Oberlin Student Senate Condemns Symposium Promoting Self-Respect and Civil Rights for Jews
September 21, 2016
You can’t make this stuff up.
Some alumni at Oberlin College are unhappy with the way things are going at their alma mater. Some students at Oberlin are unhappy with the alumni’s meddling. A tempest in a teapot, perhaps, except that the issues are large and also sprouting on many other campuses.
It’s about Israel, and the Jews, of course.
The Oberlin Student Senate has just issued a striking condemnation of the Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF). It’s not clear precisely what this means — did they pass this by a vote, do they claim to represent the student body on this issue, etc.? — but obviously at least the members of the Senate are upset. Most immediately the Senate is upset about an off-campus symposium that ACF is sponsoring tomorrow night, but in fact its complaints go further back. In the fall of 2015 some Oberlin alumni and students began a private Facebook page, “Obies Against BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions],” an ancestor group to ACF, to discuss not merely the increasing anti-Israel atmosphere on campus but worrisome reports of campus antisemitism. These discussions produced an open letter sent to the Oberlin administration in January 2016. Student leaders from Hillel, Chabad, Oberlin Zionists and J Street U wrote an annoyed response, published in February, complaining that the alumni organizing that open letter had little interest in their (the students’) perspective. Shortly thereafter the big story broke about Oberlin Professor Joy Karega, who had long been filling her public Facebook page with straightforward classic antisemitic rants. The Student Senate is not happy about ACF’s role in that affair either.
That’s a lot to untangle, but let’s try by taking a look at the most recent Senate condemnation.
First, it was written “in consultation with current and former members of ABUSUA [a Black student organization], Oberlin J Street U and Students for a Free Palestine.” How odd, for several reasons, though I’ll just mention one. A major theme of the complaint is the unwelcome meddling by alumni, but among those making this complaint are “former” members of these groups — presumably alumni. So apparently some alumni are permitted to share their perspectives on campus matters — as long as they agree with the students?
The Senate complains that Oberlin alumni have “driven a narrative of rampant antisemitism at Oberlin.” There is something disingenuous here. The alumni aren’t alone in their concern about the antisemitism at Oberlin. The January open letter included the signatures of at least twenty current Oberlin students plus quite a few very recent alumni, and reported several antisemitic campus incidents. I have myself seen lists of quite a few more. And the fact that Karega was openly doing her thing with nobody protesting, not to mention that so many campus members defended Karega after she was exposed, suggests that perhaps ACF is right to be concerned about Oberlin.
The complaint continues to say that ACF has “blatantly disregarded students’ well-being and perspectives in order to push their chosen narrative.” I’m not sure, but it sounds like these students feel a little unwell when their perspectives are challenged. And that is precisely the point here: perhaps ACF is bringing alternative perspectives to that campus, about Israel and about the acceptability of certain views and behaviors with respect to Jews. But that is what a liberal arts education is supposed to do, to confront you with a diversity of perspectives (including challenges to your own perspective) as you find your way toward truth.
The Senate writes that the ACF’s open letter in January rejected the perspective on Israel of student leaders of Jewish organizations. What perspective was that? In their February letter, these annoyed student leaders explained:
We asked for language which included a call to end settlement expansion and other obstacles to lasting peace and a two-state solution. We all agreed that working to end the occupation and achieve a two-state resolution is vital for the future of a Jewish and democratic Israel.
Fair enough. They are entitled to that view. But is it any wonder that a group dedicated to opposing the lies of the BDS movement and specifically to battling the antisemitic consequences of BDS activism for campus Jews might not want to include such language? Indeed, if the student leaders of Hillel, Chabad, and even the campus Zionists all place the blame for the lack of peace entirely on Israel — they make no reference to Palestinian intransigence, incitement, and violence, for example — then no wonder some alumni are worried that the student perspective has become so poisoned on that campus. (And not just alumni, again: there were at least twenty current students who feel that their perspective is suppressed on campus.)
The Senate then provides a quite unclear complaint about ACF “changing narratives” over the course of several months: the ACF’s initial open letter didn’t mention antisemitic Facebook posts by professors; then ACF helped break the Karega story, and suddenly the “antisemitic narrative” included those rants front and center. But — of course. There was antisemitism before the Karega story; then there was more, with the Karega story. The Karega story confirms the problem; it epitomizes the problem. Of course it would, and should, become a primary focus, at least for a time. In fact the only downside to all the attention paid to Karega is that it might distract from the larger campus issues that helped make a Karega possible in the first place.
Indeed, I surmise that it is partly to avoid precisely that outcome that ACF has put together its symposium for tomorrow — because the underlying institutional problems remain. Consider the fact that Oberlin hosted a two-day Social Justice Institute for incoming first-year students earlier this month. The public description stated that it would “explore issues of privilege and oppression, classism, heterosexism, racism and sexism.” No reference to dealing specifically with antisemitism, despite the events of the preceding semester. I wrote to the administration to inquire if they would address antisemitism and how, and was told that the details of the program were private. But why should they be so secretive about this? Is that what we expect in a liberal arts environment, not transparency and openness but secret cabals?
And why wouldn’t they explicitly address antisemitism?
When I learned that ACF was sponsoring their own symposium I thought, “Bravo! If the school won’t address the issue then let someone else address it.” And they could not have put together a more impressive program: renowned legal thinker Kenneth Marcus speaking about “Civil Rights and the Jewish Experience,” charismatic non-Jewish activist Chloe Valdary speaking on “Courage and Self-Respect in an Era of Antisemitism” and student activist Stacey Aviva Flint speaking on “Building Bridges: The Interstitiality of Jews of Color.” What a terrific learning opportunity! Students should welcome hearing this perspective, these perspectives, if only because they are, apparently, perspectives not adequately represented on that campus.
But no: “Student Senate does not support the content or approach to this conversation.”
They don’t support the content? Did they really say that? Note, the symposium is not about Israel. It’s about being Jewish. About the Jewish experience with the civil rights movement, and about promoting civil rights for Jews. Are they opposed to that? It’s about Jews having “courage and self-respect.” Are they opposed to that? It’s about the relationship between being Jewish and being a person of color. Recall that one of the groups “consulted” for the Senate letter was ABUSUA, a Black student organization. One wonders why it would be so invested in this issue of how Jews are treated on campus — until one notes that both Chloe Valdary and Stacey Aviva Flint are African-American, the latter also Jewish. What exactly is ABUSUA opposed to here? Is it unacceptable to them that an African-American might be proudly Jewish? Are the Students for a Free Palestine and J Street also opposed to that? (Wouldn’t that be a little — you know — racist?) Are they worried that these speakers may undermine their cherished narrative that “Jews are white” and “Palestinians are people of color”? Or are they all simply opposed to the idea that an African-American might support Israel?
As for the “approach,” just what is the problem? That Oberlin alumni have chosen to remain engaged with their alma mater and sponsored a learning opportunity to expose interested students to perspectives not currently well represented on campus? To the contrary: would that more alumni remain engaged, and that students open themselves to the possibility that they might learn something from such a symposium. They should be thanking these alumni, not condemning them.
But instead the Oberlin Student Senate describes a symposium entitled “Building A Hate-Free Campus Through Civil Discourse” as “a clear representation of [the alumni’s] flagrant disregard for students’ interests.” Is the Senate not interested in building a hate-free campus through civil discourse? (Or are they merely opposed to building a campus free of hate for Jews?) They complain that “student organizations were not involved in the planning or promotion of this symposium.” Student organizations are not significantly involved in most matters of the curriculum either, from the hiring of professors to the designing of syllabi and curricula, to the sponsoring of many lectures, performances, etc. So what? Have they not considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, people other than themselves might have something to offer them? Or even that people from outside the College — in particular those heavily invested in it, as alumni — might offer a perspective that is invisible to them, but worth at least contemplating?
What the Oberlin Student Senate wants, apparently, is to call the shots — for students to decide for themselves what they learn, and to reject the injection into their campus of any perspectives they have already decided are not welcome.
So much for the liberal arts education.
The Senate writes that “these alumni have tirelessly campaigned to create a false image of Oberlin, damage the value of an Oberlin education …” Regrettably, the very letter in which the Senate makes this complaint demonstrates precisely why the Oberlin ACF is so necessary and must be commended for its efforts. That the Student Senate would passionately condemn this symposium and the conversations it should inspire tells you that it is they, not the alumni, who have damaged the value of the Oberlin education.
Karen Eltis Professor Karen Eltis is a tenured faculty member at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, Canada (Section de droit civil) and a Visiting Scholar and Associate Adjunct Professor at Columbia Law School.