DHFC returns to Vassar to intimidate students, activists
By Ally Fernandez and Sarah Cohn
Courtesy of Ally Fernandez and Sarah Cohn
On Friday, April 28, around 3 p.m., two people with briefcases were spotted outside of Ferry House putting up hateful, Islamophobic and racist posters on dorm buildings, benches and trash cans. It was on behalf of the same group, the David Horowitz Freedom Center (DHFC), that targeted students and faculty by name last semester and took a strong interest in Vassar campus life during last year’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were immediately alerted to the postings and made efforts to remove them, contacting administrators and security.
We, as members of JVP and believers in equity and justice, refuse to be bullied. Instead, we will use instances like this to speak out and reaffirm our commitment to global human rights. We have seen these outsiders come to our campus in order to intimidate and harass students before. The people behind these posters intend to make us feel unsafe and incite a fear that would pit students on campus against each other. On the one hand, they are trying to isolate and target students involved with JVP and SJP. On the other, they are trying to convince uninvolved students that they are in danger from their activist peers. And perhaps most importantly, this poster implicates Muslim and Arab students, regardless of political affiliation, suggesting that their presence at Vassar is neither welcome nor valued. We refuse to give into fear; these posters are loathsome.
The posters use puppet imagery to imply that Hamas has controlling power over student groups like SJP. It plays off the popular alt-right conspiracy theory, exemplified in a previous Miscellany News article, that radical students are being misled and inspired by an outside force. It should certainly raise some flags to see a common anti-Semitic trope (where Jews are the controlling monetary force behind all leftist movements) mobilized by an organization that claims to stand up for Jews. And by raise some flags, we mean make perfect sense considering the anti-Semitic yet pro-Israel far right at the highest rungs of our government empowering organizations like the DHFC.
Posters like this, along with organizations such as Canary Mission, are exemplary of a long history of external pro-Israel groups using their influence to menace Vassar students, specifically Muslim and Arab students, students of color and all those who vocally criticize Israel. Their various tactics, such as doxxing, put vulnerable students at risk for harassment, both online and in real life. Some are not able to get jobs post-graduation, are shunned from religious communities, or are closed off from necessary resources.
These posters follow a very emotional argument that hits right at two powerful right-wing discourses. One, that violence against the state is unacceptable (i.e. terrorism), while violence from the state towards its citizens and other peoples is unquestioned, even encouraged. The other discourse creates a looming foreign enemy out of Palestinians and their supporters, who seek to destroy national identity and health. In this case, critiques of the State of Israel are transformed into threats against individual Israelis and American Jews. There is a reason pro-Israel groups rely on emotional and personal talking points (i.e. linking critiques of Israel as a state to personal attacks) instead of nuanced, political arguments—when you look at the actual power differential between Israel and Palestine and learn the history of the conflict, the argument falls apart. To suggest that pro-Palestine activists want to “wipe Israel off the map” as the posters do invokes territorial response wherein no conversation about Palestinians’ lives under occupation can be tolerated.
SJP and JVP have never endorsed Hamas, nor are we receiving money from them or any other outside source (if you want to look at our budgets from the VSA, they’re online). We don’t advocate terrorism, but we do want to reconsider which groups and people are framed as terrorists. Why are Palestinians terrorists, while American white supremacists deserve free speech? Instead, we believe that white supremacist violence and American imperial violence (which is directly tied to the actions of its allies such as Israel across the globe) are the most institutionalized and unquestioned forms of terrorism in the modern era.
To take this propaganda as fact is to silence thoughtful critiques of the state of Israel. Calling us and our fellow students “campus terrorists” makes people afraid. It personalizes the argument and discourages people to seek out further information on the conflict. Any information on the conflict from a pro-Palestine source is coded as violent and “pro-terrorist.” And when we say silence, we really mean silence. Narratives of lived Palestinian experiences are rarely circulated or centered. People don’t hear those narratives, and even when they are highlighted, there is immediate and overwhelming backlash. Free speech has been a hotly debated topic on this campus, but it’s incredibly important to contextualize what kind of consequences come to which people for speaking their opinions.
We are not talking about Ann Coulter getting booed at Berkeley. We are talking about people’s livelihoods and safety on campus being threatened when they dare to speak to their own experiences and challenge existing power structures. Conversations about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on college campuses across the country are incredibly one-sided due to an unequal distribution of resources in the United States given to pro-Israel institutions and groups.
And speaking as two Jewish women, we know that it doesn’t only hurt the cause of the Palestinians, but unwavering loyalty to Israel hurts Jewish communities as well.
For instance, one of the most important Jewish institutions on college campuses, Hillel International, has been instrumental in curbing any dialogue within Jewish communities that is critical of Israel due to their exclusionary “Standards of Partnership.” As an example, the Ohio State Hillel recently removed its group for LGBTQ+ Jews, B’nai Keshet, for partnering with JVP for an event supporting refugees, denying them funding and Jewish communal resources. This was after the Hillel received a $73,000 grant from “Mosaic United,” a group founded by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who seeks to create an Israel-centric, and homophobic, anti-interfaith Jewish diaspora community. Money talks.
So even while pro-Israel groups claim to be protecting Jews on college campuses, they use their resources and their fear tactics to divide students and make us feel unsafe and unwelcome. Again, it’s not a matter of who is “allowed” to speak their views, or an abstract political concept like free speech; it’s about differences in power, resources, influence and consequences for marginalized students. It isn’t even about who is “right” in the dialogue, it is about which side has the largest ability to inflict harm.
Anti-Jewishness takes on many forms. As two anti-Zionist Jews, we are familiar with the dual identity that consists of rejection from both the Christian hegemonic world and from a mainstream Jewish community that discourages open dialogue on Israel. Our lack of loyalty is seen as a lack of Jewishness. Therefore, we are not even given the dignity to claim an identity that we are proud of, even when it places us on the margins. And of course, this exclusion is compounded when it comes to Jews of color, non-Ashkenazim and LGBTQ+ Jews who are excluded by the idealization of a certain type of Jew espoused by the Israeli government. We see echoes of this exclusion and harm in these posters. As Jewish students are scared into falling in line, Muslim and Arab students are demonized as terrorists. We refuse to allow this harassment to continue in the name of our so-called “safety” as Jews.
In conclusion, we stand behind our comrades in JVP and SJP. We remain committed to supporting self-determination for Palestinians. These posters and the David Horowitz Freedom Center represent a cowardly group of people who fear growing, self-directed student power. We stand behind all those targeted by the victims of this violence. We will continue to define our own community and values, and we will not let powerful outside voices do that for us.
We as a campus, no matter where we stand, must have our own conversations amongst each other, no matter how hard. We must be able to honestly hear each other without the influence of hateful organizations with a specific agenda, without the consequences for some students being so much greater than for others. These groups resort to scare tactics like this because our movement has found success, and we will continue down this path until we have freedom and equity for all Palestinians, all Jews and all oppressed people.