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Is Dartmouth Anti-Semitic?

Dartmouth Anti-Semitic.jpgWith the lowest percentage of Jewish students in the Ivy League and a years-long kosher dining débâcle, the College on the Hill has long had a reputation for being unfriendly toward Jews. Recent speakers on campus such as Jasbir Puar (top right), best known for her unsubstantiated claim that Israelis are harvesting Palestinian organs, and Linda Sarsour (second from top right), an apologist for Palestinian terrorism, have done Dartmouth no favors.

And now, hot on the heels of the appointment-withdrawal of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement supporter N. Bruce Duthu (third from top right) as Dean of the Faculty, comes yet another controversy.

Having been denied tenure, Assistant Professor of English Aimee Bahng (fourth from top right) delivered her swan song as the Class of 2017’s Class Day faculty speaker. With nothing to lose, she flamed out in a spectacular fashion.

She began her remarks by observing that her selection as Class Day speaker was most unusual, considering her junior and outgoing status. The rest of her speech was just as far outside what one would expect from a Class Days oration. With more than a hint of bitterness in her voice, Bahng mused about her tenure denial and other extraneous subjects before outlining her vision of a future Dartmouth.

Her pointed remarks included an attack on President Hanlon, particularly for his alleged inability to define “white supremacy.” She insinuated that the Economics and Government Departments were discriminatory in faculty hiring, using “fit” as an excuse for their “shenanigans.” (Immediately after the speech, Dean of the College Rebecca Biron (fifth from top right) announced the class valedictorians, all four of whom were economics or government majors.)

The time, manner, and place of her address were clearly inappropriate, but of particular concern was Bahng’s remark that, “[I imagine a Dartmouth that] refuses to invite speakers and support Israeli institutions that teach and practice anti-Palestinian sentiment.” Rather than use her speech to share wisdom with the graduating class, as is traditionally done, Professor Bahng used the bully pulpit of Class Day to endorse the exclusionary aims of the BDS movement.

Naturally, audience reactions were polarized. Some students gave Professor Bahng a loud ovation. Others remained seated and refused to even clap. Overall, the audience seemed less than thrilled with the speech.

Sandor Farkas ‘17 approached Dean Biron after Class Day and attempted to engage Professor Bahng, who refused to speak to him. Here is his recollection of the event:

I initially walked out of Aimee Bahng’s speech. I then approached a college staffer and told her I needed to speak to someone. In a conversation with Dean Biron, I was informed that Professor Bahng had refused to speak with me, but that I was welcome to use my free speech to voice my opinion.

After the conclusion of the program, I calmly and respectfully approached Professor Bahng, who was standing and talking to a group of people. I stood around seven feet away from her, so as to prevent the appearance of a confrontation. I did not “scream” at Professor Banhg, I spoke in a conversational tone and without exclamation.

The conversation went as follows:

Me: “Professor Bahng?

Bahng: “Yes?”

Me: “You’re a coward.”

I then walked away, since she had previously declined to talk to me. I heard a female voice that sounded like hers shout (I do mean shout): “Well, you’re an asshole!

I cannot state without a doubt that the voice was hers, but it was my overwhelming impression that she was the one who uttered the response.

I stand by my assertion that Professor Bahng is a coward. She refused to accept my offer of a moderated discussion, and I can only deduce that this was the result of intellectual or social cowardice.

[Joe Asch note: there is substantial dispute as to who exactly uttered this insult. According to several other people who were present and whose words were relayed to me, a graduate of the College spoke the offending word, not Profesor Bahng]

Farkas later wrote in to Dean Biron about Professor Bahng’s remarks on BDS. Biron confirmed Bahng’s exact quotation; she added these patronizing words:

I’m sorry you felt that this sentence was insulting.

I encourage you to see the difference between speech that criticizes actions and speech that negatively characterizes groups of people by their identity.

And the difference between one speaker’s views and Dartmouth as an institution.

BDS is not merely about criticizing the actions of Israel. I encourage Dean Biron to see the anti-Semitism inherent in repeatedly singling out the State of Israel for special condemnation, while other countries garner nary a criticism from folks like Duthu and Bahng. (For example, every other nation in the Middle East has a deeply flawed human rights record according to Amnesty International — and anti-Israel teaching is front and center in the schools of Israel’s Arab neighbors)

As usual, President Hanlon was AWOL. Do not to look to him for a robust response to Professor Bahng nor any moral leadership. When Hanlon casually uses an anti-Semitic dog whistle and the Class Day speaker endorses the goals of BDS, what message is Dartmouth sending to the rest of the world?

Addendum: The College is refusing to release footage of the event, consistent with Class Day practice in previous years.

Addendum: In happier news, by a 2:1 margin members of the Modern Language Association have voted to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” of Israeli universities. Inside Higher Education reports:

This year, the MLA announced Wednesday, there were 18,279 eligible voters, so 1,828 votes were required to ratify the resolution. The measure for the association to refrain from boycotting Israeli universities was passed by a vote of 1,954 to 885.

The move to boycott Israeli universities has for years had strong support in British academe, but had been less evident in the United States. That changed in 2013, and about half a dozen U.S.-based scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, have backed the boycott. Those votes led many college and university presidents to issue statements opposing the boycott. The boycott movement attracted little support in the physical and biological sciences and technology fields, where ties between American and Israeli institutions have been growing.

But starting last year, the boycott movement lost significant momentum — even in academic groups that have many members who are critical of Israel’s policies. The American Anthropological Association last year narrowly voted down a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. And now the MLA has adopted as official policy an anti-boycott stance.

Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, as well as a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, has been among the leaders of those opposing the Israel boycott.

This is a good outcome for the MLA and for higher education,” Berman said via email. “It affirms the principle that scholars should not boycott scholars.”

Addendum: A Dartmouth professor writes in:

I am writing in response to Brian Chen’s highly inaccurate account of Professor Aimee Bahng’s engagement with a student following her speech at Class Day. While Chen was not present during the exchange, I was seated very close to Professor Bahng. There were also many other people who witnessed the entire encounter, so it is disappointing that Chen chose to publish an account that is misleading and full of errors.

In his account, Chen claims that a “concerned student…attempted to engage Professor Bahng” and that she “refused to speak to him and called him an ‘asshole’.” In truth, the concerned student—after being informed by Dean Biron that Professor Bahng would not meet with him to discuss her speech—angrily approached her and screamed: “Professor Bahng, you’re a coward!” Then, the student stormed off before Professor Bahng could utter a single word. In response to the student’s actions, an alum who witnessed the student’s shocking behavior yelled: “You’re an asshole.” To be clear, at no point did Professor Bahng use profanity toward the student or respond in any manner whatsoever to his embarrassing outburst. Instead, she immediately turned her attention to the long line of students and parents who wanted to thank her for her speech. For Brian Chen to omit the student’s outburst—and to wrongfully accuse Professor Bahng of shouting back with profanity—is intentionally misleading and potentially libelous.

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