With graduation season in high gear, many people have the opportunity to reflect on their own college experiences and how alumni are stakeholders in their institutions. Mark Banschick, of the Young Israel of Stamford, is a proud graduate of Vassar College. Banschick was unhappy when he discovered that, in 2014, Vassar was hosting an Israel Apartheid Week, depicting Israel as a racist country. Banschick, who attended medical school in Israel, is very attached to the country. He, along with fellow graduates Laurie Josephs and Susan Julien-Levitt are the co-founders of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a partner of StandWithUs, that mobilizes alumni to improve campus life.
“In early 2014, I learned about the BDS movement and its noxious impact on college campuses when 39 Vassar professors wrote an open letter castigating Vassar’s president for rejecting the call by the American Studies Association to boycott Israel academics and institutions. In that letter, these professors asserted, as undisputed facts, that Israel is an oppressive, apartheid regime,” revealed Josephs. “After that wake up call, I and several other alums did some research and learned that Vassar routinely hosted anti-Israel speakers while never inviting those who supported Israel, that the professor who taught the one course on the Israel-Palestinian conflict was a BDS supporter and that students were terrified to openly express support for Israel because they would be labeled racist, among other epithets.”
At that time, Banschick, Josephs and Julien-Levitt organized themselves into a group called Fairness to Israel (FTI). “We reached out to the administration and faculty members, we spoke with students, and we educated the Vassar alumni community as to what was going on,” detailed Josephs. “We encouraged Vassar when it took positive steps, such as inviting speakers who could provide another perspective on Israel, and we spoke up publicly when bad things happened, such as when eight departments and programs sponsored Jasbir Puar, who told students that Israel deliberately maims Palestinian civilians in order to subjugate them, and mines dead Palestinian bodies for organs.” FTI has had a very positive impact on Vassar, helping it become sensitive to anti-Semitism on campus and the role BDS plays in fostering anti-Semitism.
Banschick explained that since they were so effective at Vassar, they decided to replicate their model nationally. To that end, Alums for Campus Fairness was born. “Notice the word Israel is not in the title,” Banschick noted. “We realized that if we just promote Israel we would get a smaller audience, but if the core values of our organization were met, fairness to Israel would be there.”
Banschick described the core mission of ACF, “It is our goal to urge the academy to fix itself. They need to be able to provide a marketplace of ideas, civility, and if they are rejecting hate speech, not to overlook anti-Semitism.”
Banschick added that “we are just asking the schools to be who there are, and have alums hold them accountable. Further, alumni have to realize they are influencers and they need to change from cheerleaders to stakeholders.”
Since its inception, ACF has organized and strengthened the alumni voice at many colleges across the US. “ACF is America’s unified alumni voice on issues of anti-Semitism, demonization of Israel and bigotry,” explains Avi Gordon, executive director. “With over 30 chapters, ACF positions thousands of alumni on the front lines of key issues at their alma maters and works to ensure that universities remain pillars of open dialogue and equal opportunity for all students.”
“We work with many partner organizations who work with students on the ground including StandWithUs and Israel on Campus Coalition. By working together, we’re able to create a multi-pronged approach to stemming the tide of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric on campus,” stated Gordon proudly. “We’ve helped counter a call to end the study abroad program with Haifa University at Pitzer College. The president rejected the hateful and one-sided act after we galvanized the alumni to take action. We helped, with our partners, to pressure the administration at Michigan after we learned that a professor refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study abroad in Israel this past fall semester, and to sanction the professor. The Michigan administration responded by sanctioning the professor and making new rules for faculty.”
“I pinch myself every day. I can’t believe that we started something so cool,” revealed Banschick. “I think the colleges have just been mismanaged for a long time. And, the Jewish community did not really see the confluence of academic one-sidedness and anti-Israel rhetoric. BDS has exploited both with real intelligence. We were caught flat-footed as a community.”
Banschick added, “We started ACF from an idea and turned it into a national organization. So many Stamford people have expressed interest in helping, and sharing ideas. Taking back college campuses and making them healthy spaces for Jewish students is something everyone in the community can relate to. Plus, most folks in our community are alumni who care about their particular school. I’m often asked, ‘How is Brandeis?’ ‘How is Tufts?’ ‘How is Michigan?’ etc. It’s on people’s minds.”
For more information, please visit www.campusfairness.org.
By Judy Berger