More than 90 alumni of Oberlin College in Ohio called on their alma mater to end “the concerted hostility toward Israel” on campus, saying it fosters a hostile environment for Jewish students.
In an open letter sent to Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar, signatories organized by the group Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness — which opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israelis — claimed that “there were eight times as many events portraying Israel negatively as there were portraying Israel positively” at the school during the fall 2017 semester.
“The stream of negative messages about Israel creates the distorted impression that Israel is a unique evil in the world,” warned the alumni, who were joined by six former and current Oberlin faculty members.
While upholding the right of speakers such as BDS activist Ali Abunimah to appear at the private liberal arts college, “we do object to professors endorsing his position by offering extra credit to students who attend,” they continued. “We also believe that without offering students the opportunity to hear counter-narratives and robust debate and dialogue, Oberlin College is engaging in political indoctrination rather than offering rigorous education.”
The group said its “greatest concern is that incessant negative portrayal of Israel perpetuates a campus environment that, despite offering Jewish cultural and religious opportunities unrelated to Israel, is unwelcoming for many Jewish students and triggers blatant attacks of antisemitism.”
They cited several incidents in support of their argument, including an account from a 2016 graduate of Oberlin who recalled hearing fellow students shouting “Free Palestine” while he was walking to a Jewish religious service; a November 2016 attack on the home of a Jewish Oberlin professor, who found a note reading “GAS JEWS DIE” on his mezuzah (a prayer scroll Jews place on their doorposts); and a rock attack that shattered a dorm window where an Israeli flag was on display.
After the Jewish community was again targeted in October 2017 — when flyers calling for an end to “Jewish privilege” were found across campus — the college announced that it would no longer notify the community of such incidents to avoid giving the perpetrators “a microphone.”
“We have attempted to work directly with the administration to address these concerns, but they have not been responsive,” the alumni wrote. They claimed that “the status quo has alienated many Jewish students,” and may discourage others from attending Oberlin.
The school — which has approximately 750 Jewish students, constituting some 26 percent of the total undergraduate population — is currently grappling with a general drop in enrollment.
The letter’s signatories issued several recommendations to address their concerns, including the “transparent investigation and documentation of all acts of antisemitism,” and the launch of a task force “to create an immediate plan of action to address this continuing crisis.”
They also called for the establishment of a forum for students and alumni where antisemitic incidents could “be treated with the same kind of sensitivity and attention that has been given to other campus incidents of racism and other prejudices.”
Wednesday’s letter follows one published by the same organizers in 2016 — with the backing of more than 300 Oberlin alumni and students — which expressed concern over “the continued intimidation of Jewish students and the many other forms of antisemitism occurring on campus.”
Three student leaders from Oberlin’s Jewish and Zionist communities responded to that letter a month later, saying it “isn’t in line with the reality at Oberlin and does not reflect the genuine experiences of most students on campus today.”
“Instead, it made assumptions about Oberlin’s environment in order to further a particular perception of BDS,” they asserted.
Days afterwards, news broke that an assistant professor at the college had shared posts on social media blaming “Israeli and Zionist Jews” for the 9/11 attacks and other global atrocities.
While the professor was subsequently dismissed, concerns have persisted among some alumni that the college has failed to provide a welcome environment for all Jewish students, a number of whom have spoken out about facing a hostile campus climate in recent years.
Oberlin College did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
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