Oberlin College is an institution in turmoil over the past several years, and anti-Israel activism is part of the problem. Now, over 200 alumni are claiming the anti-Israel activism has created a hostile environment for Jews, and the alumni are demanding the college take action to address the problem.

The issue of when anti-Israelism crosses into anti-Semitism is a hot topic on campuses recently because of the very aggressive tactics of anti-Israel campus groups, and the intense demonization of Israel. “Intersectionality” analysis is used by anti-Israel activists to try to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement and other similar movements:

Every real or perceived problem is either blamed on or connected to Israel.

The concerted effort to turn the Black Lives Matter movement into an anti-Israel movement has at its core the claim that Israel is the root of problems of non-whites in the United States. Thus, if a police chief somewhere attended a one-week anti-terrorism seminar in Israel years ago, every act of brutality by a cop on the beat is blamed on Israel.

When City University of New York Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, tried to turn the Million Student March into an anti-Israel event and blamed high tuition on Zionists, the CUNY Vice Chancellor called it “thinly-veiled bigotry, prejudice, anti-Semitism.” At Vassar College, SJP circulated a Nazi cartoon after weeks of anti-Israel activism that included picketing a course which involved travel to Israel.

Prof. Miriam Elman laid out the history and analysis in Fighting The Hate: When Does Anti-Israel Become Anti-Semitic?

As described below, it appears Oberlin may need to go through a similar self-evaluation.

Recent Oberlin Drama – Progressive and Anti-Israel Activism

In the winter of 2013, racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay flyers were posted around campus, leading to a cancelling of classes and college-wide teach-ins and meetings. The campus hysteria was such that a student claimed to see someone in a Klan robe walking on campus at night.

It was national news. But it turned out that the posters were placed by a progressive white student seeking to troll the community into discussing racism, and the person in a Klan robe likely was just a student walking wrapped in a blanket to provide warmth from the cold. The anti-Semitic postings, that included a swastika in place of a Jewish star on the Israeli flag, received relatively little focus.

Oberlin Poster Anti-Israel w out handwriting

No matter, the racism hoax stirred Oberlin into action. Not to look at what it is that causes a progressive white student to feel the need to create the appearance of racism so the community can talk about racism. Or what causes a progressive student to use a flyer from a known anti-Semitic website (“Jew Watch”) as a means of criticizing Israel.

Instead, the college used the incident as an opportunity to impose even more aggressive multi-cultural education requirements on students, faculty and staff.

That same spring, the Oberlin student government became one of the first to pass an anti-Israel divestment resolution brought by Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine. (The Board of Trustees later rejected the resolution.)

That group is very active on campus sponsoring a continuous series of events meant to portray Israel as a pariah and Apartheid state:

SFP’s agenda includes “intersectionality,” discussed above, in which Israel is tied to unrelated problems of non-whites in the United States in order to build an anti-Israel coalition. Co-opting the Black Lives Matter and other movements is the key focus of the boycott movement in the U.S. One example at Oberlin was how SFP compared Israel’s security barrier (what SFP calls the Apartheid Wall) to the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border in order to portray Israel as anti-Hispanic. Another event tied Israel to Ferguson and the Michael Brown shooting.

In October 2015, Christina Hoff Sommers came to lecture on campus on the subject of feminism, and some of the statistical and other myths that pervade the progressive discussion of “rape culture” on campuses. She was met with fury by campus feminists, who organized protests and accused Sommers of supporting rapists. Posters issued “trigger warnings” and a “safe space” was created for students who felt “triggered” by Sommers’ mere appearance on campus. While not Israel-related, the Sommers’ protests demonstrated an extreme lack of progressive tolerance for opposing viewpoints.

[Oberlin College protest over appearance of Christina Hoff Sommers][Image credit: Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute

[Oberlin College protest over appearance of Christina Hoff Sommers][Image credit: Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute]

In November 2015, the Oberlin Black Student Union (ABUSUA) brought a petition complaining about cultural appropriation of ethnic foods and cultural insensitivity in the dining hall. The petition brought much mockery on Oberlin even from progressives. Complaints about how General Tso’s Chicken was prepared were humorous at one level, since it is an American dish created in America.

But at another level, the dining hall petition reflected a deeper racial discontent on campus, which resulted in a December 2015 14-page list of demands prepared by the Black Students Union. Most of those demands were similar to demands at other colleges regarding increased faculty affirmative action, financial assistance to “students of color,” and so on.

But the Oberlin demand list was apart from the rest in including anti-Israel divestment, based on the “intersectionality” theory:

● The immediate divestment from Israel, who has exploited many African descendant peoples seeking refuge. Furthermore, because the oppressive and violent acts towards Palestinians mirrors the anti Blackness currently in the United States.

The demand list was signed by almost half the student body. It’s hard to tell how many of those signatories noticed the anti-Israel language, or signed despite that language. Nonetheless, the inclusion of that language in a Black Student Union demand list reflects the deep influence of the anti-Israel movement on campus.

Alumni Open Letter

The question arises, has anti-Israel activism at Oberlin gone beyond the type of activism we see at other schools?

A group of over 200 Oberlin alumni seem to think so. Melissa Landa, a 1986 graduate of Oberlin and one of the people who organized an Open Letter, stated in an email to Legal Insurrection:

“Over the last few years, I have been hearing reports of anti-Semitism at Oberlin, primarily related to an active and hostile pro-BDS student group, “Students for a Free Palestine” …. I began to engage with pro BDS students and alumni on an Oberlin Facebook page, where I personally experienced hostility in response to my views on Israel, including anti-Semitic attacks.

On the same site, I established contact with Oberlin students and alumni who were also troubled by the hostility of the pro-BDS members of the group. I began to gather information on specific pro BDS occurrences at Oberlin through personal accounts from former students, from the campus rabbi, and from news reports.

At the beginning of December 2015, I decided to create an online forum for Oberlin alumni who shared my concerns, including former students who had authored the newspaper articles describing anti-Semitism at Oberlin that I had read. We drafted an open letter to Oberlin President Krislov and the Trustees ….Today, we have 209 signatures.

We have also begun to document all incidents of anti Semitism at Oberlin by collecting testimonials from alumni and current students. As of today, that list is 5-pages in length and includes physical intimidation, verbal harassment, and vandalism. I will be meeting with Oberlin President Krislov on January 26 when I will be presenting that list to him.”

The Open letter is available online and reads, in full (note – hyperlinks added by me so you could find the articles referenced in the Open Letter):

Open Letter to College President Krislov, the Trustees, Faculty, Staff, and Students of Oberlin College:

January 3, 2016

Throughout the past few years, the movement to Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction Israel (BDS) has become increasingly active on American college campuses, and Oberlin has become the site of highly visible BDS activism. Several student organizations at Oberlin have assumed the role as the mouthpiece of the BDS movement, which claims to be a defender of Palestinian rights, but whose inflammatory language falsely portraying Israel as an illegitimate, colonialist and murderous regime demonstrates that its primary goal is to demonize the Jewish state. Because participation in these groups requires denouncing Israel, the message to Jewish students can be summed up as follows: Either forfeit your allegiance to Israel and join us, or we will brand you as an enemy of justice and complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

As Oberlin students and alumni representing a diversity of views on Israel, we accept criticism of its leadership and policies. However, we do not believe Israel should be singled out for condemnation and we object to questioning its right to exist. We also abhor the tactics of Oberlin’s pro-BDS student organizations that intimidate, threaten, and coerce Jewish students, which we have seen and heard in numerous written and spoken reports.

According to The Jewish Exponent, an award-winning newspaper that serves the Jewish community of Philadelphia, one Oberlin student reported, “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, the AMCHA campus monitor, which is published by a non profit organization that addresses anti-Semitism on college campuses, has documented numerous messages posted on line by the student group, Students for a Free Palestine, including, “Ohio is infested with Zionism,” and describing Israel as a “white supremacist,” “violent apartheid state.” As reported to The Oberlin Review, other incidents include 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 displayed on Rosh Hashanah, one of Judaism’s holiest days.

Jewish students have articulated the impact of these incidents on their lives. The Oberlin Review quoted one student who said, “I quickly learned that at Oberlin, love for my own nation (Israel) was not something I could freely express.” The student who was quoted in The Jewish Exponent, also explained that she transferred out of Oberlin due to its “toxic climate…around Israel.”

While we commend the decision of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees to reject calls for the college to endorse the BDS movement, and President Krislov’s statements against anti-Semitism on college campuses, we are deeply troubled by the continued intimidation of Jewish students and the many other forms of anti-Semitism occurring on campus. To echo a recent ruling by a French court of appeals, declaring BDS a blatant form of hate speech and anti-Semitism, we believe that pro-BDS individuals at Oberlin are exploiting the concept of free speech by promoting hate speech and by inciting acts of anti-Semitism. Thus, in an effort to see our alma mater reverse this unacceptable trend of aggression, we are calling on the administration to take the following steps:

1) A thorough investigation and documentation of all acts of anti-Semitism, including student rallies that voiced inflammatory language about Israel.

2) A forum for students and alumni who have experienced anti-Semitism at Oberlin in the past or who have been coerced by BDS proponents, to share and discuss the impact of those experiences on their psychological well-being and academic performance.

3) A task force comprised of President Krislov, Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, the interim or permanent 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.

Oberlin College has a rich history of tolerance and peaceful political activism. As current students and alumni, we need to know that those values, which appealed to each of us when we chose to attend Oberlin, will still exist for Oberlin’s future students, and that the current divisive and damaging environment will not continue. We hope and trust that you will do what is necessary to maintain our proud legacy.

Student Voices

Are the alumni who signed the Open Letter out of touch with the current Oberlin campus? That always is a concern when alumni get involved in anything, but much of the Open Letter links to quotes from current or recent students.

Unrelated to the Open Letter, I saw this Facebook post by a recent alumna about her experience with anti-Israel fanaticism at Oberlin and how it crossed into anti-Semitism:


I don’t want to make it seem like i hated my time at oberlin. it was a mixed bag and i got a great education and was blessed to learn from amazing professors. But i think being out of that environment has given me a chance to breathe and process everything that i learned/ encountered/ unlearned at oberlin. i learned about the historical context of anti black racism and its current manifestations and through that learning process was able to better frame and identify my own community’s struggle. However i quickly learned that process was to be kept personal and did not blend into the campus atmosphere or the collective fight for justice at oberlin. Because at oberlin, and indeed in the US overall, Jews are viewed as white and privileged (sometimes even above the avg white privilege, since yaknow, were all superrich and stuff) therefore our struggle does not intersect with other forms of racism and bigotry and ignorance that are so tenaciously fought against on campus. As a part of my processing and letting go of the pain I experienced, I will list a few memorable antisemitic moments/incidents here-
Obies feel free to read. But this is actually intended for all my friends and family outside of that circle…

1. The multiple times the Holocaust was referred to as “white on white crime” by my POC peers and hip white Jewish peers, (erasing the fact that ashkenazi jews were NOT seen as white and were being killed in the name of eugenics and white purity and also erasing the fact that blacks, Roma, and north african Jews were also killed in the camps.)

2. That time a Jewish person made a comment on fb saying “the only reason people care about the Holocaust is because it happened to white people” and got tons of likes from white and POC friends alike (Erasing the fact that the western world only decided to care a few decades after the fact, when it wasnt as fresh, and theyd had the time to really work out the details of how they were going to frame it and make it look like the US were the heroes liberating the camps after the US government knew what was being planned by Hitler, knew waht happening while it was happening, and did nothing. Not to mention sending Jewish immigrants trying to escape before the war broke out back to Europe to die in the gas chambers.) This is just one example of Jewish obies stepping all over their ancestors memory in order to climb the white-ally-social-ladder-of-justice-and-excellence i cannot understand it as anything other than self hatred masked by love of “the other”..

3. That time Kosher Halal Co Op was told it couldnt serve “ethnic” food because Jews are white not “ethnic” (erasing identities of Mexican Jews, Asian Jews, etc)

4. That time SFP brought in a Jewish lady to talk about her work with electronicintifada and tell all the Obies that Zionism/Zionists “should burn at the stake” — (After that spectacle who could argue that antizionism has any crossover with antisemitism — “but that lady is jewish and she said xyz so i can say xyz and its not antisemitic or even violent or problematic at all hooooorayyyyy!”

5. That time I was told I should be ashamed for what my people are doing to the Palestinians, by someone I didn’t even know, upon learning I was Jewish. (Imagine a Alawite student at Oberlin being told “you should be ashamed for what your people are doing over there in syria” — yeah, it wouldnt fly. Or a Nigerian Muslim student being shamed for whats going on in their country… never literally would never happen. But Jewish kids? Jewish country? Fair game.)

6. That time my African Studies professor had an antizionist jewish south african man come in to talk to the class about jazz and resistance. During Q&A she praised a Jewish student for their anti Israel comments relating Israel to South African apartheid. The prof then made funny faces and funny eyes when I spoke up and tried to make the point that we should try to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within its OWN historical context and that its unfair to both Israelis and Palestinians to rely only on shaky comparisons. It was clear, in that classroom, who was the good Jew and who was the bad Jew, in that professors’ eyes. I was bad. My concern for anti black racism came into question because I didn’t write anti zionist across my forehead. After that class she literally had me come into her office and asked me ,”why are you here” and i was so shaken with so many emotions i just cried and wasnt able to talk to her and therefore my final paper suffered as a result. This professor also cut ties with the Hillel Rabbi because he, too, did not brand himself an antiZionist.

7. Those times antiblack and antisemitic incidents occurred simultaneously, and then the uproar followed but the antisemitism was essentially ignored by the campus at large. And if I brought that up I was told “dont derail the real issue here.”

8. That time a Jewish girl walked into her dorm room to find glass shattered all over her bed and floor because someone decided to throw a rock through her window, where she had hung an Israeli flag.

9. The fact my Mizrahi Jewish friend has had her identity policed on multiple occasions and was told she is white.

10. The fact that so many Jewish students are bullied into silence, whether its about their own ethnic identity, (PSA: you can identify as ethnically Jewish while still acknowledging your white privilege) their relationship to Israel, or their concern about antisemitism in general/ on campus.

11. The intense and unrelenting vilification of Israel out of proportion to any other nation on the planet where terrible shit happens // People literally refusing to talk to me because I identify as a Zionist.

12. When I overheard someone say “Islamophobia is like the anti-Semitism of our time” as if anti semitism is over/ started and ended with the Holocaust/ has been replaced by anti-muslim racism

13. When a self-identifying “radical” friend posted a picture of Neturei Karta holding anti Israel signs at a protest – “Look! There are Jews who arent monsters!” They have those funny outfits and everything! I’m not tokenizing an extreme minority faction of Orthodox Jews whose views i literally no nothing of in order to prove how not anti semitic my antizionism is!”

14. How inevitably during discussions about the establishment of Israel, people would say “the Jews decided to make Palestinians suffer for the crimes the Germans committed against them” while failing to understand that Zionism is way older than the Holocaust as is the need and the yearning for a Jewish homeland. How Israel is called “colonial and Imperialist, Britain gave it to the Jews” even though we had to FIGHT the imperial army to gain independence. (Revoking agency of Jews that fought for Israel’s independence// Rewriting history so that you would raise your eyebrows in disbelief when I told you my relatives were forced to stay in a DP camp in Cyprus for years after the war ended and that British navy vessels opened fire at ships full of Jewish refugees from Europe and North Africa attempting to make it to Palestine. We did not waltz right in. And we did not come there with an expansionist agenda.
15. Generally antisemitic ideas floating around such as Jews are milking the Holocaust for their own gain// everything is as bad as the Holocaust except for the actual Holocaust which wasnt as bad as people say it was// Jews only care about themselves (another AAST professor told me, “your people really take care of each other” at first i thought it was a compliment but when i told my mother about it she explained that it was not)

16. That time someone posted flyers depicting the Israeli flag with a swastika replacing the star of David and a derogatory slur for jews as a caption

17. Hip white activists boosting their radicalresume by denouncing Israel’s right to exist and a handful of Ashkenazis on that bandwagon saying shit like “I hate my right to Israeli citizenship. Israel isn’t my country. It shouldnt even be a country” (Kay well thanks to your white privilege and your lofty rejection of nationalism you are erasing what Zionism means for so many Jews who do NOT share your privilege, such as Yemen’s remaining Jewish population who have recently been told by Houthi rebels that they will lose all their protection under law unless they flee or convert to Islam)

18. Having my own ethnic identity policed. Being told I was simply European and Judaism is a religion not an ethnicity/ or that I am a descendent of Khazarian converts to Judaism and therefore have no right to claim any sort of indigenousness in the Levant. (There is DNA evidence that the VAST MAJORITY of Jews have Middle Eastern genetic markers (yep even us whities) they can even tell what time period we originated there and started mixing with other populations and it lines up with our own historical narrative yet somehow anti-Jewish polemics still get the mic)

Wow, 18. Chai. Life. WOOSH. That felt great to put it all out there. Also please know that I am not tryin to generalize any specific community at oberlin for antisemitism. It is a complex form of institutional “othering” that is upheld by everyone who is not Jewish.. it manifests on racial grounds, cultural grounds, religious grounds, etc. And it kills, it doesnt just hurt.

I am blessed to believe that within myself I carry the capacity to care deeply about the freedom and wellbeing of all peoples. I believe I have the brainpower and the heartspace to continue educating myself and speaking out against ALL FORMS OF RACISM AND HATE INCLUDING ANTISEMITISM.

Is the Link between Anti-Israel fanaticism and Anti-Semitism Untouchable?

I reached out for comment to Oberlin’s President and Media Relations for comment on the Open Letter. No response. To numerous student leaders of campus Jewish groups. No response. To the present Interim Director of campus Hillel. No response.

Does the silence reflect that there is no problem, or that the problem is so serious that it has become untouchable in light of racial tensions on campus?

Is Oberlin as a college willing to address how “intersectionality” and anti-Israel fanaticism may have veered into anti-Semitic stereotyping and a hostile environment?

That’s a question many colleges will have to answer.

[Featured Image: Protest at Oberlin College Library, via Oberlin SFP Facebook]