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An Oberlin Student’s Message to Student Zionists


Melissa Landa, Brandeis Blog

February 18, 2016
 

The following essay was written by a current student at Oberlin College who wishes to remain anonymous. This student has requested anonymity due to “the polarizing nature/lack of discussion” about Israel/Palestine on the Oberlin campus and concerns about being “ostracized by many people involved in the Israel/Palestine conversation.”

I am publishing this essay on the student’s behalf to raise awareness of the disturbing intimidation tactics and fanaticism of student organizations which promote an “oversimplified, hateful, and demonizing” view of Israel at Oberlin and on college campuses across the United States.

Melissa Landa, Ph.D (Oberlin ’86)

I am writing this piece anonymously, not because I am afraid of personal social backlash or being ostracized, (which undoubtedly would happen were I to release my name) but because I am deeply involved in trying to make Oberlin a more open place for discussion and dialogue about Zionism. According to the policies of Students for a Free Palestine (SFP), my views paint me as an extremist and someone who is not fit to participate in the conversation about Israel. By not giving my name, I can maintain some hope of opening up the dialogue.

The SFP group at Oberlin is doing an excellent job at employing strategically implemented tactics to maintain the group’s power on campus. With their oversimplified, hateful and demonizing words about Israel, they have successfully cultivated a large portion of the student body to join their cause, while leaving many people in the Jewish community feeling increasingly unsafe on a campus that boasts more “safe spaces” per capita than any other college. Having effectively silenced the now closet Zionists on campus, they are able to boast that they have achieved a monopoly in the campus wide Israeli “discussion,” albeit at the expense of many people feeling unsafe on campus. The irony of the “liberal, progressive school” is almost too perfect for words.

It is apparent that SFP has refined its tactics for recruiting fresh students and encouraging them to conform. Oberlin’s chapter of SFP capitalizes on particular characteristics of the Oberlin community for their recruitment efforts. Oberlin lends itself to different thinkers, which makes the college a very special place to be a part of. In other words, let’s admit it, most Obies were not the cool kids in high school and joining SFP is an easy way to be accepted by the mainstream voice on campus and gain the social recognition and approval they longed for in high school. Most SFP recruits don’t come to Oberlin with fanatical views about anything, let alone Israel. Soon, however, with no required knowledge about the situation in Israel, a student can have a friend group, a feeling of belonging, and of doing good in the world. All that student needs to do is accept the SFP doctrine and regurgitate what is said in a meeting. While there are some upstanding members of the community who participate in SFP and who actually do want to see a positive change in the Middle East, the organization as a whole primarily functions as a social club rather than one that is concerned with social justice.

While the organization makes it easy for newcomers to join, new recruits soon realize that SFP discourages and disparages critical thinking; members must conform, not think critically, resulting in few SFP members having scratched the surface of the issue in the Middle East through their own research. A student who expresses a differing opinion from the larger organization becomes vulnerable to ridicule under the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” umbrella of thinking. If, for example, you get involved in SFP and after doing some research, you quickly realize “oh no this isn’t right, I see the situation in the Middle East in a different light,” you have a very difficult choice to make: do you hold onto the one thing that’s sustaining you at Oberlin, your friend group, or do you stand up and do what’s right and live out the rest of your time at Oberlin as an outcast? Given Oberlin’s location, this strategy is highly effective. We are in the middle of the cornfields with nothing but our schoolwork and our friends. Without our friends, the idea of being in Oberlin is a very scary one.

In addition to claiming that they have the only righteous solution to the crisis in the Middle East, SFP deliberately closes channels for dialogue. Many of their demonstrations don’t involve people, but instead involve signs that are placed in public places and then left, void of any member standing by to engage in conversation. One infamous example is when the Jewish community, on Rosh Hashanah, was confronted with black flags and a hostile banner as they walked into religious services. This display, which used smeared red ink to imitate blood, announced to the community that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinian people, a message that wildly distorted the complexities of the war in Gaza. As we passed the banner and the flags, we were met with silence, feeling that SFP had become an insurmountable fortress of anonymity.
Here, then, is the message that I want to give student Zionists at Oberlin. SFP’s main goal is to make you think that there are only two ways to think about Zionism; either you do the just thing and oppose the Jewish state’s right to self determination, or you stand on the wrong side of history. This is just not the truth at all.

I have spoken to Jews all over Oberlin who want a better life for the Palestinian people, but who also understand that the Holocaust was less than 100 years ago and that the loss of Jewish political power is incredibly dangerous. As a pro Israel community we need to do the opposite of SFP; we need to unite in our diversity, not in our demand for conformity. We need to capitalize on our differing ideals about how we want to see our state of Israel act, and discuss these differences openly. What we don’t want to do is spread doctrine that aims to box in what one can and can’t say and that capitalizes on fear.

That is not a sustainable recipe for peace.

Zionism today means many different things, and we should be listening to each other, not shunning those who don’t fit our mold. If we want a world where we can all live in peace, first we have to accept that peace isn’t synonymous with “my way or the highway” as it is commonly presented at Oberlin. Peace means listening, challenging yourself and challenging your peers to find the best and most sustainable solutions. While the undeniable fear tactics that SFP uses have broken us apart, it is now time to hold fast to our identities as Zionists and work together to create our own beliefs about solutions for the Middle East. Our actions should not be based on our selfish fear of social repercussions or from fanatical oversimplified assumptions; they should come from our innate desire to simply do the right thing.

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Gregory H. Stanton
Professor Stanton has received degrees from Oberlin College, Harvard Divinity School, Yale Law School and a masters and doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago. He was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2001-2002).
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