On November 12th, 34 unarmed Palestinian citizens, including 8 children, were killed in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The US government had no response, other than to “officially” declare that Israeli settlements in the West Bank comply with international law. This is plainly false, and could doom peace efforts. And on the day I am writing this, November 21st, Israeli prime minister was indicted by the Israeli Attorney General, not for war crimes, but for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
These recent atrocities are not new developments. This is definitely not the first time the IDF has committed war crimes in Gaza. The U.S. has long been complicit in these war crimes, donating billions in aid to Israel yearly, and the fascistic partnership between the two nations has only strengthened under President Trump. Additionally, Netanyahu has always been corrupt, and has generally been on a slow decline following a recommendation for indictment and a loss in the most recent Israeli elections. However, the fact that each of these events have occurred roughly around the same time underscores the urgency of this political moment. In the past couple of decades, the world, and especially younger American Jews, have grown more and more outraged at Israel’s violent colonization of Palestine. Israel certainly has cooled under pressure, and their attacks on the Palestinian people have continued to escalate as the government descends deeper into white supremacist extremism. These are the reasons why this is the time to divest.
The Oberlin divestment campaign is essentially pressuring the college to withdraw investments in both Israel and companies that support Israel. This effectively means boycotting, petitioning, and doing everything in our power to make it impossible for the Oberlin administration to ignore its complicity. This has taken shape in the form of a campaign to boycott Sabra hummus and have it removed from DeCcafe, and a petition for the administration to officially commit to the BDS guidelines. However, despite the fact that Sabra has been unpopular on campus, CDS had refused to withdraw it from DeCafe, and Sabra hummus is, in fact, the only product sold by DeCcafe that they are not allowed to stop selling for the reason of the product itself not selling. Additionally, despite having been approved by the Student Senate multiple times, most recently in Fall 2018, the BDS resolution has been repeatedly rejected by the administration.
Every person and every institution should feel the responsibility to reject complicity in these war crimes. With that in consideration, Oberlin is in an even more unique position to lead on this issue, considering our history as a progressive institution. You don’t need me to tell you that Oberlin has its roots in abolitionism, that it was one of the first colleges to admit black students, and one of the first to admit women; these facts are touted on pretty much every Oberlin walking tour and at All Roads every year. However, while there is pride to be taken in these facts, it can also be used to cover up a darker side of our history. While Oberlin was certainly a much safer space for black people searching for education than anywhere else in America at the time, to say that meant it was void of racism would be a major overstatement. Black students were still in the minority during the college’s early years and had to deal with different, but still violent, forms of racism. A notable case would be the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, namesake of the Edmonia Lewis Center, who was accused of poisoning her white friends. She was viciously assaulted while awaiting trial, and though she was completely exonerated by the court, the college bowed to outside pressure and denied her permission to continue studying, and never investigated her assault. This example of succumbing to the pressures of racism proved to be pertinent, as following the failure of reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow in the south, the institutionalized racism and disadvantaging of black students began to take hold, turning the first school to admit black students into the very, very predominantly white college it is today. This also explains how an institution that is known for student activism ended up being one of the last major institutions in the US to divest from South Africa in the apartheid era, a truly embarrassing and baffling fact that you most certainly won’t hear mentioned on a walking tour. My intention in citing these facts is to show that there are essentially two sides to Oberlin’s history; one shows an abolitionist-founded college with ties to the John Brown raid that continues to have a proud history of student activism to this day, and the other is another American institution that, in the key moments, will always cave and make the safest political decisions, ones whose consequences ripple throughout its history. By ignoring the voices of student activists and refusing to divest from Israeli businesses, the college is aggressively placing its foot in the latter history.
The fact that we divested from South Africa so late is particularly relevant, as we were blatantly on the wrong side of history throughout much of the battle against apartheid. This is not just because the Apartheid policy was morally reprehensible – which it was, both then and now – but because it also showed us rejecting a form of student-led institutional change that worked. Pro-Palestine activists tend to cite South Africa as historical precedent for good reason, as the conditions were very similar to the current fight for Palestine. The escalation of South Africa’s apartheid policies began roughly around 1948, the exact same year Israel was founded, making both of them relatively recent examples of white settler colonialism. Like Palestinians, black South Africans were collectively smeared as terrorists simply for asking to be treated as human beings. And like the fight for Palestine today, the fight against Apartheid was an uphill battle, and much like today, the United States had an on-the-record white supremacist president who showed zero interest in taking any meaningful action against the oppressors. With the challenge of pressuring politicians seemingly hopeless, students instead turned the pressure on their colleges, launching nationwide campaigns to divest from South Africa. While there were a number of factors in the end of South African apartheid, the success of the campus divestment movement certainly helped the cause, as the capital loss in international trade bled the nation’s economy.
To conclude, this is an incredibly urgent time for Palestine. With near constant warfare in the region since Israel’s founding and with abysmal healthcare and water quality, the UN has ruled Gaza may be unlivable by 2020. An entire group of people may be erased entirely due to Israel’s complete disregard for their humanity. In this context, many have asked why we boycott, or why we fight to divest, given the crushing gravity of this situation. Truth be told, Oberlin’s relatively isolation and heavily college-centered community can make it feel difficult to pursue meaningful activism. But Oberlin is still powerful as an institution, and as stakeholders in this institution, we have power as well. Oberlin students pay unimaginable amounts of money just to go here, and with that much money being put into the college, there is no excuse for our money being used to benefit an apartheid state. Divesting from Israel may prove to be controversial, but the truth is that as long as Oberlin attempts to have any consideration for marginalized communities, we will continue to be targeted by the right. We should never let fear of retribution prevents us from doing what is right. The people of Palestine’s lives can’t be ignored simply for the sake of convenience.