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April 4, 2018 5:02 pm

Oberlin College President Denies School Is Unwelcoming to Jewish Students, Drawing Alumni Protest

avatar by Shiri Moshe

Bosworth Hall at Oberlin College. Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia.

The president of Oberlin College in Ohio pushed back against accusations that the school can be unwelcoming for Jewish students, drawing support from campus groups and further protests from alumni.

Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar — who on Wednesday received an open letter signed by more than 100 alumni warning that “hostility toward Israel” at the liberal arts college “triggers blatant attacks of antisemitism” — argued that such characterizations did not accurately represent “Oberlin College and contemporary Jewish life on our campus.”

Responding to the alumni’s claims that Oberlin hosts a disproportionate amount of “events portraying Israel negatively,” Ambar wrote that the school doesn’t “dictate to student groups who they may or may not invite to speak.”

Oberlin’s “vibrant” Jewish community holds “a diversity of perspectives about Israel,” she noted, and is supported by a Jewish Studies program, kosher-halal dining co-op, and dedicated residence hall for Jewish students.

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The president pointed to a statement by Oberlin’s branch of the Jewish campus group Hillel, which welcomed the “concerns of alumni regarding Jewish life and Israel programming on campus,” but asserted that “the Jewish community at Oberlin is vibrant and strong.”

A second note linked to by Ambar, from Oberlin’s chapter of the Hasidic Chabad movement, acknowledged that while “difficult conversations” were happening nationwide and on campus, Oberlin allowed students to “engage in Jewish life in a safe and holy atmosphere.”

Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) — which organized the alumni letter, as well as an earlier one published in 2016 — challenged Ambar’s defense on Monday, saying the college “has chosen to substitute ideology for a marketplace of ideas” by failing to expose students to a variety of perspectives on Israel.

The group shared the testimonies of four current and former Oberlin faculty and staff members who have expressed concern about the college, with one describing an “insane anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic rhetoric and atmosphere on campus.”

Another attested that during their years at Oberlin, they “became all too familiar with the dynamics of bullying used to silence and intimidate Jewishly-identified students, that is, even people taking Jewish Studies courses, let alone Hebrew, and efforts to present something other than anti-Israel/ anti-Zionist positions on campus.”

Oberlin ACF pointed to flyers posted on campus last week by the school’s chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, detailing the ten “plagues” placed upon Palestinians — a reference to the calamities that devastated ancient Egypt before the Exodus, according to the Passover story.

“It is unacceptable for Jewish students to wake up on Passover and see a wall of posters representing the ten plagues as Israeli acts of aggression, and it is unacceptable for Jewish students to hear shouts of ‘Free Palestine’ as they enter Rosh Hashanah services,” the alumni group wrote. “Jewish students should not be subjected to physical and psychological intimidation as they attempt to enter the library through a picket line of anti-Israel protestors, or find shattered glass on their bed from a rock thrown at their Israeli flag displayed in their window.”

“It is these sorts of antisemitic acts that intimidate Jewish students who want to engage positively with Israel and that warn them that engaging with Israel will ostracize them as social outcasts,” Oberlin ACF cautioned.

Some Jewish students who do not identify as anti-Zionists have in the past chosen to share their concerns regarding the campus climate anonymously, due to a fear of publicly embracing pro-Jewish or pro-Israel sentiments.

One such student told The Daily Beast in 2016 that when she tried to call out antisemitism among her peers, they “always” countered by claiming that they were only being “anti-Zionist” and had Jewish friends.

Yet other students, including Liz Cooper — co-chair of Oberlin’s Jewish Student Union, which works closely with Hillel — indicated that they have not felt particularly targeted on campus based on their Jewish identity.

“I’ve had fascinating conversations and powerful Jewish experiences with friends and classmates from across the political spectrum,” Cooper, who was involved with JVP’s Passover “Day of Action” campaign, told The Algemeiner.

She said that while the ratio of Oberlin students who support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel “is certainly higher than that of the general American population, and likely most college campuses as well,” there is still “a great degree of intellectual and ideological diversity on this campus regarding Israel and Palestine overall.”

While “there are certainly students and student groups on this campus who are hostile toward Israel,” similar attitudes are also expressed toward the United States and other countries, Cooper indicated.

“Far from indoctrinated, I feel like my own sense of the diversity of political positions on Israel and Palestine has expanded greatly since I’ve gotten here,” she shared.

A spokesperson for Oberlin College declined to comment on Oberlin ACF’s response.

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