Not for nothing did the 250th Anniversary Committee come up with the wonderful slogan (wonderful, not least because it shows that we do sometimes have a sense of humor about ourselves): “Amherst, MA Where only the ‘h’ is silent.” It’s not surprising that we come in for a lot of criticism, ranging from good-natured ribbing (the prevalent left-wing sentiment here long ago earned us the nickname, “The People’s Republic of Amherst”) to rather nastier attacks. Some of the criticism is deserved, and some is not—but much of both is, frankly, distorted. That's regrettable, for distortions sometimes have dangerous consequences.
The most famous recent controversy involves the events of the evening of September 10, 2001, when the Select Board declined a request to endorse the official display of the American flags on the streets beyond the formally allotted dates. Talk about bad timing. To make matters worse, some citizens who spoke against the proposal said they considered the flag a sign of racism, imperialism, tyranny, and state terrorism. Naturally, the national press and conservative blogosphere had a field day. There was, to be sure, a debate to be had about the merits of the actual question, but many critics conflated the most extreme comments from the public with the rather technical decision of the Select Board. As a result, the town was castigated for its alleged lack of solidarity on a day of national tragedy. Local Town Meeting member, political gadfly, and blogger Larry Kelley relentlessly pursued the original issue. When, in 2007, he submitted a warrant article asking that Amherst fly the flag every September 11, Town Meeting handily voted it down.
Just this month, controversy erupted over two issues involving terrorism and civil liberties. The Select Board narrowly endorsed a warrant article that proposed, in order to redress the wrongs associated with the prison at Guantanamo, to bring two cleared detainees to Amherst for resettlement. "Cleared" meant those certified by the government as having committed no crime. Right-wing commentators, such as Boston's Michael Graham, were all over the story and the town, soon followed by others around the country. The Board required police protection at its next session, though Town Meeting went on to approve the article by a wide margin. Much of the negative outside coverage angrily portrayed Amherst as seeking to become some kind of summer camp for “terrorists.” (After all, the town was said to have scorned the flag but scant years earlier.) To be sure, there was some public controversy over the true political character of the two proposed invitees (though the actual warrant article did not concern individuals). However, debate at Town Meeting focused on the perennial issue of whether this local representative body should be in the business of addressing national policy, in this case, particularly because carrying out the proposed action was dependent on a change in federal law. It was noteworthy that Larry Kelley, who allows his patriotism to rank second to none, spoke in favor of the measure in Town Meeting (one proponent—who had faced off against him on the flag issue many years ago—was so taken aback that she leaped up to denounce him as a bigot, not realizing that he had said the opposite of what she claimed; whoops). Kelley also tried, in his blog, to correct media distortions of the issue.
Around the same time, the University found itself embroiled in controversy. The Fifth Annual Colloquium on Social Change invited as a speaker former United Freedom Front radical Raymond Levasseur, who had been convicted and imprisoned for his role in a series of bombings but acquitted in a lengthy Springfield trial on charges of sedition. After a public outcry, especially from conservative commentators and police groups, the University rescinded the invitation. The cancellation did not mollify the conservatives, but it did anger the ACLU. Then the talk was back on. And then it was off again when Levasseur’s parole commission refused to allow him to travel to Amherst. The event finally took place without him. Most humiliating was the sight of the University’s policy swaying back and forth in the wind. Sometimes life here is just plain embarrassing.
Why rehash all this now? Because I see it about to happen yet again. It is with some trepidation that one views the prospect of the coming anti-Israel conference on boycotts, divestment, and sanctions that Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) will convene here next week.
There’s a context for this, too. Controversy over the fighting in Gaza polarized the campus. In early January, President Ralph Hexter posted a long and complex essay on his blog, entitled, "A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity." [NOTE: that site no longer exists, so I have appended the text and comments as an update to the end of this post.] It agonizingly tried to tread a very narrow and meandering path, avoided taking sides, and, with an eye to the particular duties of academic communities, affirmed the Enlightenment values of non-violence and reasoned discourse. It called upon members of the community to reply to opposing views only after making the difficult effort to listen empathetically rather than leaping to the riposte. At a time when passions ran high, and among people given by age and temperament (NB I'm thinking of both 18- and 60-year-olds) to thinking in moral absolutes, it was of course bound to please few and infuriate many. (It was also simply too intellectual for many readers demanding a short answer, clear stance, and strong action. Nathan der Weise? biblical hermeneutics? Pangloss? sublunary? what is this: a center of activism or an institution of higher education?) SJP members and their supporters savaged the President in the online talkbacks (which, of course, they were free to do). Following the Trustees' meeting in February, SJP triumphantly claimed, and then persisted in claiming, that it had at last succeeded in its goal of making Hampshire "the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine." That was not in fact what happened. The College, after reviewing its portfolio, found a large number of companies to be in violation of its socially responsible investment policy. Some of the firms targeted by SJP remained in the portfolio. No decisions on retaining or rejecting investments had anything to do with Israel or its policies in the occupied territories. In the end, it's that simple (or should have been).
Critics of the SJP and divestment campaign, for their part, were sometimes equally reckless. Many, knowing the town's reputation for radicalism as outlined above, leaped to conclusions, certain they knew what had happened and why. In particular, some charged that the group had pursued and won from the College divestiture of all holdings associated with Israel, as such—a goal that SJP neither sought nor claimed to have achieved. Some outsiders were rather too quick to hurl the charge of antisemitism without bothering to learn the details of the case. Even some of those whose accusations were more focused criticized the administration and Hampshire community in unappetizing ways.
The result last semester was a tense and dangerous atmosphere on campus, exacerbated by extreme or irresponsible statements from outsiders of all stripes.
We can only hope that both sides will have learned some lessons, and some humility. No one does his or her cause a favor by making unsubstantiated claims or reckless accusations. We all have a chance to learn from our mistakes and to show our better sides to one another and the outside world this time.
Update August 2011
Following President Hexter's departure from Hampshire a year ago, his Presidential Blog was taken down from the website and archived. I therefore reproduce the post and commentary here, for ease of access.
- Sarah Buttenwieser says:
- Ilana Rossoff says:
The condescension of Hexter’s language regarding the crisis is just as appalling as what he said and failed to say. Comparing the current conflict to European, pre-Enlightenment times, in which people were irrational and did not know how to handle themselves intellectually and diplomatically, is such an overt perpetuation of the “Orientalist’ attitude that has dominated Western discourse concerning all things “East.’ This mentality of seeing the other half of the world as less advanced, less rational, less independently capable of working out its own problems is essentially what founded and enabled our colonial history. (If you’re going to condemn racism, try not to be so overtly racist.) What Hexter has done is brought the same colonial attitude that has dominated Western academia and politics to one of the few institutions in which people, professors and students at least, have been actively working to reject just that. Maybe I’m giving Hampshire too much credit, but I have some reason to believe there are individuals who are working to move on from history and prevent a disastrous future before it is sealed in history books; Hexter’s statement does them a grave injustice.
I think that Hexter’s idea of “interpretive charity’ is an appropriate one to apply to this piece of writing, his own argument for neutrality and complacency. Hexter speaks of the need to be an understanding listener and debater so as to better appreciate where people com from in producing the thoughts they do. So, I want to take this opportunity to consider what Hexter’s motivations were in writing what he did; after all, he functions on his own perceptions of rationality, however misguided they may be, and therefore must also be understood in the context of his intentions, not just his actions. Ralph Hexter is the president of a small, poorly-endowed college in the middle of western Massachusetts (United States). The student body of this college has a large proportion of Jewish students, some from progressive backgrounds, some not, and the college depends on the tuition of every single one of its students. Should a student, or a few, be alienated by a “controversial’ statement of the president, the entire college’s finances could be at risk. So, in the name of maintaining the pretense that progressive, private institutions should tolerate all ideas, be they fascist, racist, sexist, or in perpetuation of any other form of oppression, President Ralph Hexter opted to be politically correct: pretending to appease all, but consequently saying nothing and appeasing no one.
Hexter commented that applying generic historical terms of warfare or human slaughter only nuance the situation and distract from true discourse, and I think that is an incredibly dangerous thing to claim. If we don’t see what’s going on Gaza as an absolute genocide, a holocaust of ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate deaths, then we have doomed the people of Gaza to the same fate of those who have perished in disguised genocides. How we have been so inactive, not only in sitting here twiddling our thumbs as we argue over the semantics of what led up to this crisis, but even in the ways that we have decided to organize, speak out against it, and rest at that, is beyond my comprehension. How many more times will Students for Justice in Palestine have to say that we are DIRECTLY INVESTED IN THE OCCUPATION before people wake up and realize that we have a chance to take action DURING a brutal, colonial military oppression and not wait until it is “over’ to lament not having done anything?? Sign the statement to divest, removing financial ties and denouncing the occupation, NOW! There are no excuses, absolutely none. Thank you, Ralph Hexter, for fulfilling your role as a tool in maintaining the status quo for those who benefit from it, but for the rest of us, it’s time to rise against.
- Students for Justice in Palestine says:
While claiming to be making a “personal statement,’ he nonetheless acknowledged that, as president of the college, he is our “shepherd’’’somehow making us his sheep’’and therefore claims institutional representation. Hexter made the statement about himself and his career and refused to acknowledge Hampshire’s direct investment in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hexter insists that he understands the problems with “philosophizing in the midst of disaster.’ Indeed, he has done just that by opting for his own political safety rather than by joining the global movement against Israeli violence. Consequently, he side stepped the obligation of all institutions of higher education to resist genocide’’an imperative more urgent than personal musings. It took 2,370 words for Hexter to condemn “violence, terrorism, and racism,” and yet he still will not decide which side to take on the occupation, which is violent, terroristic, and racist. Hexter is complacent along with other shameful leaders who fail to take concrete action against genocide. He does not represent Hampshire College and cannot be taken seriously.
Over 800 students, staff, faculty, and alumni endorsed Students for Justice in Palestine’s institutional statement, which calls on Hampshire to divest from corporations that enable and profit from Israel’s military actions in Palestine and to denounce the occupation explicitly in a formal statement. When Hexter remains neutral on the massacres in Palestine, the entire Hampshire community takes a stand for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. How many white phosphorous bombs have to be dropped on universities, hospitals, or UN schools before we express our outrage as a community? The time has passed to remain silent.
- Brian says:
- Quincy Saul says:
I am writing to you as a fellow human, not as the member of any organization.
I have just finished reading your latest blog entry. I apologize if my tone is
disagreeable, but you have seriously offended me and the part of the Hampshire
community that keeps me here paying full tuition.
With all due respect, I would like to alert you to the fact that in your attempt
to be ‘everybody’s president’, you have only reinforced the convictions of the
most active students on campus that you are not at all their president, much
less their pastor. I assume that you must have foreseen this, but you proceeded
to philosophize vaguely anyway — why, I’m really not sure.
You seem think that students and faculty are sheep to be shepherded, but they
are largely offended and ashamed of your self-centered proselytizing, and will
not stand for it. I hope you can take this to heart. Speaking not as any kind
of participant but only as an observer, I can assure you that your presence at
this college is at best tolerated.
In any case, while you are citing quaint theological concepts and comparing
yourself to Candide, others in the academy all over the world are taking real
stands, and not just talking about themselves.
Perhaps you’ve already seen this latest petition in the Guardian (pasted below).
I wish that you would gather the courage to join this movement.
I would appreciate a response.
- Jay cassano says:
- Kay Johnson says:
Professor of Politics and Asian Studies
Over the last few weeks we have watched with horror the Israeli military attack on the Gaza Strip. The loss of life on both sides is tragic, but we must acknowledge the large number of innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, who have been killed by Israeli fire. We have been impressed by the response of many of our students who have organized vigils and demonstrations to protest the military action and call for an end to the carnage. In a recent statement, Rabbi Danny Rich, a leader of Liberal Judaism in Great Britain, explained why he would not participate in Israeli solidarity rallies. Citing Jewish teaching and humanitarian instinct, Rabbi Rich called, “for an immediate ceasefire which may prevent further tragedy engulfing the Palestinian civilian population and save injury and worse to both Israelis in uniform and their fellow citizens in their homes.’
L. Brown Kennedy
Jane W. Couperus
Marlene G. Fried
Daniel Kojo Schrade
Robert Emmet Meagher
Robert M. Rakoff
Falguni A. Sheth
Jason M. Tor
- Andrew Stachiw says:
Andrew Stachiw, January 18, 2009, in response to President Hexter’s, “A Call for Nonviolence and Interpretive Charity’
1. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance of the Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem;
2. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories;
3. Establish facilities or operations in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories;
4. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance and construction of the Separation Wall;
5. Provide products or services that contribute to violent acts that target either Israeli or Palestinian civilians
In reality, this is one of the most conservative requests possible; we are not asking for a blanket Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel, and in fact most of the companies that we are calling for divestment from are in fact US companies. Furthermore, our divestment calls are more than just about Palestine; they would stop the College’s profiting from companies that provide military technology and equipment for conflicts across the world. Sure, members of Hampshire College made a statement condemning the War in Afghanistan, the first of its kind, but it certainly didn’t stop the college from profiting from its expansion and continuation.
- Steve Goldberg says:
The vast majority of American citizens and political leaders, Democrats and Republicans, strongly supported israel’s actions in defense of its citizens, who for more than seven years had been victimized by more than 7000 rockets launched from Gaza. Anyone who possesses moral clarity recognizes that Israel’s actions were justified, required and even long overdue.
Why then is the Hampshire community so out of touch with reality, so much on the fringe? The answer to that question is painfully clear: a substantial portion of the community is anti-Semitic, filled with rage that the Jewish State has the audacity to defend itself.
Of course, criticism of Israeli policy is not, in and of itself, evidence of anti-Semitism. Nevetheless, when the Jewish State is held to a standard not applied to other nations, and when the vitriol reaches the level displayed in the comments on these pages, no other conclusion is possible.
The Hampshire community was conspicuously silent about Russia’s attack on Georgia last year, which was not remotely defensive, and which caused the death of over 10,000 civilians. Where was the outrage? Where were the protests condemning the slaughters in Rwanda and Darfur? The Palestinian Authority is reporting that Hamas is arresting Fatah members in Gaza and subjecting them to torture, including the gouging out of the Fatah member’s eyes. Why are there no comments about that?
Hamas is guilty of two war crimes. First, they deliberately launched thousands of rockets into civilian neighborhoods in Israel. Second, they used Palestinian children, mosques, schools and hospitals as shields from which they could attack Israeli soldiers. Why no comment from President Hexter or the students or faculty?
Simply put, Israel, the Jew among nations, is singled out for imaginary crimes when the very real crimes of other nations are overlooked.
The mask of tolerance and liberalism has been ripped off, and the disfigured face of anti-Semitism has been exposed. Fortunately, the Israel bashers represent only a tiny sliver of American opinion, representative only of neo-Nazis, Islamic fascists and other racist crackpots, and not the overwhelming majority of the people of the United States.
If only the administration had the courage to speak out against the bigotry that infects the Hampshire campus. It’s not likely. It won’t even invite pro-Zionist advocates to speak or debate on campus
- Steve Goldberg says:
- Noam Bahat Says says:
January 20th, 2009 at 2:22 pm
Comparisons to “genocide’ or “apartheid’ simply raise the rhetorical stakes; they may help speakers or writers score points (in their own minds and the minds of the like-minded) but they do nothing to advance shared understanding.
But these comparisons are in fact the result of a thoughtful choice of words. The word Apartheid which might be understood by Ralph to refer to the specific regime in South Africa, is a word with a Germanic root which every English speaker should recognize: Apart. It originates from South Africa’s white supremacist regime but refers to any regime which is predicated on racial separation, segregation and state led violence against these racially oppressed groups. As such, this term is applicable to the Israeli regime and Israeli society, in their treatment of the Palestinian population inside Israel and in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank. Genocide is an act of annihilation of a group of people, which may be cultural, geographical, or murderous in its nature. People might argue that this is not what Israel has been doing in the past 60 years, but as we can see in the current war this is the direction where Israel and the Israeli society are going. If in the past Israel maintained its pretentious stand of “we avoid killing innocents’, this war has changed it all. To put it in the words of Yossi Sarid formerly Israel’s minister of education:
The Gaza War is different from its predecessors. It is a war for recovery from complexes and mental blocks. After it, we will feel ever so much better, no matter what its results. It wasn’t the fighters who failed in the past, nor was it the weaponry. Jewish morality was to our detriment, and weakened us. No more. In this tblogpeutic war of eye-rolling, when the neo-Palmachniks want to shoot, they shoot.
And this is not to say that the roots were not there beforehand. Go train the dogs to kill and fill them with rage and hate, while the leash is still on, and then see what happens when the leash is lost. Now the state has unleashed its troops, and the media has unleashed the public. And the blood of a Palestinian child is worth not one hundredth that of an Israeli troop and the blood of a Palestinian man is worth more when it’s spilled. And success is now measured with the number of funerals. So we, the Israeli public on the far side of the ocean, should be happy at the news that the sign at the cemetery in Gaza says: “no more space to burry’. But here in the US, those who speak the truth of a genocide, or apartheid, or at the very least a brutal massacre should be considered to be extremist.
- Margaret Cerullo says:
- Tracy Devenyi says:
- Dina Jacir says:
- Alex Torpey says:
Alex Torpey, Fourth Year Social Science Div 3 Student
I would like to issue a challenge to all the members of SJP and other student groups and community members that frame their public statements and activities in the extreme negative. Disagree without being negative towards individual people. Describe the issues at hand instead of making personal attacks. Respond to disagreement instead of reacting. Suggest constructive ways of moving forward instead of destructive statements that move us all backwards.
- Taliesin Nyala says:
- Sonny Saul says:
already reached you. I am not sure if it has,,, so I am sending it
directly… just adding my voice… the weeks that have passed since the
invasion seem to have highlighed its ghastliness.
to your blog and your essay relating to the situation in Gaza.
Perhaps we are about the same age and have both grown up in the United
States. Do you notice that, among even educated people, there is
general recognition of the fact that the modern state of Israel was
founded as a symbol of the suffering of humanity… but almost no
awareness that this was at the expense of another people who were
innocent of guilt? Also little awareness that the weapons; helicopters,
tanks, assault rifles, the bulldozers, (and the nuclear missiles which
we hope will be held in reserve) being used to inflict suffering, to
slaughter and traumatize, are made by American companies and largely
paid for by people living in the United States, courtesy of the Pentagon
system, voted for by our representatives, and that this makes it really
“OUR BUSINESS’. There is also not much understanding of the conditions
of the occupation or that there even IS an occupation. Probably, through
your discussions and readings, you have become aware that many believe
that the roots of the conflict are religious and that US has been trying
to arbitrate even handedly. I think that this perception is beginning
to change, but the change is slow in coming.
One of my first reactions to your essay was to recall the title of Howard Zinn’s book, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train’… and the next thing I thought of was the book of Revelation… I looked it up and found the quote that came to me in chapter three, what “the Spirit saith unto the Churches’.
Do you recall? Its verses 15 and 16 “I know thy works, that thou art
neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because
thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my
We all can do more. The above quote reminds and challenges me to do more, say more.Even your rather neutral response is more than many have ventured. I hope you will continue to become informed. Read the essays of the famous Hampshire professor Eqbal Ahmad, if you haven’t already – a great place to begin. They have greatly broadened my understanding.
began and ended the talk were was especially powerful. Can you take one
more moment to read the quotes below? I hope you will stay engaged with these kids. They want you to be your best self. thanks. Harry Saul
U.S./Israeli attack on hopeless Palestinians was launched. It had been
meticulously prepared. We know from the Israeli press that both aspects
of the campaign had long been carefully prepared, both the military
aspect and the propaganda aspect, learning from the lessons of the 2006
invasion of Lebanon, which it was argued that it was not planned well to
a military point of view and was not advertised properly. So this time,
both of those aspects were under control with extensive programs. That
means we can be reasonably confident that anything that is happening or
that is said, is purposeful, it’s planned that way, maybe not
everything, but most of it. One thing that was planned carefully was
the time of the launching of the war, carefully chosen. It was shortly
before noon on Saturday, when children are returning from school and
crowds are milling around in the streets of densely populated Gaza
City. And it took only a few minutes to kill well over 200 people and
to wound around 700, which is an auspicious opening to the mass
slaughter of defenseless civilians trapped in a tiny cage with nowhere
ago, 30 years ago, I wrote that those who call themselves supporters of
Israel are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and its
probable ultimate destruction, and regrettably that judgement looks more
and more plausible. Meanwhile, we’re observing a very rare moment in
history, that’s what the late Israeli sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling,
called ‘Politicide’ that’s the murder of a nation at our hands.’
- Steve Goldberg says:
The second big lie is that there is a nation called “Palestine’ and a people called “Palestinians.’ There has never been a nation of Palestine. There has never been a Palestinian king or queen, or Palestinian currency, or any other evidence of such a state. Until the 1960s, any reference to a Palestinian generally meant a Jew living in the geographical area included in the Palestinian Mandate administered by England. The so-called Palestinians are simply Arabs who live in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, all of which are part of the Jewish State.
The vast majority of Americans, including Democrats, Republicans, Independents, liberals, moderates and conservatives, support Israel in its struggle to survive against the reactionary forces of Islamic fascism. The only opposition comes from rabid anti-Semites and crackpots like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Norman Finkelstein, who collectively have the credibility of the Flat Earth Society.
Ralph Hexter deserves to be criticized, but not for the reasons listed in the rants included in the comments on his blog. President Hexter should be embarrassed that he has allowed Hampshire to tolerate ignorant and reprehensible anti-Semitism in the form of Israel bashing. It is ironic that this college, that prides itself on tolerance, diversity and free-thinking, will not invite a Zionist to the campus to speak on campus. Unless and until there is some effort to expose the students to the truth, Hampshire is condemning its students to being intellectual outcasts and freaks who will receive nothing but scorn when they enter the adult world.
The Zionist Organization of America, which is the oldest pro-Israel organization in the U.S., remains willing to send a representative on campus to speak to the students, either alone or in a debate. If anyone in the Hampshire community has any interest in presenting a point of view to the students other than that of the SJP, please let me know how to reach you.
- nlkPR says:
“Based on a comprehensive review of the fund by the trustee investment committee, administrators and an outside consultant, the college found that this fund held stocks in well over 200 companies engaged in business practices that violate the college’s policy on socially responsible investments. These violations include: unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings.
“The review also led the board of trustees to vote to revise its 1994 socially responsible investment policy to bring it up-to-date with current standards and practices, and, pending revision, to suspend that policy.
“The review of the State Street fund was undertaken at the request of a sub-committee of the investment committee, to address a petition from a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. The investment committee’s decision, however, was based on the consultant’s finding that the State Street fund included 200-plus companies engaged in multiple violations of the college’s investment policy; the decision expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.
“No other report or interpretation of the actions of February 7, 2009 by the Hampshire College board of trustees is accurate.
- Rachel Becker says:
Directed to other students who commented: I’m not sure why you don’t seem to understand Ralph’s role as president. Even more importantly, despite what you may think, there are students who don’t agree with you in this situation.
SJP is not the voice of the campus.
- Noah Feldman says:
- Zac says:
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