OP-ED: Vanderbilt Student Government – The New Divider


Julian Yang, Contributor

Author’s Note: The author would like to preface that this article makes no attack at any specific officer or person involved in VSG, but rather is a criticism of the administration’s decisions as a whole.


It has been several decades since the U.S. political climate was as divisive as it is today. Social media, for example, has fueled an increased polarization of citizens on both ends of the political spectrum. In the 2020 election, 90% of both Republicans and Democrats were “very concerned” that the opposing candidate would create lasting harm to the country, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. January saw far-right insurrectionists storm the Capitol building. Far-left extremists rioted throughout the four years of the Trump presidency. 

Yet people have found ways to put aside differences. First responders continue to rush into burning buildings to save fellow peers, regardless of political beliefs. Heroes emerge to protect one another from danger, such as Kendrick Castillo, who bravely sacrificed his own life to protect his classmates against a school shooter. Why? Because death is a common enemy; people will help each other to escape it. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires, are also enemies people unite against; neighbors look out for each other. 

But what happens when there isn’t a threat? What happens when there isn’t a common enemy? President Trump declared that Russia wasn’t a civilizational threat, but instead pointed the finger to China. President Obama drifted away from the threats of terrorism from the Middle East, an attitude previously held by President Bush. Simply put, without a common enemy, people do not unite together. 

There are, however, existential threats today. They exist in the United States. These threats even exist among Vanderbilt’s student body. The problem, unfortunately, is that when threats become internal, it proves to be divisive. The Vanderbilt community relies on the goals articulated by the university: open inquiry, equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors. In times of difficulty and struggle, it is important to maintain these goals in order to support a diverse community. Yet these goals are being undermined by none other than an organization which aims to achieve this ideal. 

The mission of Vanderbilt Student Government (VSG), as described on their website, is to “[represent] the interests of Vanderbilt undergraduates to university administrators, faculty, staff, and others in the Nashville and Tennessee communities.” Yet in a statement published on Instagram on May 22nd, VSG created a hostile and unwelcoming environment for Jewish students and allies. Such actions create a divide within the greater student body, when VSG should be uniting all students.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is  “complex and divisive,” as VSG’s statement reads. Yet VSG, in a complete contradiction to its own words, proceeded to oversimplify and misrepresent over a century of history into a 13-line paragraph only covering events from the month of May 2021. This paragraph constitutes a politically-motivated, one-sided recount of events, excluding and dismissing any ways Jewish Israelis have been attacked or impacted. Additionally, the paragraph denounces capitalism (yes, the economic system) without making any mention of Hamas. While VSG includes a short and vague condemnation of antisemitism in its statement, it failed to mention or recognize any bit of the increase in global anti-semtic hate crimes over the past month. Last week, a pro-Palestinian mob attacked Jewish diners in Beverly Hills. On May 20th, a mob in New York City severely beat a Jewish man. Hundreds of Neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Milan, even performing the Nazi salute. 

VSG is not the only organization to speak up for those affected by the Israeli-Palestine conflict. However, where VSG’s faults lie is its lack of consistency in “speaking up” for all marginalized groups and a failure to adhere to its mission statement. Thus brings up the question of virtue signaling: VSG released a statement regarding Palestine within a month of rising tensions, but failed to publish any statement addressing increased hate crimes against AAPI citizens within the past year.

Lacking from VSG are resources or support to affirm a safe campus for all students. Other than a petition and a five-link-length document of biased “resources,” VSG doesn’t strive toward its duty to represent the entire student body. Instead of helping, VSG used its statement as a way to push its political opinions and agendas, being inherently divisive. To achieve the goal of unity, VSG must address threats against everyone within the community: after all, that is how people unite.   

Tweet from a Vanderbilt student

The nature of an internal threat is dangerous – without change, VSG creates more divide than unity. Maya Levinson, a member of the Class of 2024, says that while the post “was meant to stand up for Jewish students on campus, [it] only created a forum for more hate.” Levinson shares the same sentiment as many other students, who took to the comment section of VSG’s post to express their disapproval. “VSG now serves as a prime example of how ‘anti-zionism’ is simply a guise of for anti-semitism.” Unfortunately for Levinson, these concerns have begun to take place amongst the student body. In a later hidden tweet, one Vanderbilt student and Twitter user wrote, “Every time I walk into Grins next semester imma yell FREE PALESTINE [sic],” following with “watch them call me anti-semitic [sic].” Grins serves as both a kosher and vegetarian cafe on Vanderbilt’s campus, and is located in the Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life. 

Other Vanderbilt students, such as Ester Teper, voiced their concerns with VSG’s lack of representation and clear violations of their mission, citing how “it is absolutely despicable to have a group of people speak for us when they continuously refuse to meet with us, communicate with the Jewish community, or make any effort to uplift the voices they disagree with.” Teper adds that the “writers and co-signers of this statement not only did not represent the entire VSG or the entire student body, but they also managed to make over 15% of the campus feel unsafe, with the knowledge that a statement like this would be perceived as antisemitic, as the president of Hillel advised them when asked.” 

Supporting and recognizing a group of affected people is not wrong. However, an organization must not act in a way that violates their published mission statement. VSG did not meet the expectation of providing support for all students; rather, it has achieved the complete opposite, depriving Jewish students and allies of a voice. With this statement, VSG does not create the unity that Vanderbilt needs, but instead an avenue for increased divide and hate. 

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt Student Government.