About 100 Oberlin College alumni signed an open letter dated March 28 describing on-campus incidents they feel were hostile toward Israel and Jews and were not, they argue, addressed appropriately by the college’s administration.
The alumni assert Oberlin hosts disproportionately more events portraying Israel in a negative light compared to positive or neutral portrayals, which in turn leads to anti-Semitic incidents on campus.
Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar responded in a March 29 statement, contending the letter portrayed the college inaccurately. She says the college’s commitment to Jewish life is demonstrated through student activities as well as communication between her and Cleveland Jewish community representatives. The president’s letter was followed by a supportive statement from Oberlin College Hillel.
“Oberlin College Hillel and the Cleveland Hillel Foundation welcome the involvement and concerns of alumni regarding Jewish life and Israel programming on campus,” Oberlin Hillel’s statement read. “We are committed to working with the college to ensure a safe and rich campus environment for all Jewish students.”
Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness, the group that wrote the letter, is a chapter of the national nonprofit Alums for Campus Fairness, which organizes alumni to “fight the anti-Semitism that is infecting university and college campuses and promotes open and fair dialogue on campus regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict,” according to its website. It is a partner of the pro-Israel advocacy group, StandWithUs.
The group’s letter argues campus events and speakers tend to portray Israel negatively, which gives students a biased perspective. College speakers and events are chosen almost exclusively by student groups, not the college’s administration, it said.
“We also believe that without offering students the opportunity to hear counter-narratives and robust debate and dialogue, Oberlin College is engaging in political indoctrination rather than offering rigorous education,” the ACF letter read.
It also detailed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents that took place on campus in recent years, including vandalism with an anti-Semitic message to a professor’s home and fliers on campus calling for the end of “Jewish privilege.”
“We have attempted to work directly with the administration to address these concerns, but they have not been responsive,” the letter read, referring to a similar open letter issued in 2016.
An Oberlin ACF spokesperson who did not want to be identified by name was reached by the Cleveland Jewish News. The spokesperson answered questions via email on behalf of the group because its chapter leader, Melissa Landa, who sent the letter, was unavailable for comment. Landa has filed a Title IX complaint against her former employer, the University of Maryland, alleging she was dismissed for her pro-Israel activism, including that with Oberlin ACF.
The spokesperson said alumni didn’t include students in the letter because of the “campus climate,” pointing to a Daily Beast article describing student tolerance for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity on campus. The 2016 article described incidents involving former assistant professor Joy Karega, who was dismissed from the college in November 2016 after being placed on leave earlier that year for making anti-Semitic and comments online. The Cleveland Jewish News also reported extensively on Karega.
The spokesperson said a better response from the college would be to take actions outlined in the letter, such as ensuring further documentation and investigation into anti-Semitic incidents and creating a task force to address the continuing issues. Generally, the spokesperson said Ambar has been unresponsive to the group.
Ambar became president last year when former president Marvin Krislov, who is Jewish, stepped down at the end of the 2017 spring semester.
Ambar’s statement in response to the open letter noted that about 23 percent of the college’s students identify as Jewish and that Oberlin is “deeply committed to Jewish studies and Jewish life as important parts of Oberlin’s tradition.” However, the college administration does not control what events various groups on campus hold.
The Oberlin letter also addressed anti-Semitic incidents, pointing to another letter addressing the anti-Semitic fliers placed on campus Oct. 13, 2017. It admonished their placement and said they were removed. Students were also asked to report any further incidents.
“I recently met with the president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, the executive director of the Cleveland Hillel Foundation, and other leaders from the Cleveland Jewish community to discuss ways to strengthen the ties between Oberlin’s students, faculty and staff, and that community,” Ambar wrote.
She continued, “We always appreciate hearing concerns from alumni. But we don’t think the ACF’s characterization of what’s happening in Oberlin is fair or accurate. The data they provided is based on an assessment they made from a distance with partial information. To give one brief example, our events calendar is an opt-in system, so many campus events are not listed there. We respectfully disagree with their process and the conclusions they have drawn.”