The atmosphere at Vassar College, where I’ve been teaching Russian history since 1999, is troubled. I am not Jewish, but even I have experienced an increase in hostility and strained silences among students and colleagues.
I have been called a “f—king fascist,” “Zionist” and “idiot” for speaking out against Vassar’s BDS resolution and speaking up for Israel and for U.S. policy. I have seen Jewish students profiled and singled out at a BDS meeting. I have felt the icy silence that reigns in some departments. Many professors have signed very visible and public petitions but don’t acknowledge them in person, instead saying, “I have nothing to do with that.”
Many at Vassar are passionate about speaking out for freedom of conscience and against threats in public, but none inquired after a Russian writer whom I admired and had met was murdered. Nobody from Vassar attended the memorial I organized. Vassar students have shown total apathy with respect to human rights in Russia or any of the other states that I teach about in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The two Russian-Chechen wars in Chechnya cost between 150,000 and 160,000 lives, but only tiny audiences attended lectures on Chechnya. Nobody on campus got worked up in 2014, when Russian units invaded Ukraine. On the contrary, a pro-annexation and vocally pro-Putin speaker came to campus a year later. Many students shrug off concerns about anti-gay legislation in Russia as a “Western construction.”
Given these patterns, I find it random, facetious and, yes, anti-Semitic, that so many at Vassar choose to engage in political activism by means of a barrage of discourse about boycotting Israel.
Two years ago, Vassar’s Students for Justice in Palestine posted online . It includes words like “Miss America,” “Ku Klux Klan” and “Jitterbug,” and shows capitalism and imperialism as a frightening creature composed of Jewish/Zionist and American bombs, dripping with blood. I was angry and felt wounded, though the post was later removed. How could students be unaware that the image they posted is a core part of fascist propaganda about capitalism?
The campaign for a BDS resolution at Vassar has continued to flood the campus with broad condemnations of the U.S. and Israel as imperialist, racist and genocidal. Countless declarations that students “must struggle against Israel”; making the Vassar Student Association debate this issue while pro-Palestinian students heckled, laughed and ridiculed those who opposed BDS; and the refrain that all this is not anti-Semitic — all this amounts to a mass intellectual trolling campaign.
Academics who suggest that Israel is harvesting organs or that Ukraine is fascist earn tweets and clicks — and deal in hate speech. It is hybrid speech, posing as something else, not-what-it-appears like Putin’s wars. It is speech that angers and mobilizes and that relishes its effects but denies that the effect was ever the intention.
So should I be upset that I was called a “Zionist”? Does it mean I am a racist?
I am proud to be called a Zionist. I don’t make blanket statements about pro-BDS faculty or students. Frankly, I am more offended when students look down at their desks when I say things about Jewish emancipation or when I get embarrassed silences in class while discussing Jewish history. Anti-Jewish speech off and on campus is very real, and it is starting to have long-term effects.
Michaela Pohl teaches in the Department of History at Vassar College.