Ezra ben-Pesach
Ezra ben-Pesach

A tale of two colleges

A moment of truth for an iconic institution
Vassar College's Thompson Memorial Library (Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best of schools; it was the worst of schools…

Vassar College is exquisitely beautiful. Its primary entrance is through the Main Gate, an ornate clock tower topped by battlements posed in defense against the intrusions of the outside world. Inside of the walls is an academic idyll filled with lush landscaping and august architecture.

The Main Building was built the year of the school’s inception in 1861. Upon completion the building was the most capacious in the country. Across a verdant expanse from Main is the first art museum included in a college’s original plans. Next to the museum is the Crown Jewel of Vassar; the Thompson library, a spired Gothic cathedral dedicated to the noble pursuit of Knowledge.

Beneath the gargoyles in the Library’s tower are the seals of the best colleges in the world at the time of Vassar’s founding- Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard. Mathew Vassar, a prosperous brewer, established his eponymous academy to provide a comparable education for women that was forbade them on account of their gender.

The recent recurrence of ugly hate engaged in by a considerable number of the Vassar faculty as well as the administration’s effete attention to antisemitism are in jarring juxtaposition to the sublime surroundings and a grave betrayal of the founder’s vision.

While Hamas – which explicitly calls for the genocide of world Jewry in its charter – launched yet another terroristic war against Israel, fully 53 professors, a large portion of the small school’s faculty signed on to a defamatory vituperation against Israel. There is no mention whatsoever of the thousands of rockets that were launched towards innocent civilians.

In an extravagance of vanity, the letter-signers laud themselves for the purported courage that was summoned in order to malign Israel at Vassar. In truth, they have long had the untrammeled ability to indulge in such ignorance, and in the process besmirched this iconic institution’s reputation and deprived students of a fair education for which they and their parents paid a princely sum.

Five years ago, Vassar was the recipient of much deserved national calumny after a series of major antisemitic incidents. The culmination was a lecture given by professional antisemite Jasbir Puar at the invitation of eight academic departments, including perversely the Jewish Studies program.

Puar had previously acquired some notoriety for promulgating “pinkwashing”, the risible doctrine that Israel employs its stellar record on gay rights- the only country in the entire Middle East to have any gay rights- as a subterfuge to hide its nefarious activities against the Palestinians. There are similarly nutty notions involving the Israelis and women’s rights, animal rights, environmentalism and the high number of vegetarians (“vegan-washing”- Heaven forbid, Zionist seitan-worshippers!)

In turgid prose pretending to be profound, not only did Puar expound on pinkwashing and other pernicious meshugas, she also accused Israel of a modern makeover of the medieval blood libel. Rather than Jews killing Christian children for their blood to make Passover matzah, Puar alleged that the Jewish State was mining Palestinian youth for their organs.

In large part due to the venue, Puar’s loathsome litany made the national news. The speech as well as the multiple auspices compounded the existent cause for Vassar’s subsequent inclusion in lists of the most antisemitic colleges in the country.

An alumna in attendance at the lecture later wrote about her shock at what she’d heard. Behind her sat Jewish Studies professor Joshua Schreier from whom she solicited his opinion regarding what was just said. Unlike the alum, Schreier was unabashedly gleeful. He defended the diabolical diatribe, challenging her to state what Puar had said that was untrue.

Schreier (literally, Yiddish for “screamer”) is also instrumental in the present bout of Israel-hatred at Vassar. On his Facebook page, Schreier compares Zionism to “white supremacy”. In the current campus lexicon, no epithet is more egregious.

It would be no exaggeration to state that for Jews the Holiness manifest as Israel is of no less importance than Jesus is as an incarnation of the divine for Christians. Similarly, damning Zionism- the yearning to return home for which Jews have been praying daily for thousands of years- is akin to referring to Jesus as an obscenity.

The great irony is that the sheer number of signatories to the letter excoriating Israel out of all of the countries in the world reflects the central importance that the faculty gives to this sliver of land along the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet Vassar only provides a single course on the “conflict” between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.

That lone class is led by Schreier. Moreover, he has proudly proclaimed that he is under no obligation to teach more than one view on the subject. It is the equivalent of Vassar offering a course on gay studies taught by a professor who views homosexuality as an abomination.

The 53 professors who signed on to the singular demonization of the Jewish state are woefully unaware of recent history. In 1975 the heroic Daniel Patrick Moynihan electrified the free world with his thunderous Jeremiad at the United Nations denouncing the world body’s notorious Zionism is Racism resolution. Now, the very same libels that Ambassador Moynihan decried have glibly become the norm at Vassar.

Elizabeth Bradley assumed the presidency of Vassar in the summer of 2017. She was a marked contrast to the previous president Cappy Hill’s gelid indifference to antisemitism. President Bradley immediately took proactive measures to right her ship of slate. She reached out to and met with the leaders of constituent alumni groups. They were initially impressed by her strongly expressed desire to take on that which had been permitted by her predecessor to metastasize.

The gifted gardeners who maintain the thousand acre arboretum that is the Vassar campus are well-familiar with the horticultural axiom that if you don’t root out weeds they are doomed to return. It has now been made abundantly clear that the necessary digging has not been done. In President Bradley’s first true test in this regard she has not acted commensurate with her prior promise.

In a terse response to the ignominious missive Bradley focused on the entitlement of academics to express their views. That has never been at issue. By the same token, she has not abdicated her right to free speech. A modicum of courage and moral acuity was called for on this occasion but were nowhere to be found.

Elie Wiesel sagaciously said “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In an apparent concession to those outraged by the professors’ screed Bradley devoted a single sentence to attacks on Jewish Americans. She then followed that with a line against Islamophobia directed at Moslem Americans and then a general call for diversity and inclusion.

Bradley has aptly issued to the Vassar community more than one letter lamenting discrimination against African Americans as well as a couple addressing racism against Asian Americans. Still, statistically there is nothing remotely close to the exponential rise in attacks on Jews in America. Percentage-wise Jews are at far greater risk of assault than any race, ethnicity, religious background or sexual identity. Yet somehow Bradley felt constrained to offer nothing more than a watered down remark issued in passing.

Is there anyone affiliated with Vassar who will righteously stand up to the mob- a professor, an administrator, a trustee…?

A once great school built in defiance of discrimination is now nurturing an atavistic evil. If Bradley and the other leaders of Vassar cannot or are unwilling to end the enmity, then the world would be better served if the school were remade in accord with Matthew Vassar’s other enterprise and turned into a brewery.

About the Author
Ezra ben-Pesach is a writer, attorney, martial artist and mountain climber.
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