Israel-Palestine Winter Term Trip Creates Opportunities, Sparks Controversies

Over the last two weeks, controversy has developed over a Winter Term trip originally titled “Bridging the Gap: Israel.” In response to a petition with nearly 600 signatures created by Students for a Free Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, the Bridging the Gap committee issued a response and hosted a forum on Tuesday to address student concerns.

On Oct. 18, Oberlin College released its 2022 Winter Term catalog. The catalog lists a description of the project which will be led by Bridging the Gap Founder Simon Greer, Western States Common Good Program Chair Megan Black, and College fourth-year Havi Carrillo-Klein.

“This project encourages participants to take on the challenge of engaging the deep divides that plague American democracy by thinking deeply about Israel,” the description in the catalog reads.

In response to the Winter Term catalog description, SFP and JVP started a petition calling on the College to condemn the project. In their petition, the organizers noted that the title of the project and the description found in the Winter Term catalog did not make any reference to Palestine or Palestinians.

In order to combat this perceived erasure of Palestine from the project’s goals, SFP and JVP included in their petition a brief overview of the history of Palestine and expressed its concerns with the trip.

“The Winter Term project puts the needs of a predominately wealthy, privileged Oberlin student population above the rights and realities of Palestinians experiencing genocide and ethnic cleansing,” the petition reads. “Many Palestinians are barred from returning to Palestine because of Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies, so why should non-Palestinian Oberlin students have the right to take a school-sponsored trip?”

The petition characterized the College’s promotion and endorsement of the eight-day visit to cultural and religious sites in the Israel-Palestine region as an oppressive stance, because the initial framing depicts the situation in the region as the “Israeli-Palestine conflict” with two sides of equal power and responsibility and not as a settler-colonial project, as the petition states it is.

In response to the petition, the founding members of the trip released a statement acknowledging that they made a mistake when initially advertising the program.

“The original program description, which has now been modified, didn’t reflect the full scope and nuance of the project’s design,” the statement reads. “We apologize for the oversight.”

A new project description was released at the end of their response, and the project was renamed “Bridging the Gap: Israel, Palestine, and the Politics of Division Here at Home.”

Yet for both the organizers of the Winter Term and SFP and JVP, the establishment of the program has meant addressing a deeper question of how Israel-Palestine should be addressed in the Oberlin community.

For Black, the project’s goals address what she, Greer, and Carrillo- Klein see as a major issue: the current discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine has fractured progressive grassroots movements and made countering rising authoritarianism on the far right difficult.

“We’re really concerned that the left and the progressive movement don’t know how to talk about and don’t take antisemitism seriously,” Black said. “We want to use this project to also invite people into a more intentional conversation about antisemitism as a form of racialized oppression that sits alongside other similar things like anti-Asian sentiment and Islamophobia.”

For SFP and JVP, engagement with the Israeli side of the conflict is a tacit endorsement of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the region.

“The program justifies itself by stating that ‘the situation’ is ‘complex,’ and that the program ‘bridges the gap’ and emphasizes ‘different perspectives,’” their petition reads. “The use of ideological ‘both sidesisms’ frames the Occupation of Palestine as a conflict and not a settler colonial project carrying out genocide.”

However, for Carrillo-Klein, the program is an opportunity to hold a more complex conversation about a multifaceted and personal issue.

“I grew up in a mixed-race household,” she said. “I’m Mexican and I’m Jewish. My whole life I have had two really important issues that were very personal, which were immigration reform and antisemitism. One issue in particular that came up for me as soon as I got to … Oberlin’s campus was that the conversation around Israel and Palestine lacked nuance. Students didn’t have the chance … to be able to voice their opinions freely.”