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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Alumni urge Vanderbilt to take stance on Middle East conflict, criticize student organizations

Alumni letters criticize the university’s commitment to principled neutrality, arguing the policy enables antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Sean Onamade
The Parthenon at sunset in Centennial Park, as photographed on Nov. 11, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Sean Onamade)

CORRECTION: This article was corrected on Jan. 8 at 11:10 a.m. CST to remove fact-checking links directly from a quote taken from AFP’s letter and instead include them in a fact-checking paragraph directly following their quote; to better represent one of the claims made in AFP’s letter; and to include Vanderbilt AFP’s response to The Hustler’s request for comment. This article was also updated to include parts of Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s Jan. 8 message to the Vanderbilt community. 

Vanderbilt alumni recently penned open letters to Vanderbilt administrators, urging them to take a stance on the conflict in the Middle East. Both letters criticize the university’s commitment to principled neutrality, claiming it creates an unsafe learning environment by enabling antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Alumni for Palestine’s letter, signed by 538 alumni as of publication, called Vanderbilt’s response to the conflict “grossly inadequate” and suggested a disparity in Vanderbilt’s community messages of support. 

“Chancellor Diermeier made several statements to the Vanderbilt community condemning the ‘reprehensible violence and bloodshed’ and expressing ‘sympathy and unity’ with Vanderbilt’s Jewish community [about the Oct. 7 attacks],” the letter reads. “However, there has been no comparable public message of support or unity for Vanderbilt’s Palestinian, Muslim and Arab community during Israel’s 77 days of brutal attacks on Gaza, as the death toll surpasses 20,000.”

The death toll in the region has exceeded 22,000 as of Jan. 4, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. 

Vanderbilt’s chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness, a national non-profit organization for alumni combating antisemitism, also criticizes university administrators’ statements and Vanderbilt Students for Justice in Palestine in a letter. The letter calls Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s initial message about the Oct. 7 attacks “grossly insensitive” and petitions for more action to protect Jewish students. ACF did not respond to The Hustler’s request for the number of signatures the letter has received. 

“[Principled neutrality] is a laudable goal, as are your [Diermeier’s] related commitments to open forums and civil discourse. Surely you must acknowledge that antisemitism and racism of any kind run counter to the core mission and functioning of the university,” Vanderbilt ACF’s letter reads. “An institution that enables antisemitism can be neither principled nor neutral.”

A university representative said in an email to The Hustler that they have not received any communication from Vanderbilt’s ACF chapter.

Alumni for Campus Fairness letter

In his initial message following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, Diermeier reaffirmed support for those affected by the violence, which he called “deeply layered and nuanced.” Vanderbilt ACF expressed concerns with this phrasing and called on the university to “define and denounce” antisemitism. Vanderbilt ACF specifically called on the university to incorporate the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism into the Student Handbook and collaborate on initiatives with Vanderbilt’s Jewish community like the Hillel Campus Climate Initiative. 

The university declined to comment on whether it has an official definition of antisemitism or other specific types of discrimination. 

“By failing to define antisemitism, you effectively give license to all manner of discrimination and discriminatory harassment against Jewish or Israeli students,” the letter reads. “This ambiguity does not serve anyone, including passionate anti-Israel students who wish to make their voices heard without crossing the line to antisemitic rhetoric because they simply do not know where the line is.”

Diermeier wrote in an Oct. 30 message to the Vanderbilt community that discrimination and harassment have “no place” at Vanderbilt, sharing that the university increased campus security following reports of discrimination on campus. These comments echoed Dean of Students G.L. Black’s Oct. 17 email, which referred students with concerns to the university’s Non-Discrimination Statement.

In a second statement issued on Oct. 12, Diermeier advocated for campus unity in the wake of a “wrenching moment in history,” citing Vanderbilt Chabad and Hillel’s vigil as an example of Vanderbilt coming together.

“While we were relieved to see you [Diermeier] issue a better statement two weeks later, our community needs more than words as the aftereffects spill over onto campus,” the letter reads.

Diermeier explained the rationale behind the follow-up message in an Oct. 23 conversation with The Hustler.

“We sent a message to the community right away with a goal to reassure and connect with the members of our community. Given the horrific details that were emerging at the time, we did it very quickly,” Diermeier said. “Then, over the next two days, more and more of the horrific details became known. There was also a sense that a second message needed to come from the heart.”

Vanderbilt ACF additionally took issue with the Nov. 15 exhibit hosted by Vanderbilt SJP and further criticized SJP’s national mission. 

“These displays were designed to make Jewish students feel unsafe, and you [Diermeier] allowed them to be placed a few yards from the Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life,” the letter reads. “SJP openly supports terrorism and celebrates the Oct. 7 massacre of Jews.” 

The goal of the SJP exhibit was to bring attention to the growing death toll in Gaza and to memorialize the civilian lives lost, according to a Vanderbilt SJP representative granted anonymity for safety concerns and for protection from retribution. The exhibits took place on and around Rand Yard, over 500 yards away from the Schulman Center. 

According to the National SJP website, the organization supports on-campus Palestine solidarity efforts and has adopted an intersectional approach to fight for Palestinian liberation. They did not reference Hamas or support for Hamas’s Oct. 7 actions in any of their statements. Individual chapters of SJP across the U.S. have called Hamas’s attacks “indefensible atrocities” while framing these as part of a broader struggle for Palestinian freedom and self-determination. Vanderbilt SJP similarly condemned the loss of innocent civilian lives in their Oct. 16 statement on the conflict. 

Jon Pierce (B.A. ‘86), a leader of Vanderbilt ACF, said he believes that accepting Vanderbilt ACF’s calls to action will further Vanderbilt’s commitment to civil discourse and student safety. 

“Defining and denouncing antisemitism is essential to a safe and free campus environment and the promotion of learning and discovery that is central to Vanderbilt’s mission,” Pierce said.

The Student Handbook states that the university does not discriminate or tolerate discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, national/ethnic origin or religion, among other classifiers. 

Alumni for Palestine letter

The Vanderbilt AFP letter states that it was spurred by increases in nationwide and campuswide Islamophobia and safety concerns of Vanderbilt’s Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students. The letter also referenced the Nov. 29 Young Americans for Freedom event at which conservative commentator Michael Knowles delivered a talk titled “Giving Thanks for Settler Colonialism.” Knowles described anti-colonial movements as futile and counterproductive, a view antithetical to Palestinian liberation efforts.

The letter also states that administrators have not done enough to protect Muslim, Palestinian and Arab students on campus, claiming that principled neutrality “tacitly endorses” Islamophobia, among all hatred and discrimination. 

“Vanderbilt has cultivated an unsafe learning environment for the many students whose friends and family are being victimized, oppressed and targeted by the Israeli government’s illegal and genocidal actions,” the letter reads. “Neutrality allows for the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians to continue; silence here is not neutral but a stamp of approval.”

The Israeli military has claimed that Hamas militants, not civilians, are the target of its bombing campaign. However, Israel has dropped large bombs with high destructive capacity in densely populated areas in Gaza, contributing to a death toll in which 70% of those killed have been women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibit militaries from targeting civilians and indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. South Africa filed a case against Israel on Dec. 29 in the International Court of Justice alleging that its military’s actions in Gaza amount to genocide, though debate continues over use of the term.

In an email to The Hustler, a university representative reaffirmed Vanderbilt’s commitment to a “safe and inclusive environment” and encouraged students experiencing harassment to report such incidents to the university or law enforcement.

“We have robust processes for addressing these acts [of harassment, bullying and threats]. If through an investigation we find evidence these acts have occurred, we take swift and appropriate disciplinary actions, up to and including expulsion or termination,” the email reads. “The goal of institutional neutrality is to allow the greatest possible space for voices without the potential influence or perceived chilling effect of a university position.”

In addition to these critiques, the letter posits seven demands of Vanderbilt administrators. The first requested that Vanderbilt Hillel’s volunteer trip to Israel from Dec. 25 through Jan. 7 be canceled, calling the program — hosted by Birthright and Israel Onward — “unethical and unsafe.” Vanderbilt AFP pointed to program activities of packing and distributing goods for military personnel as supporting the Israeli war efforts, while also referencing current travel advisories for the region. According to AFP, Dean Black responded to individual student emails regarding concerns about the trip, stating that the university has no jurisdiction over Vanderbilt Hillel’s programming due to its status as a separate entity from the university. 

Additionally, Vanderbilt AFP asks that the Vanderbilt Travel Risk Assessment Committee cancel all study abroad programs in Israel. AFP states that the risk of traveling to Israel meets all of the committee’s criteria for suspension and takes issue with how Vanderbilt students solely with Palestinian passports or government-issued IDs are prohibited from attending these trips due to Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian citizens. 

Vanderbilt AFP also demands that Vanderbilt stop buying Israeli food products and divest from companies that profit from Israeli occupation. 

“[This investment] makes Vanderbilt complicit in upholding this brutally oppressive structure,” the letter reads.

The university does not disclose the companies and funds in which it invests. In an email to The Hustler, a university representative declined to clarify whether Vanderbilt’s endowment invests in the companies with which AFP takes issue.

The letter also criticizes the J.C. Bamford Excavators Limited construction company, whose equipment is used in on-campus construction and in Israel to unlawfully tear down Palestinian homes. The university declined to comment on the specific projects for which JCB equipment has been used and did not specify when their contract began. 

Vanderbilt AFP alleges that this partnership violates Article 5, Section 8 of Vanderbilt’s Master Professional Services Agreement, which states that “[we] value and expect equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of campus programs and activities.” The group argues that, since JCB’s dealings in Palestine “discriminate against Palestinians in their currently occupied land,” Vanderbilt’s use of JCB equipment violates this agreement. A university representative declined to comment on whether there has been any discussion to cease usage of JCB supplies.

Vanderbilt AFP additionally asks administrators to protect students, faculty and staff who speak in favor of Palestine. The letter states that equating anti-Zionism and antisemitism can often lead to harassment and suspension of college students and faculty. 

Vanderbilt AFP told The Hustler that, as of publication, administrators had not provided an official response to their petition. Individual members of Vanderbilt AFP, including former Student Body President Hannah Bruns (B.A. ‘22) and guest writer Lo Meisel (B.S. ‘19), did not respond to The Hustler’s request for comment on the university’s response to Vanderbilt AFP’s demands. 

Diermeier sent an email to the Vanderbilt community on Jan. 8 reaffirming the university’s commitment to institutional neutrality, while also condemning all forms of hate and stating that Vanderbilt would not join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel unless required by law.

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About the Contributors
Ben Arthur
Ben Arthur, Staff Writer
Ben Arthur (‘26) is majoring in political science and English in the College of Arts and Science. He is from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Other than reading and writing, Ben loves listening to music, hiking, rock climbing and buying clothes he doesn’t need. He can be reached at [email protected].
Brina Ratangee
Brina Ratangee, Editorial Director
Brina Ratangee ('24) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in medicine, health & society and neuroscience. She previously served as News Editor. When not writing for The Hustler, she enjoys trivia nights, solving NYT crosswords and biking around Nashville. You can reach her at [email protected].
Sean Onamade
Sean Onamade, Digital Editor
Sean Onamade (‘25) is from Calgary, Canada, and is majoring in computer science in the School of Engineering. When not staying up late to work on code, Sean snaps photos, hits the gym and takes some time to learn a new language. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Comments (4)

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Matta J
6 months ago

One mustn’t conflate ethics with law, and when the latter contradicts what is ethically right we must all—individuals and institutions—find the courage to speak out and act in accordance with justice. The history of boycotting in the South is a testament to this vital distinction. Moreover, I am deeply impressed with how mature and critically engaged Vanderbilt’s sophomores are in these times of crisis and catastrophe. AFP should consider accusations of being sophomoric a great compliment indeed!

Vandy Feminist
6 months ago

Palestine and Hamas stand for LGBTQ+ inclusion, women’s rights, social justice, clean energy, food security, affordable housing, free speech, universal income, and freedom of religion.

5 months ago
Reply to  Vandy Feminist

Ummmm what news do you watch? What do you read? I have no words, just in pure shock. Wow.

Jay S.
6 months ago

As an alumnus (BA 98), I derive two points from this good article. First, the opposite positions only reinforce in the strongest way why free speech must be embraced, not censorship. Second, the AFP demands are sophomoric in their overreach (and would likely cause the university to violate federal law prohibiting anti-Israel boycotts). As long as organizations like the AFP take such strident positions, they will never be taken seriously, nor should they.