More than 200 alumni and students of Oberlin College have written an open letter to the school’s president and board of trustees, asserting that the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement on campus has become a platform for anti-Semitism. The letter urged Oberlin officials to open a forum where students and alumni who have felt victimized can share their experiences, and to create a task force to address the issue.
Oberlin President Marvin Krislov was set to meet with an alum on Tuesday to discuss the concerns.
“Our greatest concern is that Jewish students at Oberlin who have close connections to Israel are being subjected to anti-Semitic attacks,” Oberlin alumna Melissa Landa, now an instructor at the University of Maryland, told The Washington Post.
“There’s also a free speech issue,” she added, “part of that is being free to hear a variety of positions — and that’s not happening on the Oberlin campus.”
Landa said Oberlin alumni had been hearing about anti-Semitism on campus over the past several years.
In early 2013, for instance, the college canceled classes after a racism hoax in which fliers containing racial slurs and derogatory statements were pinned across campus; the fliers targeted several student minority groups, including African Americans, Jews and members of the LGBTQ community. A student who got caught with some of the fliers told authorities they were “a joke,” according to a city police report.
During a campus rally to address the purported hate speech, Landa said Jewish students told her they felt left out of the conversations. Though homophobia and racism were addressed, they said, anti-Semitism was sidelined; one Jewish student told her that when she stood up to speak, some chanted “free Palestine.”
Landa said she recently experienced this firsthand when she expressed her political views in an online forum open to Oberlin students and alumni.
“I was called a Zionist cultist,” she said. “I was told I comfortably sit in my home in Maryland while I allow others to kill innocent Palestinians on my behalf.
“This is one of the dynamics — if you refuse to denounce Israel as a murderous regime, then you are complicit … and you can be targeted as an oppressor.”
Landa drafted the letter and sent it to the school.
Oberlin’s president has since said he condemns “any form of anti-Semitism on campus.”
“We have an active Jewish community and religious community on campus,” Krislov said in a statement. “As on many campuses, there is a robust discussion of Middle East politics, which includes Israel.
“Such discussions are part of our mission as an institution of higher education.”
The issue prompted the student group Students for a Free Palestine to respond to the accusations.
“We see these accusations as a way to limit the free speech of students, silence political activism and intimidate pro-Palestinian activists,” the group said in a statement, referring to the open letter. “Confronting the realities of the occupation is uncomfortable and difficult, but it is not anti-Semitic.
“We will continue to confront the realities of the occupation on our campus.”
Since 2005, the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement has been putting pressure on Israel to withdraw from territories it settled after the Six-Day War — namely the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Opponents say it has been known to take it a step further — sometimes suggesting that Israel should not exist at all.
But its activists such as Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, say it is a rights-based movement designed to end Israeli occupation in Palestinian lands, win complete equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and fight for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
“BDS is about basic freedom, justice and equality — not about discrimination,” Baltzer said. “Opponents paint it as this awful thing when deep down it’s about ending our participation in brutal injustices.
“It’s actually a non-violent response to Israel’s extreme violence against the Palestinian people.”
Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said one area in which the BDS movement has been particularly successful in the United States is within academic societies.
In a controversial move several years ago, the American Studies Association became one of the first to join the boycott on all Israeli educational institutions. Numerous others have since done the same.
In fact, within the past few months, two U.S. academic organizations — the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association Executive Committee — made the same call.
The decisions were met with criticism from the Association of American Universities. It issued a statement reminding the academic societies that such boycotts “directly violate academic freedom.”
This month, the American Historical Association struck down a resolution to sanction Israel.
On college campuses, the BDS movement has had a much more limited impact. Organizers claim more than 25 divestment resolutions have been passed at colleges and universities, and Oberlin College’s student senate approved one in 2013. But experts say legislation passed by student councils is non-binding.
Regardless, the movement has been known to create friction between opposing groups on campuses.
“When these things play out, they can look pretty awful,” said Kampeas, with the Jewish wire service.
On one side, Kampeas said, the BDS movement is considered a nonviolent way to achieve peace in the Middle East. On the other, he said, “that formula, by applying it to Israel, is discriminatory.”
“Virtually every other country is based on a national identity that has to do with ethnic identity,” he said. “That distinction, opponents say, adds up to anti-Semitism because the only country you’re singling out for having an ethnic basis to its national identity is Israel, when so many other countries do that as well.”
Still, Baltzer, with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and a founding member of St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, said the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement does not tolerate hate.
“BDS is very opposed to all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism,” Baltzer said of the claims made against Oberlin’s activists. “We would be disturbed if there was anti-Semitism.
“Often what we see on college campuses is people equating opposition to Israeli military occupation with opposition to Judaism — and those are not the same thing.”
In any case, Ilan Troen, the Stoll Family chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said using universities to accomplish political ends does not always sit well.
“When you single out one group, you have to ask what’s behind it,” Troen said, adding: “It’s not an objective movement interested in academic freedom; it’s a movement interested in smearing Israel.”
Oberlin Jewish Campus Life and Hillel and the Cleveland Hillel Foundation said Oberlin students do engage in spirited political discussions, but that during the current year, they have remained “civil.”
“We are proud of the work we do to ensure Jewish campus life at Oberlin is enriching, so that all News from all aspects of our community thrive and grow,” the statement said. “One of the uniquely attractive aspects of Oberlin College is the open, active political debates occurring on campus on many social justice issues, and Israeli-Palestinian relations has always been an ongoing topic of interest to many students.
“We have seen this discourse to be civil and respectful during the current academic year, and we look forward to continue to forge relationships that encourage and promote peace and tolerance.”
Kampeas said it seems that there are two sides to the debate that has played out at Oberlin and elsewhere.
“There may be a lot of students who aren’t involved in that kind of engagement and they don’t even feel it,” he said. “But certainly to the students who are involved in pro-Israel activities … it can be intimidating. It can create an unsafe space, and that’s a problem. They shouldn’t have to have that feeling of intimidation.”
“On the other hand, a university campus is a place where you’re supposed to have an open exchange,” he added. “You’re supposed to build up your intellectual fiber by engaging and arguing with all kinds of people. And going too far and trying to silence those groups … it doesn’t do the Jewish students any favor.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Association of American Universities. The story has been updated.