The Oberlin Alumni and Students Against Anti-Semitism sent an open letter to President Marvin Krislov on Jan. 3 concerning reports of anti-Semitism on campus and demanding specific action from the administration. Their letter prompted responses from Oberlin’s Students for a Free Palestine and Palestine Legal, a national organization that provides legal advice and support to students, activists and communities advocating for Palestinian freedom.
The open letter accused the Boycott, Divest from and Sanction Israel movement and SFP of “falsely portraying Israel as an illegitimate, colonialist and murderous regime.” It went on to claim that the primary goal of these organizations was to “demonize the Jewish state.” Signed by nearly 250 alumni and current students, the letter cites claims of anti-Semitic acts on campus, such as the expulsion of the Kosher Halal Co-op from the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association.
“As Oberlin students and alumni representing a diversity of views on Israel, we accept criticism of its leadership and policies,” the letter states. “However, we do not believe Israel should be singled out for condemnation, and we object to questioning its right to exist.”
The authors of the letter call for the administration to take steps toward investigating and documenting acts of anti-Semitism, creating a forum through which students’ experiences with antiSemitism can be shared and discussed and putting together a committee to form an immediate plan of action addressing the situation. The committee would include students, faculty and staff, alumni, President Krislov and Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, an affiliate of the Chabad Student Group.
According to Palestine Legal Director Dima Khalidi, Palestinian activist groups often face allegations of anti-Semitism, many of which are false accusations.
“This is something we’re tracking; we get hundreds of requests for advice and for legal help every year,” Khalidi said. “In our 2016 data, over 50 percent of those [requests] involved some kind of false accusation of anti-Semitism, and by that we mean accusations based solely on criticism of Israeli policies,” Khalidi said.
Khalidi also cautioned against allowing these cases to blur the vision of those navigating allegations of anti-Semitism.
“It’s crucial for university administration officials to recognize the distinction between anti-Semitism, which is a hatred of and disdain for and discrimination against Jewish people because of their ethnic and religious ancestry, and criticism of Israel.”
SFP responded to the alumni and student letter with a statement saying that the accusations of anti-Semitism are inaccurate. The group also said they are trying to distinguish their advocacy work from the racist and anti-Semitic acts of March 4, 2013, which SFP members said they feel have been conflated by the media since the release of the letters.
The organization argued that criticisms of Israel are not criticisms of Judaism, and that while confronting the reality of the occupation may be uncomfortable, it is not anti-Semitic.
“In calling our criticisms intimidation tactics and hate speech … those who accuse us endanger earnest debate on the ways in which we are complicit in the oppression of Palestinian people,” SFP
stated in their online response to the accusations of anti-Semitism. “If Oberlin is to uphold values of intellectual freedom and social engagement, it cannot implement the proposals in the letter.”
According to Sarah Minion, a College third-year and co-chair of Oberlin’s chapter of J Street U, a national network of student activists promoting a two state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the letter reflects a larger problem within Oberlin’s Jewish community.
Minion said that it is often difficult to students to have “the tough conversations” about the occupation.
“I do not want to invalidate peoples’ feelings of anti-Semitism, but I don’t think that’s fully representative of Jewish experiences,” Minion said.