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How academic efforts to boycott Israel harm our students July 4, 2015

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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My  opinion piece in the Washington Post. July 2015.Washington Post op-ed picture

In March 2014, I and my co-teacher stood with 27 Vassar College students at the sparkling Auja Spring in the parched West Bank of the Palestinian territories. We listened attentively as environmental educators from the Auja Eco Center and a Palestinian graduate student from Al-Quds Universityexplained the Auja village’s dependency on this sole water source. Sadly, this learning experience almost didn’t happen. My colleague and I were nearly prevented from embarking on the trip by opposition from a surprising source: the faculty and students of our own academic institution.

I am a tenured geology professor at Vassar , an elite liberal-arts school . I research, teach and write about the complex and intimate connections between land and water resources and social justice. For the study trip I led to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I created a syllabus designed to explore difficult issues and engage diverse perspectives that was vetted by Vassar’s faculty and administration. I have successfully led numerous similar trips to locations such as the Appalachian Mountains and the Mojave Desert. My modest goals for such trips are to impart knowledge and share experiences with my students that can be realized only by traveling to the regions we are examining. In studying arid regions without seeing the situation with their own eyes, it is difficult for students from places where water is relatively abundant to think about solutions to the problems that occur when local residents must share a meager supply.

Several months before my trip, the American Studies Association voted to support an academic boycott of Israel, a position that several faculty members at my college also held. Apparently, my course and the study trip associated with it were subject to the boycott, and the trip became a flash point for theboycott, divestment and sanctions — BDS, for short — debate on campus. Protesters bearing anti-Israel signs stood chanting outside my classroom; students were pressured by their peers to drop the course. My integrity was attacked in a standing-room-only forum at Vassar’s campus center led by pro-BDS faculty members. The stress affected my health, and my faith in longtime colleagues and the college administration was shaken. If not for the support of my family and reluctance to yield to such tactics, I very well might have backed out of the trip. And I and my students would have missed out on an educational opportunity of a lifetime.

What are the implications for education when students are pressured to avoid unique and difficult educational opportunities? Is it responsible for educators to support an academic boycott — essentially, a boycott of ideas? Isn’t our mission to teach students to engage with ideas that are different from their own? Vassar’s mission statement asserts that the college “nurtures intellectual curiosity” and “respectful debate.” Is it consistent with this mission to restrict study trips to regions of the world where the political landscape is similar to our own (which many would argue has its own share of overlooked injustices)? We are in dangerous territory if our ability to even travel for study’s sake to a politically charged region can be blocked by political agendas.

This is not to say that protest does not have its place; of course students should protest and argue about positions with which they disagree. I would have liked for the students holding placards and chanting slogans outside my classroom to come inside and debate in full sentences with a fuller command of the issues at hand. Had they done so, I am sure we would have had some challenging and uncomfortable discussions. But we would have all grown from the exchange, and we would have come closer to fulfilling the mission of my college and educators everywhere. By fostering narrow perspectives, bullying stymies learning and is anti-intellectual.

I understand from national reports that what happened at Vassar is happening in some form or another at academic institutions across the country. Instead of working to engage debate and refute contentious ideas, students and faculty are shutting down avenues of inquiry and blocking the attempts of others to examine difficult issues. Though it came at great personal cost, I decided to stick to my educational principles, and I’m glad I did. By learning on the ground from Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians instead of just from texts, my students and I came to appreciate why water issues are central to the conflict in the region. We also learned lessons about principled stances and forms of protest that I never would have thought to put on my syllabus. This is something I would teach again — field trip included — in a heartbeat.

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Dear Professor Pessin, I Know How You Feel May 28, 2015

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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Dear Professor Pessin,

It occurred to me a few months back to write you a letter expressing solidarity with you. I’d read about the fact that you are on medical leave from your faculty position at Connecticut College owing to the stressful situation at your campus. I understand the strain that arises as a result of unfounded vitriolic attacks by students and weak support from college administrators because it happened to me too. (I’ve blogged about it here and in subsequent posts on my personal website). When I read that students, faculty and staff had gathered for “a forum” on “free speech, equity and inclusion” hosted by the administration, I shuddered. You see, my trip co-leader and I also endured such a ‘forum’ which Philiip Weiss, founder and co-editor of Mondoweiss.net, described as “truly unsettling.”

I wanted to write to you but I kept putting it off. Over time I realized that I was afraid to wade into these fraught waters because the events of last year surrounding my study trip to Israel and the West Bank territory caused me much trauma. But then it occurred to me that my reluctance to reach out to you equated to being silenced by SJP students and faculty who support the BDS movement.  Today I read the New York Times piece about water issues in israel and the West Bank and saw a photograph of the water channel in the West Bank town of Auja where my students learned directly from Palestinians the implications of having no control over groundwater flowing through the aquifer beneath their land.

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Palestinians in Auja, West Bank, showing Vassar students Auja Spring, the source of their town’s water supply.

The article reminded me once again of the value of traveling with my Vassar students in Israel and the West Bank to wrap our minds around issues of water justice in that parched region.

In writing to The Miscellany News, the Vassar’s student-run newspaper, my colleague and I attempted to communicate to our academic community the virtues of traveling the length of the Jordan River meeting with young Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians who work collaboratively on water resource issues. Since writing that letter, I’ve been silent about these issues on my campus for fear of being attacked once again. However, having learned as a “gay rights activist” during the AIDS epidemic that “silence=death,” as anti-semitism on college campuses rises I feel it is a matter of integrity to say that I stand with you.

May we work to preserve freedom of speech, at the very least, on college campuses.

Sincerely,

Jill Schneiderman

Vassar College Study Trip to the Jordan River Watershed and Surroundings March 4, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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            One generation comes and another generation goes but the Earth remains forever. So goes the Ecclesiastical statement that motivated me to wade metaphorically and literally into the sullied and diminishing waters of the Jordan.

            I’m about to embark on a two-week journey with 28 Vassar students to the Jordan River valley and its surroundings. I was motivated to propose and teach such a course because from my perspective as an earth scientist, I understand how daily and future access to clean water in ample supply is one of the key issues about which people in the region fight. It is also a problem on which Arabs, Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have worked together with integrity and compassion.

            And yet, as solid as I was in my commitment to this endeavor before my College’s “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel. Our trip will take us from the headwaters of the Jordan River near the border with Lebanon down to the shrinking Dead Sea and through the bone dry Arava valley. With assistance from Friends of the Earth Middle East and EWASH (Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Palestinian territory), along the way, we’ll meet with Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians to learn about their perspectives and efforts with regard to the basic human right of ready access to clean water.

            I hope to have the time and energy to use my blog to process and articulate through mind and heart what I learn on this journey.