Recently I attended a Vassar College event sponsored by the “Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences” program, established by the president of the college to help students and faculty discuss contentious issues.
The chosen topic, "Conversation About Israel/Palestine," is one that, in the real world, generates striking differences of opinion. The underlying assumption of a “dialogue across differences” is that participants hold different opinions. However, the two speakers, Hartford Seminary’s Professor Yehezkel Landau and Duke University’s Turkish Imam Abdullah Antepli, differing in nationality, religion and life history, espoused the same opinions, i.e., that although Israel has a right to exist, it is an oppressive human rights abuser of innocent, victimized Palestinians. Landau and Antepli called each other “soul brothers” and their message represents the prevailing campus narrative about Israel. Their views are well known at the Poughkeepsie college, and predictably, their conversation was a duet rather than a dialogue.
Vassar described this program, before and even afterwards, as a model for dealing with conflict, despite the absence of any discernible conflict between the speakers. To comprehend how intelligent college administrators could promote such a sham, one needs to understand the current condition of higher education on elite liberal arts college campuses like Vassar.
Traditionally, a liberal arts education sought truth by exposing students to a marketplace of ideas, studying the past for insights into the present. However, over the last half century, the university has undergone an astounding revolution. Rather than using the past to understand the present, academics today create their own conclusions about the present and use the past selectively to achieve a political objective. Under the guise of “social justice” (redistribution of wealth and power), these academics look at the world through the lenses of power and oppression, blaming all inequities on the moral failures of Western civilization and demanding equality of results rather than equality of opportunity.
They insist that victims of these societal failures deserve compensation for past and current injustice. This philosophy is called “postcolonialism,” a narrative of good and evil legitimized by pointing to examples in history, literature, and even science. Those who reject this orthodoxy, intentionally or otherwise, will not only be bullied into admitting their error, but also be subjected to “sensitivity training” about incorrect speech or thought, the undeserved benefits of “white privilege,” and the victimization of gays, women and people of color.
While faculty laud diversity in gender, class, sexual preferences, race and national origin, there is, in fact, no diversity in political views and opinions on campuses today. Freedom of thought has morphed into indoctrination of thought.
Postcolonialists, mired in politically correct multiculturalism, argue that it is important not only to respect the political rights of others, but also to accept their cultures and value systems. Believing that all world cultures have equal value and that non-Western societies have suffered as a result of Western colonialism, they see no conflict in empathizing with and championing Middle Eastern countries that treat women as chattel and murder gays. To them, these people can’t be expected to adhere to Western moral standards, especially since those standards are fundamentally flawed.
This worldview significantly impacts the narrative about the Israel-Palestinian situation, where the constant drumbeat of anti-Western propaganda inevitably leads to an anti-Israel climate on campuses.
At Vassar, the “dialogue across differences” event represents a classic example of groupthink, where conflict is minimized, disagreement with consensus views is strongly discouraged, and where harmony is valued above accurate analysis and critical evaluation.
Vassar’s “Conversation about Israel/Palestine” was a charade contextualized by negative foundational assumptions of Western imperialism. The ideological message about Israel included only selective historical references, with both speakers blaming Israel for the lack of peace, holding the Palestinians blameless, and insisting that Israel sacrifice to repair the situation.
There was no mention of the multiple Palestinian rejections of generous Israeli peace proposals. Absent was consideration that the conflict is a religious war in which the Arabs will not tolerate Jews in their midst. There was no acknowledgement of Israel’s legitimate security needs. Discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was framed as oppressor versus victim. To add another element to the spurious discourse, Vassar’s director of Religious and Spiritual Life asserted that the Palestinian “struggle for dignity and justice” is linked to the racial and economic injustice in the U.S.
The speakers advocated that successful dialogue about the conflict must eliminate polarization, avoid the black-and-white perspective and the “villains-and-victims” mentality. But they contradicted themselves by talking about Palestinian victims and Israeli villains in the context of good versus evil. Their presentation was replete with divisive terms such as “illegal occupation,” “expulsion of the Palestinians,” “Nakba” and the reference to Israel as a hyphenated “Israel-Palestine.”
Vassar and other elite liberal schools create the world as they wish it to be, not as it is, viewing the Israeli/Palestinian issue as they view all issues, through an anti-Western prism, with Israel as the foreign Western colonialist established by Western imperialism victimizing the “indigenous” Palestinian “people of color.” To Vassar progressives, Zionism is a nationalistic movement imposing a collective injustice on one people to rectify a worldwide injustice to another, rather than the liberation movement of the Jewish people, espousing the return of an ancient people to its historic homeland.
This pseudo “dialogue across differences” between a Jew and a Muslim reinforced the prevailing anti-Israel campus opinion about the conflict rather than offering an examination of genuinely diverse perspectives. Students, fed a diet of postcolonial groupthink, were manipulated into believing that what they were hearing was the truth within a framework of a civil debate. Alumni were led to believe the same. Vassar used a useful fiction to promote its postcolonial political ideology in the name of education.
The ivory tower has become Never Neverland.
Dahl is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. She has a Master of Arts degree in public law and government from Columbia University and an A.B. in political science from Vassar College.