On January 3, 2016, a group of Oberlin alumni published an open letter accusing Students for a Free Palestine (SFP) and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement of anti-semitism. In it, they called for an administrative response, specifically asking for an investigation of SFP, a forum for students to share experiences of alleged coercion by BDS proponents, and a task force to implement a plan to address their concerns.
The Campus Code of Conduct recognizes that “proscriptions of verbal harassment must not have the effect of limiting the free exchange of ideas or opinions.” In calling our criticisms intimidation tactics and hate speech, however, those who accuse us endanger earnest debate on the ways in which we are complicit in the oppression of Palestinian people. If Oberlin is to uphold values of intellectual freedom and social engagement, it cannot implement the proposals in the letter.
Admonishing SFP for organizing demonstrations regarding policies we deem repressive would further constitute a violation of our freedoms as students and as an organization. Oberlin College’s Student Bill of Rights safeguards the right of student organizations to “examine and discuss questions of interest to them and to express their opinions both publicly and privately.” Moreover, it protects the freedom of students to “participate in any demonstrations that do not endanger the safety of individuals or destroy property.”
Confronting the realities of the occupation is uncomfortable and difficult, but it is not anti-semitic. The allegations in the letter equate criticizing the actions of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry. Israel advocacy groups have increasingly employed a definition of anti-semitism which incorrectly includes criticism of Israel as a nation state. On local, state, and federal levels, legislation has been introduced to punish and limit Palestine solidarity work. On college and university campuses, false accusations of anti-semitism have contributed to the firing of Professor Steven Salaita at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the temporary suspension of SJP Loyola at Chicago, and the removal of an SJP banner at Barnard College/Columbia University, to name just a few.
We believe a special focus on Israel is necessary. The US government has singled out Israel for favorable treatment, providing $3.1 billion annually and more than $150 billion since 1948. This means that Israel is the largest international recipient of US aid, which comes from American citizens’ tax money. We are deeply implicated in Israel’s military occupation, and stand firm in our right to criticize and protest our country’s investment in the oppression of Palestinian people. In addition, proposals to divest from the multinational corporations targeted under BDS specifically acknowledge how the surveillance, military, and police equipment produced are used globally.
We see these accusations as a way to limit the free speech of students, silence political activism, and intimidate pro-Palestinian activists. We believe that solidarity with an oppressed people and demands to defend their human rights do not and will never constitute anti-semitism. It is our conviction of self-determination and autonomy that will continue to drive us, no matter how many attempt to malign us, to call for a free Palestine.
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