Next Steps for Oberlin College
On September 22, 2016, more than 60 members of the Oberlin College community gathered for an important, and I believe unprecedented, event: an off-campus symposium sponsored by an institution’s alumni, in this case the Oberlin Chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (OCACF).
Called “Building a Hate-Free Campus Through Civil Discourse” and featuring three distinguished speakers — renowned legal thinker Kenneth Marcus, leading young activist Chloe Simone Valdary and community organizer Stacey Aviva Flint — the symposium focused on the topics of defining modern-day antisemitism, maintaining courage in the face of antisemitism and asserting one’s individual identity. You wouldn’t think such a sober, intellectual forum could be so controversial.
The good news is that the event itself went relatively smoothly. Seventy potential protesters canceled their plans, and, in spite of their scathing attack on OCACF and on the symposium itself in the student newspaper a few days earlier, members of Oberlin’s Student Senate chose to attend rather than to boycott. In fact, one student senator and I engaged in what seemed to be an amicable conversation over coffee and dessert before the speakers began.
Still there was much to be concerned about at my beloved alma mater.
In spite of their very vocal presence, for example, several students accused us of deliberately excluding them from the event. Others, referring to an “Open Letter” OCACF had published back in January expressing concern about antisemitism at Oberlin, accused us of misrepresenting how things really were on campus. In doing so, they simply dismissed the 20 current students who had also signed that letter as statistically insignificant.
An interruption came from a member of the campus J-Street group, who wanted to “clarify” that my statement about having spoken to a member of the group prior to the symposium, was, in fact, not true. The basis of her accusation was that she had not been informed of that conversation.
The one and only blatant disruption of the symposium came toward the end, when a town resident rose to defend Oberlin Professor Joy Karega’s notoriously antisemitic Facebook posts from last spring — in response to which several students conveyed their support for his position by loudly snapping their fingers. Finally, after I had spent 45 minutes fielding questions, still other students claimed that I had denied them the opportunity to speak because they were not invited to ask a follow-up question during the symposium itself, and had to pose their follow-ups to me at the end of the evening.
And what about the students who had signed our earlier open letter? Some of them were there, too, but they did not say a word. They sat in silence, hearing their peers dismiss their concerns.
That right there is the problem.
As I reflect on the interpersonal and group dynamics in the room, I do so through the eyes of a college professor who specializes in equitable instruction. Equitable instruction recognizes that it is not enough to view all students as equal members of a class, to assume that they feel free to speak, challenge each other and disagree with each others’ views. Teaching for equity requires the instructor or facilitator to understand the historical and social factors that sit in the room like silent participants, empowering some and debilitating others, and it requires the instructor to make necessary adjustments to promote genuine fairness accordingly.
At Oberlin, the broader social contexts that linger during conversations about Jewish identity are clear: Jewish students who refuse to denounce Israel are accused of racism and oppression, and are socially ostracized. They learn these hegemonic values soon after arriving on campus, and so they hide their Israeli T-shirts, and they keep their heads down and mouths closed.
As the president of OCAFC, my commitment to addressing this distressing issue at Oberlin College is unwavering. Just as our organization sponsored the symposium, we are happy to help students who have been silenced with their own future endeavors. We of course invite other Oberlin to join with us, and we are pleased that chapters of “Alums for Campus Fairness” are rapidly forming at other campuses. We believe that alumni, in partnership with Jewish professionals, can play an important role in providing the appropriate support for Jewish students in the difficult climate on many campuses.
Our providing that support does not, however, replace the administration’s responsibility to ensure that Jewish students who wish to express their Jewish identity through their attachment to Israel feel safe doing so. It is not enough that some members of the administration attended an alumni-sponsored event; it is not enough for them to encourage Jewish students to take action on their own and then assume a lack of interest when they don’t; nor is it enough to reassure students that if they face discrimination, they should file the appropriate report.
It is incumbent on the Oberlin administration to address this issue immediately and directly, to lead Jewish students who are being silenced and intimidated out of the shadows. The possibilities for doing so are endless, but in the spirit of creating a more equitable campus, they need to begin now, by sponsoring events that invite Jewish students who express their Jewishness at least partly through their relationship to Israel to explicitly share their perspectives.
If administrators require a specific suggestion, I urge them to sponsor a memorial service for Israeli President Shimon Peres, encouraging students to display Israeli flags, sing Hatikvah, and lead a teach-in on Peres’s role in the development of modern Israel. If the leaders of the Palestinian Authority can attend President Peres’s funeral and shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, then surely Oberlin College can recognize what a valuable opportunity this sad moment offers them to reestablish a civil and respectful community that welcomes all perspectives.
The issue we are confronting represents years and years of Oberlin students supporting international efforts to demonize, delegitimize and single out the one Jewish state and to shame all who refuse to join in. The students who have been empowered by the college’s tacit support of this effort, who are used to being heard, who validate themselves by their leadership roles, and who are fueled by a sense of entitlement, may protest as they did during the symposium.
It may be difficult for them to share the power and privilege they have been enjoying for so long. As I see it, however, the students who have chosen to promote and actively recruit on behalf of this international hate campaign have forfeited their right to cry foul when “adults” and “outsiders” step in to promote a balanced narrative and mutual respect among the student body. In fact, if they regard themselves as supporters of social justice, one might even expect them to join this campaign to promote a more equitable campus climate for all.