Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On Divestment: An Open Letter To the Oberlin Student Senate

Dear Fellow Obies: 

Congratulations on the completion of the spring semester. I know many of you have been challenged tremendously--in your academics, your extracurricular activities, and your activism. I know because not long ago (though it feels like an eternity) I was there. I was one of you--long hair flowing behind me, cursing the copier in Mudd, sitting out class on Wilder Bowl on too-beautiful spring days contemplating life and my place in it, going to the 'Sco and complaining about the food at Stevenson and walking through the cigarette smoke to meet my girlfriend at the Con, and mostly wondering how I was going to make a difference in this world I and my generation had inherited. 

See, I went to Oberlin because it was unique. It was--and remains--the kind of place where people take social justice very, very seriously. Combining a cloistered Midwestern study ethic with endless petitions, protests, sit-ins and other acts of political courage, Oberlin was exactly the place I needed to be. I'd always been passionate about Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for 'repairing the world'), and when I got the application for Oberlin in the spring of 1993 I knew I had found my people. On the cover it was an image of earth from space with a question printed in white Helevicta font: "Think one person can change the world?" It was stunning and possibly cynical, until you opened the cover to find the same image, with new words written in white: "So do we." It was a bold statement, and fit Oberlin's ethos perfectly. And, I thought at the time, it was a profoundly Jewish idea (I still think so). I arrived wide-eyed to hear seniors talk of sit-ins in S. Fred Starr's office protesting our investment in South Africa's Apartheid state, women attached to the side of Mudd Library by spelunker equipment to protest animal testing, intense debate about colonialism, feminism, the food we eat, the music we listen to, poverty, Israel, race, and every subject under the sun. It was a place to be challenged. 

That's why I wasn't surprised, but was saddened  by your vote in favor of divestment of Israel. Without a doubt, Israel has been a challenging topic at Oberlin since long before I was a student there, and probably long before the 1987 intifada (which I remember quite well, living in Jerusalem at the time). I remember more than one speaker (the former Stokey Carmichael) coming to Oberlin to fan anti-Zionism, and at least one provocative Oberlin Alumni magazine several years ago (in the Nancy Dye era) that treated Israel essentially as a police state. And Israel's complex relationship with the settler movement and the West Bank and Gaza strip, her insistence on military solutions to political problems, and the often disappointing (from a liberal perspective, anyway) internal conversation in the Jewish state hasn't made anything easier. Is Israel an apartheid state? Most would argue it isn't--Israeli Arabs have equal rights under the law, and are represented in all facets of Israeli life. Israel is a western-style democracy with freedom of speech and the press, freedom to gather and protest, and despite the efforts of some, robust rule of law. But it's clear that there are those who are more equal than others, and that the situation in the Palestinian territories  is, while certainly not Apartheid, also not good. 

In other words, there's lots of reasons to engage in vigorous debate about security, about freedom, about national destiny and racism and Zionism and Palestinianism and what they all mean. And if any place is going to engage in that kind of dialogue, it's Oberlin. Oberlin was MADE for that kind of hard, provocative, robust conversation. Divestment, however, is the opposite of engagement. It is a provocative statement to be sure, but it also closes the door to further communication. It presents an answer without asking any questions. It makes assumptions that, on any other subject, would rouse terrible invective on the part of the injured party, and rightly so. 

As this letter, circulated by alumni and students (and thanks to Anna Band), 

  • BDS stands in the way of constructive initiatives for peace. It employs politics of blame rather than politics of cooperation. Furthermore, it ignores serious impediments to the peace process including terrorism, and refuses to denounce anti-Israel and anti-Jewish violence. This demonization and delegitimization of Israel hinders the possibility of peace.  There is common concern that opponents of BDS view Israel with uncritical, unconditional support. This fear is unfounded. One can have a nuanced, critical view of Israel and still recognize the dangers of BDS. In fact, it is BDS, with its policies of delegitimization and censorship, that leaves no room for critical thinking. “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.” (Thomas Friedman, “Campus Hypocrisy,” New York Times, 10-16-02).
    BDS advocates boycotts of Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions. Academic and cultural boycotts of Israeli citizens undermine academic freedom and inhibit open and honest dialogue. Discrimination against scholars, artists, or athletes based solely upon their country of origin is reprehensible.
    BDS calls for the “right of return” of millions of Palestinians, born outside of Israel but claiming refugee status. This unprecedented step would spell the end of the Jewish State, replacing it with a Palestinian “one state solution.” While BDS accepts Israel’s right to exist as a state, it categorically rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

    My guess is that many of you struggled with this. Oberlin--and Oberlin students--are some of the smartest, most knowledgeable, most politically active people in the world (who else was talking about East Timor in 1996 outside Australia and Indonesia? Only Oberlin). It is a place where people struggle with their own assumptions and suppositions. That's why you tried to change the language of the resolution, tried to make it clear this was a political statement, not an antisemitic one--because this issue required a politcal statement. That's what Oberlin does, right?

    So now let me make an alternative suggestion: what Israel needs right now is not divestment but engagement. More than ever, Israelis and Palestinians need to see that they are not hated and threatened, but are loved and supported.  These two groups live in permanent existential crisis; BDS exacerbates that. But engagement, dialogue, sharing, letting go of one's own viewpoint to see the Other not merely as Other, this is what Oberlin excels at, and what is called for across campuses and academia throughout North America and worldwide. I made this argument regarding Alice Walker last year as well, and I'll tell you what I said then: You're bigger than this. You're better than this. But by choosing to divest, you choose, essentially, to remove yourselves from a conversation that, granted, is hard, impossibly hard, but essential. By joining the BDS movement, you silence yourself.

    So, the summer is upon us. Many of you are graduating next weekend. Some of you are sticking around for Commencement, then running off to study abroad, to internships, to work and family. Let me give you further summer homework: engage. Read about Israel from a perspective not your own. Travel to Israel--and not just the easy places. Go to Sderot, to Ashkelon, speak to people from those areas. Talk to Zionists and listen, really listen. Anais Nin said "you cannot save people, only love them." Stop trying to save people, for a change, and love them. Then you will truly save the world.


    Yair Robinson, OC 1998


  1. Excellent--Judy Gelman Oberlin '77

  2. Divestment is really *really* not the same as removing oneself from a conversation. It is the opposite. It is an entering conversation by using one's economic power to make one's voice heard.

    And it is definitely not mutually exclusive with engaging with Israelis and Palestinians.

    When Anaïs Nin said that you can't save people, I am fairly certain that she was talking about saving people from themselves, not from militaries and governments.