Regression on a progressive campus

Have an open mind

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Aliza Yaillen, Collegian Contributor

“Progressive.” What does that word really mean? Does it mean knowing all the recent buzz words? Being liberal? Being forward-thinking? On this campus, I am sad to say, “progressive” is a word that I, as of recently, have come to associate with intolerance.

I am currently a second semester senior finishing up my time on this campus. I am a Resident Assistant, a tour guide, a tutor at the writing center, a research assistant for a project to create educational AppBooks for student detainees in the juvenile justice system, a member of the UMass Democrats, an animal science and English dual-degree student and a very active member of the Hillel community. In other words, I wear many hats on this campus and until recently, I considered myself very lucky to be part of the University of Massachusetts community.

While I am originally from New York City, I quickly felt accepted and safe here. I loved how “wicked crunchy” the campus was, and I thought I also loved how progressive it was. So many students on this campus are invested in changing the world in one way or another, whether that is through obtaining more compost bins around campus, retrieving leftover food from dining halls to give to local food pantries or just being passionate about their ideals. It inspired me to want to be as passionate as they all were. But this feeling of inspiration, acceptance and safety I felt on campus has changed recently.

This past week, the Student Government Association held elections for the next year’s president, vice president and student trustee. Elections are always tricky and can result in heated debates, lost friends, fights with family or hurtful words. This happened in the most recent SGA election when a candidate, who is a member of my Hillel community, was implied as being Islamophobic in an email and post sent and distributed to students around campus. The worst part, besides the hurtful nature of the comment, was the fact that it was completely false.

I am very fortunate that my time at UMass has been characterized by positive interactions surrounding my faith and religion. Even though I was the first Jew who many of my friends had ever met, none of them asked about stereotypes. Rather, they wanted to learn about my religion. This was the part of UMass I fell in love with. What I have not fallen in love with, however, are the other questions I have been asked as a Jewish student on this campus: “You’re Jewish? Are you pro-Israel?” When I respond yes, people typically say, “So you voted for Trump.” (Which, by the way, I did not, if that was not obvious by the fact that I am a member of UMass Democrats.) My other friends have been told, “You are pro-life then,” after stating that they are pro-Israel, which is also not necessarily true.

This is where the idea of “progressive” on our campus becomes problematic. Somehow, the idea of being progressive has become synonymous with both assuming you know other people’s positions, and not being able to listen to other opinions. Our campus, our administration (which came up with the idea for “Hate has No Home at UMass”) and our student body has fallen short when it comes to teaching each other how to listen and be tolerant of one another. As an RA on this campus, I have come in contact with students who are Republicans and feel uncomfortable sharing that information with people, just as I have begun to feel uncomfortable sharing with people that I am a Zionist. The word “Republican” has become synonymous with Trump, but not every Republican voted for Trump. And while I might not agree with those who did in fact vote for Trump, that does not mean that they should feel ostracized on this campus. In that same vein, as a Zionist, I would like to think that anyone you speak with who knows me would be able to tell you that I am not an Islamophobic, racist or homophobic person. But, while spending time on this campus, I have realized that the word “Zionist” has become synonymous with the above words in the “progressive community,” which means that when I tell people that I am a Zionist, they might assume that I am all of those things before even getting to know me.

What I hope people start learning from their college experience at UMass is how to listen — that’s where we need to restart the conversation. False accusations, calling people “killers” or “racists,” is just as wrong as the actions of those who are guilty of those things. Keeping an open mind and really having our facts straight, just like we do in our essays we write for class or the research projects we pull all-nighters to get good grades on, is what we have to start doing with our opinions. Having debates and talking to people who have different opinions than us is actually what makes us more interesting people. Being a member of a particular group or political party does not negate one’s right to be respected and be an equal participant in all facets of campus life. If we go back to when this campus was open to discussing different opinions and made more people feel comfortable, maybe we could start proudly calling ourselves a progressive campus again.

Aliza Yaillen is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]