jump to navigation

Jordan River trip itinerary addresses complexities of region April 10, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Academic Freedom, Israel, Palestine, Study Trip, Water.




Reproduced below is the letter Rachel Friedman and I wrote to the Miscellany News regarding our 2014 study trip:


On March 23, we returned from a two-week study trip to Israel/Palestine called “The Jordan River Watershed.” We feel confident that as a result of traveling to the region and talking with Arab and Jewish Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, our students can now speak knowledgeably about the complex realities of this conflict-ridden place. Our trip epitomizes the methodology of the field sciences, as well as the “go to the source” approach that has long been a defining feature of a Vassar education.

On our first day, we visited the holy sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem. Next, visits to the Arab village of Battir and a nearly century-old Palestinian hilltop farm, Tent of Nations, as well as the Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, provided bird’s-eye views of resource quality and quantity issues in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. After our introduction to the complicated mixture of communities in this tiny area, we traveled north towards the Lebanese border to the contested volcanic heights of Israel/Syria and familiarized ourselves with the water sources that feed the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater body in the region, and the upper reaches of the Jordan River. While in the Galilee, we also visited Nazareth and the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris, remarkable for the archaeological record it provides of Romans, Jews and Christians coexisting peacefully.

Over the next days, we headed south, traversing the length of the lower Jordan to its terminus in the closed basin of the Dead Sea. Throughout the Jordan valley, we encountered the stark reality of dammed tributaries, water in/sensitive agricultural practices, inadequate sewage treatment facilities, wetland reclamation efforts, land subsidence, mineral extraction industries and, especially notable, unequal access to surface water conduits and groundwater aquifers. At the same time, we were humbled by the awesome spectacle of deep geologic time revealed in the limestone layers of the canyons that we hiked to an oasis of Ein Gedi and the storied copper-bearing sandstone mountains of Timna. We concluded our trip in the southern Negev, learning about communities trying to live sustainably in the harsh desert terrain by employing solar power, dry composting, permaculture farming and mud-plaster building.

Throughout our trip we met with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions. Most impressive about these individuals, non-governmental organizations (such as Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Plaestinian territory) and educational institutions (Arava Institute for Environmental Studies) was their demonstrated ability to inhabit the gray area between radical extremes. Despite the charges leveled against them, brave people on both sides consistently asserted the need to sustain conflicting narratives simultaneously. As Sulaiman Khatib—a representative from the binational NGO Combatants for Peace who served 10 years in Israeli prison for armed resistance—put it, “Every stone has at least two stories.” Khatib’s line became our mantra as we repeatedly strove to occupy the murky but potentially productive middle space between binary extremes.

We have, of course, followed the maelstrom of reactions to the trip. We, as the instructors of the trip, have personally been attacked from both left and right. In one account, we are “white settler colonialists” oppressing the Palestinians; in the other, we are “self-hating Jews” pursuing an “anti-Israel agenda.” In fact, people who made little, if any effort to examine the details of our course subject and itinerary have reduced us to stereotypical caricatures. If their narrative is that the two of us are bent on destroying Israel, it is because our support for many of the goals of Students for Justice In Palestine (SJP) and the Open Hillel movement seems irreconcilable with our involvement in our Jewish communities and support (albeit critical) of Israel. If their narrative is that we support a white colonialist regime in Israel, then perhaps they refuse to look at the ways in which we are committed to fighting injustice against Palestinians. Though unsurprised by these reactions, they sadden us, particularly as educators.

One especially vexing aspect of the criticism leveled at us is that it has been racialized. In early February, SJP students picketed our course causing some of our students to express feelings of harassment and intimidation upon entering the space of the classroom. We objected to the picket because of its negative effect on those who already felt beleaguered by ill-informed criticisms across campus for enrolling in the course. Discussing the picket during class, our students asked us to relay to administrators in the Dean of the College office and the International Studies program the request for a facilitated discussion between them and SJP members. Despite our repeated requests for such an intervention, none transpired.

Since then, our objection to the picket has been characterized by some members of the Vassar community as our use of white privilege to target students of color. If we and our students had been consulted before this conclusion was drawn, listeners would have learned that our students—many of whom belong to racial and ethnic minority groups—were as surprised as we were that the group of SJP protesters were characterized as being “of color.” Furthermore, it would have become clear that we supported the right of SJP students to protest in any number of ways, including ongoing tabling in the College Center, but not inside an academic building at our classroom door. If anyone had thought to speak with us before stereotypically labeling us, multiple competing narratives would have emerged. For example, while the two of us have indeed benefited from the privilege of being seen as within the white majority in our society, we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP.

Many Vassar students and faculty have expressed their concern that over the last several years, a climate of fear has descended on campus. This fear was confirmed for them during the spectacle at the Open Forum that was held on March 3.

In our opinion, the rage unleashed disrespectfully at us at the forum has a gendered as well as a racial dimension. Perhaps one way to begin countering the climate of fear is to work harder campus-wide to engage one another with intellectual openness, listening to the multiple narratives that emanate from the Vassar community. A jumping-off point for this endeavor might be to engage with any one of the 28 breathtakingly thoughtful students who devoted their spring break to the study trip. Though some might caricature these students as having been greenwashed by the two of us or by our itinerary, such spurious depictions underestimate the intelligence of the diverse group of students whom we have been privileged to teach.

—Jill Schneiderman is a professor of earth science & geography at Vassar. Rachel Friedman is an associate professor of Greek & Roman studies at Vassar and Jewish Studies. 


1. David Sucher - April 10, 2014

Very interesting. Thank you.

Two comments:

1. Rather than being “critical of Israel”, it might be useful to characterize your views as “critical of current Israeli government policy” or something like that. I am bitterly opposed to the Netanyahu government (to the extent that the policy is understandable) yet I am adamantly “pro-Israel.”

2. I’d suggest a different framework for you to consider concerning Israel in general. I don’t think that anyone who is pro-Israel to any degree (and you are, I think) needs to have any sense of guilt about the establishment of Israel in 1947-49. The Jews were trying to survive. There was a war forced upon them. The Jews won. Not much more needs to be said.

War is terrible. There is plenty of room to criticize all parties and it’s fair to say that recent Israeli governments have made some huge mistakes, (though if you look back at Arab reaction to the ’67 War — NO NEGOTIATION!!! — it’s hard not to understand what has happened.)

Jill S. Schneiderman - April 11, 2014

Your phrase “critical of current Israeli government policy” is a helpful amendment (we had severe word limits for our piece so took some shortcuts!) And I definitely take your point #2. Thank you.

2. Illith Rosenblum - April 12, 2014

Dear Jill, “What is the practice here?” (Pema Chodron) is a good question to have in mind at your complete immersion in this political cesspit. I am a full supporter of the BDS movement and am encouraged by its growth and effectiveness. It is so far the most effective, non-violent tool to bring attention to the dire, continuous, intolerable, grave injustice and crimes against the Palestinian civilian population. I’m sure you all saw and experienced it on your trip. “What is the practice here?” — Go, and see for yourselves! So despite the Boycott, going to see for oneself has great merit. To study The ecology and politics of The Jordan River Watershed, what a vital project for all life in the region it is, and what an example of how the ecology is drafted in the violent politics of global ‘land grab’ and ‘resource’ exploitation. ‘What is the practice here?” — To listened deeply to the Watershed’s narrative and yes! to be “humbled by the awesome spectacle of deep geologic time revealed in the limestone layers” to provide us all with space to pause, expand, breathe, before we totter on… Thank you and your students for taking it all on!
Looking forward to your continued report.

3. David Sucher - April 12, 2014

Btw, with regard to the letter from President of Vassar — which I guess is posted at Miscellany News — it’s too bad that she is not (so far) seizing this unpleasant event as an opportunity and making it into a learning moment about how to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

If there is ONE single thing which ought to be taught and learned in a college it is to do just that: how to communicate and “disagree without being disagreeable.”

I think I will write to her since this whole thing has become a very public event.

4. Zilverberg - April 29, 2014

As an ashkenazi jewish brazilian, who works with scientific research, and have no relation to this affair, it really blaffes me how american academia seems filled with political correctness. Is this really how things works there? In this dance of veiled statements, where people hide their motives and intentions behind politeness and “agreement”?
Where politicial and ideological harassment is justified with “white privilege”; everyone think this is bullshit yet no one express this opinion, because it means losing at the game?
This brings me back memories from when I traveled to Israel, went to Jenin and Ramallah, and met many americans and canadians jews, all of them shocked and horrified at the state of palestinian cities: I could only advise them to visit a South American slum, the kind of slum who has a bigger population than Kfar Saba and is raided by the police weekly, and see that the average palestinian live way better than someone inside these slums. Not even a brazilian slum is needed, they can look inside East Saint Louis or Detroit.
I admit I’ll never understand the american jewish soul, living in this comfy anglo culture where you are free to be jewish and at the same time needs to uphold all these liberal values… It may put such a strain in the jewish identity that everyone will end assimilated.
I’m happy that I’m so alien to brazilian culture that I never feel entirely part of it and will always be connected to Israel and the ever diminishing jewish community. And no social warrior, no libtard do gooder, no caviar leftist will ever take this from me.

5. Israel Bar-Nir - May 4, 2014

Reply to David Sucher. Since you are not an Israeli and do not live in Israel, your being for or against the policy of any Israeli government is totally irrelevant and presumptuous. Why do you think that you have the right to judge a country in which you have no interest about how it runs its business? As for your claim to be “pro Israel” – that’s an empty statement. George Orwell said – an anti Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary. In the present context it it would be “an anti Israeli is someone who criticizes Israeli policies more than is absolutely necessary.” Singling out Israel falls under this definition.

David Sucher - May 4, 2014

I have a right as an American citizen to opine on Israeli policy. Period. Just as I can opine on North Korea or France or Dubai.

In addition, because my government supports Israel it is my additional right to state an opinion on US policy.

Of course I don’t vote in Israel so I don’t have any influence on Israeli government. Appropriately so.

But if I want to state an opinion about Israel or any nation, I have that right. Period. QED. EOF.

And it is totally OK for me to attempt to influence any country — including Israel — through my nation’s (USA) foreign policy.

I pay special attention to what Israel says/does because I love Israel and want it to prosper; so I have an opinion. Yes. Don’t like it? Tough.

As for the rest, I have no idea what you are thinking. You have no idea of my opinions about Israel. Do you suggest I am anti-Israel? Get a grip. I am firmly pro-Zionist. If you think that _I_ am anti-Israel based on what I have written above then you should learn to read and/or get out of a reality distortion field.

6. David Sucher - May 4, 2014

My comment was in response to Mr. Israel Bar-Nir.

ibarnir@verizon.net - May 4, 2014

I don’t dispute your right to opine. I merely stated that it is presumptive There are 190 countries in this world – that’s last count I’ve seen from the UN. Israel’s record with all its faults, far surpasses that of a vast majority of these. Singling out Israel, the attitude towards which is at present is more an obsession than a rational approach, says a lot about your being “pro” Israel or “pro” Zionism (I doubt if you really understand what Zionism is all about).

I’ll add a comment of mine. Based on the contents of your comments I assume that you believe in affirmative action. Given the history of the last fifteen hundred years, can you suggest ANY people who deserves to benefit from affirmative action than the Jews? So consider the Israeli government policy as a form of justified affirmative action. If any minority member who lives there cannot live with it, the door is open to go somewhere else. Jews don’t have that luxury.

7. The Fight Against BDS on the Left - Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) - SPME Scholars for Peace in the Middle East - May 4, 2014

[…] Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” […]

David Sucher - May 5, 2014

Your critique is generally absurd.

Israel is fighting for its existence. So of course I am concerned. Of course I think/write more about Israel than I think about , say,New Zealand. Sheesh.

Your affirmative action remark is puzzling. On what basis do you think I favor affirmative action?

I wonder if you understand English well-enough to understand what I wrote. Please read carefully.

8. Vassar’s Alums Step Up - Commentary Magazine - February 5, 2016

[…] That incident led the trip organizers, whose left wing credentials are impeccable, to write of a “climate of fear” that had settled over Vassar and made serious discussion of the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: