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January 8, 2019 8:24 am

Antisemitism and the Decline of Oberlin College

avatar by Melissa Hare Landa and Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum

Opinion

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

Oberlin College is losing alumni support and potential applicants. Why? Because students and families have been shaken by claims of antisemitism that the administration continues to normalize.

In January 2016, a group of more than 200 alumni and 20 current students submitted an Open Letter describing a troubling environment on campus for Jewish students. In February 2016, four alumni — ourselves included — traveled to Ohio to meet with President Marvin Krislov and Diversity Officer Meredith Raimondo to discuss our concerns. We presented a document that chronicled years of antisemitism at Oberlin, including professor Joy Karega’s virulent antisemitic images that had been posted on Facebook for over a year.

We were told that we were out of touch with life on campus, and that all was well — then we were shown the door.

Since then, our alumni group has continued to document incidents of antisemitism, which we have shared with the administration and the Board of Trustees.

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Twice, we requested a task force to address campus antisemitism; we asked that antisemitism be included in an orientation program on bigotry; we requested space to hold a symposium on civil discourse; and we asked the administration to offer a more balanced and intellectually rigorous presentation of Israel.

We requested an administrator be present when a student club brought in Ali Abunimah, founder of “The Electronic Intifada,” We questioned President Ambar’s decision to cease informing the college community whenever antisemitic posters or graffiti appeared. We reached out by email and attended the new college president’s alumni tour of major cities.

For every op-ed that we have written, we first tried to communicate directly with the administration. In all instances, the administration has refused to do so, denied that a problem exists, or not responded at all. When our Civil Discourse symposium was declined, we rented a space off campus and held the event.

As a result of the college’s refusal to engage with us, and given what some alumni have heard, alumni donations have dropped. Some also refuse to send their children to Oberlin, given the degree of anti-Israel and antisemitic hostility.

One alumna remarked, “I suspect that Oberlin’s reputation for not taking a stand against antisemitism may be affecting its ability to attract quality students. Last year, I recommended the school to a friend of mine, whose daughter was applying to conservatories. Although a talented [musician], Oberlin was not on her list because of the perception that antisemitism is a problem on campus, which is not something she heard from me.”

Indeed, current students and recent graduates continue to share stories of the antisemitism they have endured on campus. And since 2016, Oberlin has seen a drop in applicants and enrollment.

“The first time I ever felt uncomfortable being Jewish was as a student in Oberlin College,” stated Julia Redden, class of 2017. “My freshman year started on an ominous note. I recall talking with a senior in my dorm, and incidentally brought up our shared Jewish heritage. ‘It’s terrible to be Jewish here,’ she said, without skipping a beat. ‘You always have to prove you’re a good Jew. The good Jews have to be anti-Zionist.’”

Alan Barkin M.D., class of 1958, frequently donated to Oberlin and had annual contact with the Oberlin Development Office. However, after raising concerns about antisemitism at Oberlin with that office, he never received a promised response to his comments.

He said the following:

Unfortunately, these past few years, funds, which would have gone to Oberlin, have instead been given to organizations combating the serious epidemic of anti-Semitism/BDS and intimidation of Jewish students on American college campuses. Hopefully, the administration at Oberlin will do more in the coming years to address these issues.

Given our dedication to our alma mater’s legacy, we have recently contacted Oberlin administrators to request that Oberlin’s Multicultural Resource Center begin to include Jewish students in its efforts and address antisemitism as a form of racism. This would honor the diverse identities of Jewish students at Oberlin, and support the college’s efforts to improve communication among students across perceived differences.

To date, several other colleges and universities have begun to address antisemitism in a variety of ways. For example, students at Portland State University were offered a two-credit mini-course called “The History of Antisemitism” that presented left- and right-wing antisemitism in contemporary times. At the University of California, freshmen are encouraged to take a series of three integrated seminars throughout the year, called “Perspectives on Bias, Prejudice & Bigotry.” And the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill promoted an interview called “Antisemitism and the Jewish Experience in the South” by author Jonathan Weisman.

Jewish tradition teaches, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). In that spirit, we have worked tirelessly for three years to engage the administration to address a serious problem. Now it is time for the administration to respond, or risk losing more alumni donations, recommendations, and Jewish applicants.

Alternatively, the extreme disinterest from administrators will have some alumni wondering whether Jewish students are even wanted at Oberlin, and if, perhaps, the current 23 percent of students who are Jewish have become undesirable.

Melissa Hare Landa is the President of Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness. Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum is the Secretary of Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness.

 

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