My wife and I are Oberlin College graduates. We have extremely fond memories of our years there and gratitude for the institution that calls itself the first racially integrated college in the United States. The 70s were turbulent years to be a student in America. Yet despite the radicalism around us, Oberlin was a sea of calm, where respect was shown for diverse opinions. We were supported by a sensitive and sensible administration; one that balanced students' political engagement with the preservation of the campus as an academy of ideas.
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Oberlin is no longer that safe haven that I experienced, particularly for Jewish students. Just last week, the Facebook rants of Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin, were published in The Tower. In them, she accuses Israel of being behind atrocities including 9/11 and the Charlie Hedbo attack, and perpetuates conspiracy theories about the Rothschild family, a banking dynasty of Jewish heritage. Instead of distancing himself and the school from her anti-Semitic remarks, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov’s response was that the college “respects the right of its faculty, students, staff and alumni to express their personal views.”
Unfortunately, this is but one example in a pattern of responses by the Oberlin administration to anti-Semitic biases and the harassment of Jewish students that to this alum feels is at best benign neglect.
On September 24, 2014, coinciding with the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, Students for a Free Palestine installed 2,133 black flags on the lawn outside the building where Jewish students were to attend High Holy Day services. The flags, as described by an accompanying banner, were to “honor the 2,133 Palestinians murdered by Israeli Defense Force [sic] over the 51 days of Operation Protective Edge.”
Despite acknowledging the “provocative timing” of the demonstration, SFP member Jacob Ertel – who described the mourning of Palestinian deaths and marking of a religious holiday as "not mutually exclusive" – was grossly insensitive to the impact that holding the rally at this site on this day had on Jewish students. As they arrived to pray, Jewish students, including those who wish for a better future for Palestinians, were confronted by the black flags and hostile banner. A protest void of people with whom to engage in debate, Jewish students "were met with silence, feeling that SFP had become an insurmountable fortress of anonymity," as one pupil recalled. Despite the controversy, the college administration did nothing.
Another worrying incident occurred last month. On February 3, Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies from Rutgers University, spread vicious lies about Israel in a speech at Vassar College. As reported in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Puar said "Israel had ‘mined for organs for scientific research’ from dead Palestinians—updating the medieval blood libel against Jews—and accused Israelis of attempting to give Palestinians the ‘bare minimum for survival’ as part of a medical ‘experiment.’”
Beyond the repugnancy of Puar’s remarks, what is relevant here is her connection to Oberlin. She spoke there in 2007 and in 2009, the latter time appearing on a panel with Meredith Raimondo, associate professor of comparative American studies at Oberlin. Raimondo has used articles by Puar, including “Citation and Censorship: The Politics of Talking About the Sexual Politics of Israel,” numerous times in courses she has taught. In that paper, Puar accuses Israel of “pinkwashing,” "redirect[ing] focus away from critiques of its repressive actions toward Palestine" by utilizing "its relative ‘gay-friendliness’ as an example of its commitment to Western ‘democratic’ ideals.”
Raimondo, who seems to have no problem promoting Puar’s “scholarship,” was named special assistant for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to Oberlin President Krislov in 2014.
Given the recurring anti-Israel activities among faculty and students, my wife and I, as concerned alumni, have been confronted with how to respond. We wrote to the director of development earlier this year, suspending our annual gift to the school until the administration takes decisive action to improve the situation. We also added our names to an alumni letter of protest to Krislov that now has over 250 signatures, calling on the administration to investigate incidents of campus anti-Semitism and provide a forum for affected students.
But, we feel there was more to be done. As alumni, we have a role to play in shaping the climate on campus. As Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz wrote in an email:
“University communities are not merely the current students, faculties and administrators. They also include alumni and contributors. There must be historic continuity for a university to thrive. Therefore the alumni and contributors must play a check and balance role on the frequent extremism of the current incumbents.”
Alumni need to start acting like they really are central to the campus community. When they face perpetual anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism like that at Oberlin, they must practice tough love to set their alma mater back on course toward their mission of being safe academies of ideas.
One way of doing this is to withhold endowments and annual contributions. Universities depend on alumni for these funds. If we want to make our voices heard and have administrations acknowledge our right to be stakeholders in their operations, we can impose financial ramifications on their unwillingness to reprimand anti-Semitism.
To be effective and pro-active, alumni need to organize. My friend Dr. Mark Banschick, a graduate of Vassar College, at which, like Oberlin, Jewish students have been subjected to harassment that bled into anti-Semitism for expressing positive feelings about Israel, is a founding member of Alums for Campus Fairness. This group “organizes alumni to fight the anti-Semitism that is infecting university and college campuses in the guise of anti-Israel activism," and promotes "open and fair dialogue on college and university campuses" about the Arab-Israeli conflict. By working together, alumni strengthen the impact their actions can have.
The Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness is led by Melissa Hare Landa, who is concerned about what she describes as a "pervasive and extreme prejudice against students [who are] unwilling to completely condemn Israel." She noted in an email to me that this prejudice is manifested both interpersonally and in the academic content where opinions are presented as facts.
A further expression of tough love is reminding administrations that there is a difference between free speech on the street and free speech on campus. “On the street, people can say anything, so long as it doesn’t endanger public safety,” notes Banschick, “but the academy is a marketplace of ideas, characterized by respect and civility. To foster a learning environment, universities must reject hate speech and morally repugnant slander.”
College administrations too frequently hide behind freedom of expression to avoid confronting academics over their bad behavior. Alumni, as stakeholders in their colleges' continuity, must call them out when they do. When concerned alumni start taking action, college administrations will have to start listening more carefully.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.