Student groups at Oberlin College in Oberlin recently put a memorial commemorating Bahaa Abu el-Atta, a senior commander from Islamic Jihad, after he and his wife were killed in an attack by the Israel Defense Forces.
According to The Associated Press, Israel targeted and killed the leader in a rocket strike on Nov. 12. It’s reported Abu el-Atta died with his wife while they slept in their home in eastern Gaza. The strike then set off the heaviest fighting in months between Islamic Jihad and Israel. Israel said he was responsible for the attacks and was in the process of planning more attacks.
Two student groups, Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine and Oberlin Jewish Voice for Peace, both pro-Palestinian groups, created an installation to commemorate the lives of Abu el-Atta and more than 30 other Palestinians. Black flags with each person’s name were erected around a sign and Palestinian flag.
The sign read: “Last week, Israel unleashed violent airstrikes on the Gaza Strip to assassinate Bahaa Abu al-Atta (sic) and his wife on Tuesday, November 12th. In the process, killing 34 unarmed Palestinian civilians, including 8 children. Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine and Oberlin Jewish Voice for Peace have created this installation to commemorate the lives of these 34 Palestinians who died at the hands of Zionist Settler Colonialism.”
The Associated Press reported at least 34 Palestinians, including 16 civilians, were killed in the fighting that ensued after the targeted killing. Islamic Jihad fired some 450 projectiles toward Israel during the two days after Abu el-Atta’s death, with most landing in open areas or being intercepted by the Iron Dome.
In a statement, Oberlin College said it was aware of the installation on campus by two student groups that offended some members of its “large and diverse community.” The college said the installation was in Wilder Bowl for several days and then was removed. College spokesperson Scott Wargo said the students removed it without being asked.
“Oberlin students, like all citizens, are entitled to their own thoughts and expressions and are individually accountable for how they engage in public discourse,” the statement reads. “Students do not speak for the college and the college does not dictate the views of its 2,850 students. The opinions presented by the installation were solely those of the student groups that created it and do not represent the views of Oberlin College.
“Oberlin opposes all forms of anti-Semitism, as we do all forms of prejudice and oppression. We actively work with our students, faculty, staff and alumni to build upon Oberlin’s deep commitment to Jewish life and scholarship. This year, through a re-imagining of programming and reallocation of resources, Oberlin’s Jewish studies program is experiencing a renewal with new faculty, new programs, and a shared program in Hebrew with The Ohio State University.”
A request for comment from Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine was not returned.
Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, who is co-director of Chabad at Oberlin, said the biggest challenge is these memorials happen without any dialogue between groups. He said if the Jewish community on campus and the groups that put up the memorial had discussion, it would help.
However, the two national groups the Oberlin students group are under do not allow for it.
“As a matter of policy, these two groups (Students for a Free Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace) will not engage in dialogue because they feel it normalizes the conflict,” Elkan said.
He said discussion, formal or informal, about symbols and how they are presented and make people feel, would only help the community. He said groups putting up memorials should understand what those symbols do and others should understand why those memorials are being put up.
“We can agree to disagree, but there should be a conversation around it,” he said.
Elkan said Oberlin College does not actively police its student groups, including Chabad at Oberlin. He said the college has allowed the group to put up its own signs and messages, and freely celebrate Jewish culture on campus. He said it is not his place to say what any student groups, including SFP and JVP, put up or say on campus.
“We’re allowed to do that without any real worry from the college,” Elkan said. “But that comes with a responsibility. ... Just because you’re able to doesn’t mean that you should. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t either. There has to be a lot of critical thought.”
Elkan said what also shouldn’t be lost is the Jewish community on campus is strong.
“There’s a very vibrant Jewish community that’s able to celebrate and be Jewish and be prideful about being Jewish on campus,” Elkan said.
Elkan said on a typical Sabbath dinner, Chabad at Oberlin might have 50 to 75 students weekly. Bigger holidays generally will see 150 students or more.
“We have contact with hundreds and hundreds of Jewish and not Jewish students on campus,” he said.