Vassar College was the battleground this week for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and pro-Israel advocates in a war waged through social media — and media stunts.
The small liberal arts college 75 miles (120 km) outside New York city has fewer than 2,500 students, but according to its website, hosts some 1,500 clubs and activities. Among them are a Hillel house recently gone rogue as an Open Hillel chapter demanding an open discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the more militant Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Vassar Conservative-Libertarian Union (VCLU).
Set in an idyllic oasis in Poughkeepsie, the college has long been a hotbed of radical liberal thinkers. For some former students, however, the radical has crossed the line into irrational in SJP’s recent use of Nazi propaganda to illustrate the alleged pervasiveness of Zionism in the halls of power.
SJP’s Tumblr account recently published a Nazi propaganda poster by Norwegian artist Harald Damsleth captioned “Liberators” in which a many limbed monster decorated with the US flag, holding a money bag grasped by a long-nosed banker, and wearing a Star of David as a loin cloth, stomps on houses of the innocent.
Vassar President Catherine Hill released an email Wednesday stating that SJP’s status as a campus organization is called into question.
In response to this Nazi propaganda posting, the college is initiating a full investigation, wrote Hill.
“SJP Vassar is a Vassar student ‘preliminary organization,’ an initial status required of all student organizations as they seek full certification by the Vassar Student Association (VSA). I am requesting VSA review of the SJP’s pre-organization status,” wrote Hill.
Hill wrote the college is investigating SJP’s posting as a “bias incident” under college regulations. “I also request that the SJP Vassar membership take responsibility for its actions and cease representing itself as an official Vassar group, pending these investigations. Vassar College is committed to free speech and academic freedom, but we condemn racist, hateful speech.”
In a blog on Daily Kos, an anonymous self-described leftist graduate wrote, “At Vassar, even for me, the unhinged left wingers could be too much.”
“I graduated from Vassar two years ago and I am a proud left winger, but I just can’t be down with the Students for Justice in Palestine group at my alma mater. The group is full of filthy anti-Semites, who are spectacularly ignorant about everything from Nazi propaganda to Israel’s defense of itself.”
On Thursday, in retaliation of SJP’s posting and for past activism, students associated with the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union built a Wall of Truth in a common area previously used by SJP for an Apartheid Wall during Israeli Apartheid Week. The Wall of Truth was defaced by anti-Israel activists before it was taken down by the Vassar administration.
President of VCLU Julian Hassan told the Legal Insurrection blog that the students are “protesting the climate of fear at Vassar College and the members of the faculty who willfully fuel the fire by teaching biased courses year after year.”
“We can no longer allow the Vassar community to turn a blind-eye to the indoctrination that is happening in place of a liberal arts education,” said Hassan.
Students for Justice in Palestine was founded at the University of California, Berkley in 2001. According to the Anti-defamation League, “Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a student organization with more than 80 chapters at American universities, has campaigned for boycott and divestment against corporations that deal with Israel, and organized various Palestine Awareness Week events that accuse Israel of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide.”
The Vassar chapter, whose slogan is “We will make it known that Vassar College supports settler colonialism,” is rumored to be among the more extremist of SJP groups.
Staunch pro-Israel activist group StandWithUs Israel Director Michael Dickson told The Times of Israel he is not shocked to see Nazi propaganda on SJP’s social media feeds.
“It is no surprise to us to see SJP activists utilizing anti-Semitic imagery in order to defame Israelis. It seems like there is no accusation too outrageous and no tactic too offensive when it comes to their smear campaign against Israel,” said Dickson.
“SJP is a single-issue hate group [that] specialize[s] in sowing division on campus and hijacking student government agendas to force BDS-boycott measures on campus,” said Dickson.
The SJP Vassar General Body issued an apology on May 11 over the Nazi propaganda, saying, “We want to make it excruciatingly clear that we are sorry to anyone we offended because we did not vet the original posters of some of the content we reblogged close enough this past week, and only focused on the content.”
“We understand that the sources, no matter the content, can be triggering to many in our audience. We will definitely do better, as that is what y’all deserve. We have removed the posts, and will do our best not to make a similar mistake!”
In a second apology, the group blamed the social media manager for taking unilateral steps, adding, “We condemn any and all hate speech including any form of anti-Semitism and we are deeply sorry several offensive posts were made in SJP Vassar’s name.”