Oberlin College is not the first place that comes to mind as a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism.
Yet as an unsettling wave of hate has thrust the Ohio liberal arts school into the national spotlight, its Jewish community has spoken out and sought to use the incidents to build bridges across the campus.
Jews, who make up about a quarter of Oberlin’s student population, were stunned when swastikas appeared on campus building. But some saw an even greater physical threat to black and other minority students when a person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit was allegedly sighted outside college’s Afrikan Heritage House.
“As a Jew, to see a swastika plastered across a building on campus is an incredibly traumatic moment,” Zachary Pekarsky, 22, former leader of the college’s Hillel group, told a campus rally this week. But it’s more complicated than that, he continued. “The vast majority of Jews have incredible privilege, and come from an incredible place of entitlement. I don’t want these two truths to contradict each other.”
The packed audience hollered and cheered.
The sighting of the alleged KKK figure was the latest in what the historically-liberal Ohio college has called “hate-related incidents.” They have included graffiti swastikas and the N-word as well as the phrase “whites only” written above water fountains. ATwitter feed was set up depicting college president Marvin Krislov dressed as Adolf Hitler.
The entire campus has struggled with how to respond to the recent events. Jewish students in particular have found themselves walking a fine line between feeling personally attacked and acknowledging that some of their fellow students may feel even more threatened. According to Rabbi Shimon Brand, Jewish chaplain and Hillel director, about 25 percent of Oberlin students identify as Jewish.
Students received an email on Monday morning about the sighting of the supposed KKK figure and announcing that classes were canceled for a “day of solidarity.”
“I woke up and read the email and was just really really upset about it, in a really visceral way,” said student Rebecca Kahn Bloch, 22, who is Jewish and a lesbian. The graffiti was upsetting as well. “I’m a queer woman and I’m also a Jew, but my most visceral response came from seeing these swastikas.”
The mood on campus is complicated, she said.
“It’s a combination of people being very somber and upset and disappointed and being overwhelmed. And feeling like our community has been attacked,” said Bloch, who is majoring in gender studies and studio art. “But I think there is a level of empowerment and a newfound invigoration to address these issues.”
On Monday, there were rallies and gatherings throughout the day. In her speech, student Eliana Golding talked about how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Students came up and said, ‘Thanks for bringing this Jewish voice to this,’ and ‘I’m glad there’s a Jewish voice speaking out,’” she said.
Golding, a fourth-year politics major, also organized a Shabbat dinner to talk about the incidents.
Several students echoed Pekarsky’s sentiment, clarifying that while Jews worldwide don’t all fit in the “white and privileged” category, that description does largely apply to Jewish students at Oberlin.
“I think it’s really easy to think of Jews in America as very privileged, and it’s easy to look at that space of privilege and use it as a means to dismiss anti-Semitism,” added Bloch. “Just because you live in a place of privilege does not mean you’re unable to be oppressed.”
Faculty, staff, and students should view the situation as a teaching moment, said Rabbi Brand.
“It’s an opportunity for faculty to help students to not become victimized, and to get strength and self-direction,” he said. “It’s an important process for all students to learn how to respond to hate by reaching out to others in a way that goes beyond the hate and allows them to become agents of transformation.”