Jewish student leaders at Oberlin College in Ohio attempted this week to deflate an effort by over 300 alumni to stymie the BDS movement against Israel.
“We as students want to have meaningful, nuanced conversations about Israel,” Oberlin students Eli Hovland, Emily Isaacson and Sarah Keller wrote in an op-ed published on the website of the Cleveland Jewish News. “Our approach delves into the complexities of the conflict and works to change the polarizing dynamics on campus.
“Unfortunately, we have been reminded recently that in the broader off-campus fight over BDS and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our voices and experiences are often devalued as naive or inconsequential.”
Hovland is co-chair of the Oberlin Hillel, Isaacson is an Oberlin J Street U leader and Keller is chair of Oberlin Zionists.
Obies Against BDS
The students were responding to the “Obies Against BDS” alumni Facebook page. The large alumni group sent a letter to Oberlin administrators in January, expressing concern about the actions of the BDS movement at Oberlin and tolerance for anti-Semitism at the school.
"As leaders of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities at Oberlin College, we have found that when we narrow the idea of what it means to 'defeat' boycott, sanctions and divestment, we end up isolating many of the students who are doing substantial work around Israel on campus every day," the student leaders said.
"Unfortunately," they complained, "we have been reminded recently that in the broader off-campus fight over BDS and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our voices and experiences are often devalued as naive or inconsequential." They explained that the alumni who wrote the letter to the college "lack a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics on Oberlin’s campus."
The trio was unhappy that no one had consulted with them in drafting the missive and said it was "deeply upsetting to be censored by the same alumni who claimed to want to support current students."
In addition, they noted, Israel advocacy professionals who came to campus advocating a battle against BDS "felt no commitment to actually understanding why divestment is increasingly popular on college campuses."
"As we have worked to seriously engage with issues both at Oberlin and in the region, we have realized more and more that progressive student voices are ignored or disregarded by those who are viewing Oberlin from afar."
"We all agreed that working to end the occupation and achieve a two-state resolution is vital for the future of a Jewish and democratic Israel," they explained.
"Ohio is infested with Zionism"
The alumni had said in their letter that while they represent a variety of views, they "do not believe Israel should be singled out for condemnation" and "object to questioning its right to exist." In addition, they said, they "abhor the tactics of Oberlin’s pro-BDS student organizations that intimidate, threaten, and coerce Jewish students."
They cited a newspaper report about an Oberlin student who said: "My fellow Obies and I were expected by our peers to join them in denouncing a plethora of social evils including… Israel." That same student described an incident on campus when, "One speaker drew laughs when she said that Zionists should be burned at the stake." In addition, messages posted online by student group Students for a Free Palestine included "Ohio is infested with Zionism," and a description of Israel as a "white supremacist," "violent apartheid state."
Other incidents included the expulsion of the Kosher Halal co-op from the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) and an exhibition of black flags symbolizing the Palestinians killed in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, which was displayed on Rosh Hashanah.
They alumni called on the administration to launch a thorough investigation and documentation of all acts of anti-Semitism, establish a forum for students and alumni who have experienced anti-Semitism or who have been coerced by BDS proponents, and create a task force comprised of the College President, Oberlin Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, the Oberlin Hillel director, students, staff, faculty, and alumni, "to put into place an appropriate, clear and immediate plan of action to address this current crisis."