On Dec. 16, one of the founding members of New Paltz Accountability (NPA) shared an infographic on her Instagram story highlighting her religious and cultural views on Israel. Those views did not align with other core members and she was dismissed from the club.
In the following weeks, another member was excluded from NPA meetings after sharing the same post on Instagram, leading her to resign from the group before they were given the opportunity to dismiss her.
Both members are survivors of sexual assault who had previously spoken at the public forum held on Nov. 18, 2021 sharing their stories. Members of NPA agreed that by sharing their stories, they had helped them reach their goal of achieving transparency regarding statistics of sexual assault cases on the SUNY New Paltz campus.
NPA was founded by third-year Cassie Blotner, a political science and criminology double major, fourth-year visual arts major, Karl Velikonja, Ryan Montalto, second-year economics major and Amélie Fauquenot, second-year Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and sociology double major. Mia Altamuro, first-year journalism and communications major joined the club later on but is now a core member.
The Instagram infographic posted by Blotner reads: “Jews are an ethnic group from who come from Israel, This is proven by genealogical, historical & archeological evidence. Israel is not ‘a colonial state’ and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.” The post contained four more slides with similar content.
Velikonja privately messaged Blotner about the Instagram post, to which she did not respond.
A few days later Velikonja messaged Blotner regarding her post via the NPA group chat, “Hey Cassie we saw your story post about Zionism and how it isn’t colonialism, and we feel like we should address this for a couple reasons. Personally, I think Israel is a settler colonial state and we can’t condone the violence they take against Palestinians. If u agree w my statement, i think it is important to clarify that being pro israel is nuanced as being pro israeli gov, which, by default, means supporting what they do to palestinians. We should have a meeting to understand your thoughts on it, and all have a convo about Israel Palestine.”
Blotner responded to the message by denying a conversation. When speaking to the Oracle about why she had turned it down, she responded saying it was, “one of me versus four of them, and it is also a form of anti-semitism to corner Jews into a conversation about Israel and Palestine and forcing opinion out of us.”
After a few days, Blotner wanted to reapproach the subject with NPA and decided to speak with people she believed to be more educated on the topic than she was.
“I talked with my rabbi and I spoke to a few people who are very educated on the conflict, and I came up with this response… After I sent that, they removed me from Instagram and then a few days after that they removed me from the shared Google Drive,” she said.
In one of her final messages to NPA, Blotner suggested a conversation be held between herself, NPA and the Jewish Student Union (JSU). NPA denied.
“When I heard that NPA refused to meet with the Jewish Student Union, I felt like that was an official stance on their inclusion of Jewish voices. They said they refuse to talk to us about a conversation that they started,” said Ofek Preis, third-year political science and sociology major. “They started this conversation very aggressively by putting one Jewish person in this group chat, making them like making them give a statement on behalf of a foreign government… which they shouldn’t have to ever represent because they’re just one individual.”
NPA made the group decision to move past the topic, as that would not further their intentions and goals as a club.
“For us to have a meeting with another organization that would require a lot of preparation, a lot of organization. This semester, we’re hoping to focus on funding for sexual assault resources, and that would just be very time consuming and it would distract from our main goal of advocating for survivors,” said Altamuro.
And by survivors, they mean survivors who align with their political beliefs.
“We want to support survivors by literally changing the rules to make it so that there are fewer survivors in the first place. And so when there’s a member with political beliefs that will kind of deter us from doing that, then you know, that’s something we can’t have in our group,” said Velikonja, “I think defending Israel or supporting Israel in any way or any kind of imperialist capitalist nation that oppresses and kills people and exploits people and gives them diseases and any type of condoning or being okay with that is totally not accepted in our group.”
Blotner and Preis shared their definitions of Zionism, acknowledging its importance to the topic. NPA did not ask them for their personal definitions.
“My definition of Zionism is the Jewish right of self-determination,” added Preis. “Half of my family’s Egyptian, the other half is French and German. So yeah, there are some European roots there. But even those Europeans were escaping white supremacy — that’s why they came down to Israel in the first place. My Egyptian grandpa was also escaping white supremacy and had to immigrate to Israel in order to survive. It’s things like that that they obviously don’t know about because they don’t take the time of day to think about why people came to Israel.”
The Oracle asked NPA to provide their own definition of Zionism.
“Zionism, which is most widely agreed upon as the movement for the establishment of the Jewish state, isn’t inherently wrong. But, when you put it into practice and establish that ethnic state where there is already a population that exists, that means that, as we’ve seen today to establish that state, millions of Palestinians had to be displaced and occupied and oppressed and there’s a separation wall and there’s just all these terrible things, blockades, it’s a humanitarian crisis,” responded Montalto. “Zionism is the movement that resulted in the oppression of Palestinians. Zionism was used as a means to basically assert colonial rule.”
Like Preis, Blotner’s definition of Zionism was different from what NPA considered Zionism to be.
“Zionism is the right to Jewish self determination. When I consider myself a Zionist, that’s the definition I’m going off of and that, by no means means that I’m against Palestinian rights because I’m not against them. I believe in rights for both Palestinians and Israelis — that’s the only way for there to be peace in the land,” said Blotner.
Preis made the decision to resign from NPA on the premise that they believed they would also be asked to leave — something the NPA confirmed as true when speaking to the Oracle.
“A lot of Jewish people I know get so sucked into the conflict, that they repress their Jewish identity and become embarrassed and they no longer identify as Jewish, or they’ll turn their backs on Israel, because (if they don’t) then they’re told, like I was told, that you’re condoning violence,” Blotner said. “But, we’re living on stolen land right now. Why are you not talking about that then? It’s American history.”
This quote was brought to NPA’s attention to which they responded stating that had the infographic Blotner posted pertained to something like America not being stolen land, their actions in removing them from the group would have been the same.
Velikonja stated that “Mia, Ryan and I did not steal the land that happened many centuries ago, and we are descendants of that… That doesn’t mean that by living here, we innately support oppression because we don’t have a choice but to live here. I think it’s just important to clarify, let’s be realistic — what, are 300 million people going to get up and leave America? That’s not a realistic plan.” When asked if their group had considered the similarities between this situation and the situation in Israel, Velikonja said, “It’s a nuanced topic, and we haven’t gone into it crazily as a group.”
Although these debates are what led to Blotner’s dismissal, she had other issues with how the group was run. One pressing issue, she believed, was the way NPA was unable to properly use trauma-informed language and treated her when she raised her concerns about the language they chose to use.
“They were not trauma informed at all. And I would always suggest, like, ‘Oh, why don’t we go to training on trauma-informed language and stuff,’ and it always got shut down,” Blotner said. “I felt very othered, and I had to go back to rape counseling because of a lot of stuff that they said was just so insensitive. I don’t think that it was recognized how much weight this has on me… I always thought it was funny because they’re always talking about statistics, and I’m like, am I just like a statistic to you at this point? Are you using me to look good?”
NPA was given an opportunity to respond to this statement.
“That’s not true. We’ve talked a lot about going to trauma-informed training. We never said that it wasn’t a good idea — we were all in favor of doing that,” said Fauquenot. “I feel like Cassie (Blotner) brought it up more, but like we never opposed going, I just think that’s not that easy. Nobody was inviting us to go to the training or anything.”
In her interview, Blotner had said that she found and offered resources for the group to receive this trauma-informed language training.
“I have been working with the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. They’re wonderful. I had a crime victims counselor and they actually offered to do training. They’d offer it twice a year, or once each semester, on trauma-informed language… I was just like, oh, like, could you help NPA out, like, Could you do the training for all of us? And they said, Yes, it was awesome, I’m gonna bring this up to them,” said Blotner.
Blotner said she brought this opportunity up a few times in meetings after the forum in early December.
She said she asked the group, “what do you guys think of this?… Here’s another opportunity… I think that we’d help more people if we were able to use trauma-informed language.”
“Karl (Velikonja) said that he didn’t feel that being trauma informed to their language was as important as pushing a political agenda,” Blotner said.
Blotner and Preis were left to deal with their conflicting emotions about the events that had transpired between them and NPA.
“Where do I go from here?” Preis asked.
“This is something for me as a survivor, not even connected to my Jewish ideology right now because I have a space to go to when it comes to Judaism… As a survivor. I don’t know where to go anymore because I really liked this club. It wasn’t like the other clubs on campus in the sense that they had a political agenda to organize a protest movement,” they said. “Not to say that Take Back the Night and spaces like that don’t know what they’re doing, but I didn’t want space to go to to just talk about my experience. I wanted to be on the frontlines and go to protests and speak at forums like they had allowed me to do up until a couple of weeks ago… They’re kind of leaving us to like fight against sexual assault on our own, and we don’t know where to go.”