 'I have this point of view.' ... The academy should be able to foster a civil dialogue about those views and no view should be ruled out of court."

Wald said it was up to professors and administrators to address the divisive attitude on campus.

Hampshire students interviewed offered varying views of the classroom situation.

Samantha Mandeles said she felt uncomfortable taking Middle Eastern studies classes, citing what she felt was professorial bias and intimidation from her peers. Some other students, on both sides of the issue, said they felt at ease expressing their beliefs in class.

Aaron Berman, who teaches a course called the History of Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism at Hampshire, said most students come in with little knowledge of the roots of the Middle East conflict. At the beginning of the course, Berman said he tells students that he will challenge their beliefs on both sides.

"We have a wide array of students across the political spectrum," he said. "If at some point in the course I don't make everyone uncomfortable at least once, I'm not doing my job."

Berman has taught this particular course for 10 of his 30 years at Hampshire. While agreeing that Hampshire students can be intense about their feelings, he said he has not seen ideological intimidation or bullying in his classroom.

"When you are dealing with young adults, they can be extra passionate about things," Berman said. "They are trying on different things and different notions and different identities. and sometimes those passions can be better controlled."

To teach students how to control those passions, Fried said that the college last year started holding small group dialogue sessions and workshops. Also last year, Hampshire created a position called the coordinator of religious identity and political intersection.

In July, Jonathan Lash took office as Hampshire's new president.
A Harvard graduate, Lash is the former president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

The new president said he was aware of the conflict before coming into office, but as yet doesn't have a specific plan to address it. He said he would like to see the college continue working with the ADL and promoting dialogue groups with students on all issues, not just Israel.

"I see as an important priority to ensure that there is a safe environment to engage in the issues on campus," Lash said. "Debate is never going to be entirely neat - just look at the debate in Congress. I want to talk to people about how to have an informed, active and engaged debate."

New students arrive at Hampshire's campus on Sept. 1.

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As the article notes, Hampshire College does not have grades. We don’t have traditional tests, either. Be that as it may, the new administration is already about to face its first real test. We here, and many outside the campus, will be watching closely to see how it performs. Let us hope that those covering the next phase of the story will emulate Ms. Burrows and do their homework.

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As chance would have it, this video also came out this week. The product of an advocacy group rather than a journalist, it nonetheless covers the same controversies described in the article, and features interviews with some of the students cited there (with additional reference to the situation at nearby Smith College). As such, it may be a useful complement.

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