Open Letter to Bard College President on "Anti-Semitism" on campus

(Posted to on Oct. 8, 2002)


Dear Leon Botstein,


I hope everything is going okay with you and your master plan for turning Bard College into a first-rate American institution. No doubt the new Performing Institute designed by megastar Frank Gehry will catapult Bard into the stratosphere even though to me it looks like a melting gingerbread house designed by somebody who ate one too many peyote buttons. But--hey--what do I know. For me, some of the most emblematic buildings at Bard during my stint (1961-1965) were the barracks that had been constructed after WWII for returning veterans. They might have looked like dormitories for migrant farm laborers, but they did contain some extraordinary students. Other times--other places.


But the reason I write you now is to express my disappointment that you would jump on the "Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism" bandwagon. Surely, you must understand that this was the purpose of the full-page ad in the NY Times, even though it was framed in terms of protecting Jewish students from another Kristallnacht. Here at Columbia University, where I have worked for the past 10 years, you can find a vibrant anti-Zionist movement that is spearheaded by Jews in fact. Now maybe they are in some sort of dark conspiracy to punish their co-religionists but mostly they seem intent on raising fellow students' awareness of what Gush Shalom leader Uri Avnery calls "a cruel, brutal and colonizing state."


When you turn to the Chronicles of Higher Education (Oct. 4) article on "anti-Semitism" on campus, the evidence is pretty thin. Your fellow signatory Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College of Columbia University, said that he noticed a graffiti on a men's-room wall that said, "Let's kill the Jews." He said he looked in several stalls and found other graffiti, both anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic.


Now my offices are in Teachers College and I have had occasion to visit many of their facilities on account of my chronic irritable bowel syndrome. But I have never seen such graffiti myself. Is it possible that President Levine is manufacturing evidence like the Gulf of Tonkin incident? I wouldn't rule this out myself.


(I would hasten to add that the only threatening graffiti I spotted was "Death to Short People", which is on the first floor of Thorndike, in the rightmost stall in the bathroom near the photocopying room. I often go there to do my business and read a little CLR James while I'm at it. Now I have never felt threatened by this graffiti, even though I barely reach 5'6".)


On the other hand, there are lots of real attacks taking place against professors and students who are protesting Israeli brutality. I am acquainted with Mohammad Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern, whose "dossier" has turned up in a website run by Daniel Pipes. Along with institutions such as my employer Columbia University, these voices are being singled out as virtually in league with suicide bombers.


I think you probably understand why this point of view is being policed right now. The Zionist establishment is deathly afraid that a divestment movement might take root among Jewish progressives on campus. My suggestion to all the esteemed college presidents who signed the ad is to use their good influence to stop Israel from acting like apartheid South Africa. That is surely the best way that such a movement can be preempted.


Respectfully yours,


Louis Proyect, class of 1965