The original version of this letter listed Oberlin J Street U as a consultant. Since the letter’s publication, members of Oberlin J Street U have requested that the organization’s name be removed. For more information, read our full coverage of Student Senate’s letter, ACF’s symposium and students’ responses.
In consultation with current and former members of ABUSUA and Students for a Free Palestine, Student Senate drafted a letter condemning the actions of certain alumni over the last year; including the surveillance, intimidation, marginalization and harassment of students. The text of the letter is below.
Since late 2015, a group of Oberlin alumni have driven a narrative of rampant anti-semitism at Oberlin. They created and moderated the secret Facebook page “Obies against BDS,” and organized an Oberlin Chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF). ACF describes itself as a national network that “organizes alumni to fight the anti-Semitism that is infecting university and college campuses in the guise of anti-Israel activism,” pressuring institutions to provide “comprehensive education, rather than activist propaganda” about Israel and the Middle East, while also seeking to provide “a safe and welcoming environment for students and faculty” with a connection to Israel. However, over the last 10 months, the alums in the Oberlin Chapter of ACF (OCACF) have blatantly disregarded students’ well-being and perspectives in order to push their chosen narrative.
In December 2015, the discussion on Obies against BDS centered on writing a letter to the Oberlin administration articulating concerns over BDS and anti-semitism on campus. When elected student leaders from campus Jewish and pro-Israeli organizations disagreed with and spoke out against the external perception of campus, voicing political disagreement, they were censored and removed from the Facebook group. Some students were even harassed online by alumni moderating the group. Obies against BDS sent their letter to the Oberlin administration in early January, simultaneously publishing it online. Student leaders from Oberlin Zionists, J Street U, and Hillel wrote an op-ed in response, published in February in Cleveland Jewish News, stating that the alumni organizing the letter had little interest in student perspective.
Two days after the op-ed appeared in Cleveland Jewish News, The Tower published its first article on Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega’s Facebook posts. OCACF currently takes credit for uncovering these Facebook posts, which notably came soon after the announcement of BDS-advocate and well-respected University of California, Los Angeles Professor Robin Kelley’s impending visit to Oberlin. The Obies against BDS letter contained no concerns about anti-semitic views being expressed by Oberlin faculty, but Professor Karega’s posts were immediately included in OCACF’s narrative of rampant anti-semitism. What followed can most accurately be described as a witch-hunt, orchestrated by organizations outside of Oberlin’s campus, that discarded previous concerns about anti-semitism within the student body for a more readily identifiable target – Professor Karega.
Since February, concern for students has been appropriated into OCACF’s narrative. In April, OCACF President Melissa Landa (OC ’86) stated that Professor Karega’s views were publicly shared for months and years, part of a hostile environment that Jewish students face at Oberlin. By July OCACF, dissatisfied with the slow-paced enquiry into Professor Karega’s postings, sent a letter to Oberlin’s Board of Trustees expressing their concern that Professor Karega’s anti-semitic views were shared with students on Facebook and during her class sessions.
The effects of this changing narrative can be seen in the response to Professor Karega being placed on paid leave. In a joint statement, The Jewish Federation of Cleveland, the Cleveland Hillel Foundation, AJC Cleveland, and the Anti-Defamation League Cleveland said the paid leave decision “sends an important message about the college’s commitment to seeing that academic freedom is not abused to the detriment of the students.” These organizations also expressed that they “look forward to working with the college in the coming semester to foster a campus climate of openness, acceptance, tolerance and mutual respect where students can learn and thrive.”
OCACF fails to demonstrate any concern for students beyond what is politically valuable for them to articulate. These alumni have tirelessly campaigned to create a false image of Oberlin, damage the value of an Oberlin education, and then assert that the only appropriate response is that which they have already proposed: working groups dominated by those who agree with them and severe punishment for Professor Karega. OCACF’s approach has only served to hurt students who are going to classes, studying, engaging in difficult political discussions, and organizing in activist groups. The upcoming symposium sponsored by OCACF titled “Building A Hate-Free Campus Through Civil Discourse” on September 22nd is a clear representation of their flagrant disregard for students’ interests. This is demonstrated by the fact that student organizations were not involved in the planning or promotion of this symposium, which will be hosted off campus at the The Local. Student Senate does not support the content or approach to this conversation and demands that the response of Oberlin and the community at the very least involve student initiative.
The members of OCACF have perfectly exhibited the types of actions that are detrimental to student led, focused, and oriented initiatives, and student life on campus generally. As students, we are the largest and most present stakeholder in the construction of campus climate. In so being, we repudiate the attempt from OCACF to create a fabricated and falsely adversarial campus environment. Oberlin Student Senate condemns OCACF’s surveillance, intimidation, marginalization, and harassment of Oberlin students, which we believe has impaired the discourse around anti-semitism on campus.
On behalf of Student Senate,
Jeremy Poe, Student Senate Liaison
In consultation with current and former student members from
Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine