To the Editors:
The night of Sept. 23, Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine installed 2,133 black flags in Wilder Bowl in an effort to raise campus consciousness regarding the military offensive enacted this summer against the Palestinian people in Gaza. Each flag represented the life of a Palestinian murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces in July and August of 2014. Many of our peers have raised concerns regarding the implications of this action. Thus far, we have identified three main points of contention. We would like to address them as follows:
1. The installation is anti-Semitic because it occurred during Rosh Hashanah.
This has been perhaps the primary critique of the action: that the mourning of Palestinian deaths committed at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces is incommensurable with the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Students have argued that had the flags commemorating the 2,133 Palestinians killed during Operation Protective Edge been installed on any other day, the action would not have been anti-Semitic. Yet because criticism of Israel and Oberlin College’s complicity in the occupation was raised on Rosh Hashanah, the argument goes, SFP is guilty of anti-Semitism.
It is important to refute this claim. Though SFP had originally intended for the installation to begin on Sept. 23, on the official International Day of Action on College Campuses called for by American Muslims for Palestine, we were denied access to Wilder Bowl on this date due to scheduling conflicts. Thus, we installed the flags on the night of the 23rd into the early morning of the 24th. While we would have preferred to install the flags on the 23rd, we maintain that the installation would have remained until the 27th had it been executed one day earlier and that the installation was in accordance with the larger Day of Action.
The timing of this installation was clearly provocative; our view is that recognizing the incredible amount of human loss resulting from Operation Protective Edge and challenging both the administration and student body to consider our own complicity in the occupation should not be mutually exclusive with the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Feeling discomfort because one must confront the realities of Operation Protective Edge carried out in the name of the safety of the Jewish people does not amount to anti-Semitism, no matter what day of the year it is. Moreover, the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is unfounded. There is nothing bigoted about voicing disapproval toward the Israeli state, nor exposing its colonial and apartheid practices. It is reductive in the extreme to assert that criticism of Israel — and, equally important, of Oberlin’s role in sustaining the occupation — is targeting Jewish students. Not only does this kind of sentiment homogenize the wide range of opinion among Jews at Oberlin and effectively delegitimize the experiences of those who identify as anti-Zionist, but it mistakenly centers the conversation on the role of Jewish identity as it relates to the occupation.
This is a grave error. The focus of this action should be on the Palestinians killed by Israel’s military force. To continually shift the focus to a discussion of Jewish identity rather than the loss of Palestinian life and the radically uneven balance of power in the conflict would represent a further reluctance to seriously engage with our complicity in the occupation and further naturalizes Israel’s impunity as an ethnocratic state.
2. The installation blames American Jewish students for the IDF’s actions.
By no means did our mission statement — which calls for the recognition of our complicity in the acts of violence this summer — imply that we believe American Jews, both on campus and nationally, should be blamed for the actions of the IDF; it is clearly stated that Oberlin College students as a whole must consider our responsibilities in contributing to the funding of this institution as it invests our tuitions in corporations perpetuating the occupation of Palestine. As conscious members of this community, as well as the larger global community, we must take responsibility for the impact of our actions, individually and institutionally.
Students have condemned this action by arguing that they as individuals did not contribute to the assaults on Gaza and therefore must be exempt from any liability in this violence — it has been argued that the installation unfairly levels blame on students, Jewish students specifically. However, violence is both direct and indirect. We do have a degree of control over our role in the occupation, and it is our responsibility to act on this.
3. The ‘call to action’ is threatening; there are other ways of going about promoting peace.
The call to action embodied in our mission statement was aligned with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005. We refuse to participate in the normalization of the displacement and dehumanization of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. As a Palestine solidarity organization, we are directly responding to the demands of the Palestinian people. Moreover, BDS is an explicitly nonviolent organizing tactic endorsed by broad coalitions around the world. Our peers have decried the direct wording of the mission statement. Yet we ask: What is a call for change if not voiced with passion? The Student Senate approved a divestment resolution in the spring of 2013, yet both the administration and Board of Trustees have been dismissive at best in responding to this call. Inaction will not result in fewer Palestinian deaths, an end to the occupation or equal rights for Palestinians in Israel. We mourn, we pray for peace. But we will not be silent.
In solidarity and in struggle,
–Students for a Free Palestine