On Tuesday, Palestine Legal sent a letter to Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov in response to recent accusations of anti-Semitism against the student group Students for a Free Palestine (SFP) at the Ohio liberal arts college.
A number of Oberlin alumni stated in an open letter to Krislov and to the media that SFP’s work to raise awareness around Palestinian human rights has led to an “anti-Semitic culture on campus” and that Jewish students feel uncomfortable expressing their support for Israel. The letter demands that the College undertake “A thorough investigation and documentation of all acts of anti-Semitism, including student rallies that voiced inflammatory language about Israel,” and form a task force to address “the crisis.”
SFP’s statement in response to the open letter read: “Confronting the realities of the occupation is uncomfortable and difficult, but it is not anti-Semitic...We see these accusations as a way to limit the free speech of students, silence political activism, and intimidate pro-Palestinian activists.”
Palestine Legal wrote to Krislov to warn against acceding to demands to monitor SFP’s speech activities, and to bring attention to the pattern of similar attempts to malign students and others advocating for Palestinian rights with false accusations of anti-Semitism based solely on speech critical of Israel.
The letter refers Krislov to Palestine Legal and CCR’s recent report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech. It also reminds him of a previous letter from Palestine Legal and partner organizations that provided guidelines “to ensure that the expression of political views is not stifled by individuals and groups inside and outside the campus community who disagree,” and emphasized that previous complaints by Israel advocacy organizations of a “hostile anti-Semitic” environment based on speech critical of Israel have been roundly dismissed by the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2015, Palestine Legal responded to 240 incidents of suppression of Palestine advocacy, over 50% of which involved accusations of anti-Semitism based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy.
The letter is available here and below.
January 26, 2016
Office of the President
Cox Administration Building, Room 201
70 N. Professor St.
Oberlin, OH 44074
Dear President Krislov,
Palestine Legal is an organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of those advocating for Palestinian freedom.
We write in light of recent disagreements between members of the campus community and alumni, both in online forums and on campus, relating to the issue of Israel/Palestine.
Our understanding is that you are meeting with alumni today who are concerned that the prevalence of pro-Palestinian viewpoints and speech leads to a “hostile climate” for Jewish students. This group of alumni are urging “investigation and documentation” of the activities of pro-Palestinian student groups and the formation of a task force to address the “crisis” of “antisemitism on campus,” all based on the expression of views favoring Palestinian rights or critical of Israel. We believe that these demands do a tremendous disservice to the entire Oberlin College community.
Palestine Legal has documented widespread and concerted efforts to malign those who speak out for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist. Our report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US, recently published with the Center for Constitutional Rights, documents the various tactics that Israel advocacy groups are using to pressure institutions – universities in particular – to condemn, censor and punish Palestine rights activists. In 2015, of the 240 incidents of suppression that we documented, over 50% involved false accusations of anti-Semitism based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy.
We urge you to recognize the recent attempts to malign student activists as unfounded and potentially injurious to the affected students, and to ensure that Oberlin College protects the rights of members of the campus community to engage in vigorous and challenging debate about an important human rights issue. Without such protection, Oberlin would cease to be a “marketplace of ideas” that fosters critical thinking and action. Indeed, 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." The Campus Code of Conduct further recognizes that "proscriptions of verbal harassment must not have the effect of limiting the free exchange of ideas or opinions."
We attach here a letter we sent you on December 2, 2014, together with other civil rights organizations, providing legal guidance meant to ensure that the expression of political views is not stifled by individuals and groups inside and outside the campus community who disagree. In particular, the letter highlights the fact that the expression of political viewpoints, standing alone, does not amount to “harassment” or create a “hostile educational environment,” as many Israel advocacy groups have claimed. The Department of Education has recognized as much in its dismissal of several complaints making such allegations about student activism for Palestinian rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as explained in the attached letter.
We urge you to carefully study the report, which is linked here, and to review the attached letter again.
Director, Palestine Legal
Cooperating Counsel, Center for Constitutional Rights
Cc: Eric Estes, Vice President and Dean of Students, Eric.Estes@oberlin.edu
 See https://sites.google.com/site/oberlinagainstantisemitism/.
 See http://palestinelegal.org/the-palestine-exception.
 See http://palestinelegal.org/news/2016/1/25/report-suppression-of-palestine-advocacy-in-2015.
 See https://new.oberlin.edu/students/policies/student-bill-of-rights
 See http://new.oberlin.edu/students/policies/campus-code-of-conduct
 Please note that the letter was sent under our previous name, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support.