May 27, 2020

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Oberlin, Hampshire and Evergreen… Oh My! (Divest This!)

Some bad news hit Oberlin College recently in the form of a $33,000,000 judgement against the school for libel ($11M in compensatory damages, $22M in punitive), a bill that might go higher if the school has to cover the legal fees of the plaintiff.
Legal Insurrection covered (and continues to cover) the Gibson’s Bakery vs. Oberlin case, so I suggest you head over there to get the details of what happened. I bring up the story now not because BDS was specific to events that led to the suit, but because it reminded me that Oberlin might be the third example of the gods punishing bad choices in strange and unexpected ways.
The first example is Evergreen College in Washington State, ground zero in the Northwest for the boycott and divestment “movement.” Evergreen was the school Rachel Corrie attended when she was recruited by activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and taught how to sneak into Israel, find her way into a conflict area, and protest by putting herself in harms way.
Her death during one of those protests triggered and then anchored anti-Israel activities at the school and beyond for years. As BDS hardened into dogma on that campus, it became clear that anyone with interest in identifying with or supporting the Jewish state should apply elsewhere, and so campus political life became more homogenized and radical.
In fact, the ability to say and do what they wanted without fear of challenge (much less punishment) turned the students of Evergreen into strange sorts of monsters who have been on a rampage in recent years, attacking professors and administrators who do not accept and embrace ever-enlarging lists of required beliefs and associated demands.
Behavior that once turned off any Jewish student who did not adhere to the BDS party line now seems to have turned off anyone not interested in going to a college where they might get threatened with baseball bats for saying or thinking the wrong thing. Understandably, Evergreen’s enrollment plummeted and budgets were cut to make up for the shortfall. In an era when colleges that can’t make ends meet are closing their doors, it is a very real possibility that Evergreen might one day have to decide whether to continue or close up shop.
One famous school already facing that stark choice is Hampshire College in Massachusetts. BDS-followers will remember Hampshire as the place where modern BDS project got kicked off after the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter created the momentum for campus divestment by claiming the school was the first college to divest from the Jewish state, a hoax the boycotters continue to spread today.
In the case of Hampshire, the school did the right thing by denying that divestment had taken place and chastising the students spreading that lie. But that wise choice did not prevent leaders at the school from allowing SJP to make the lives of Israel-supporting students (mostly Jewish) hell for years afterwards.
One amusing element of the whole Hampshire debate was that the school has always had one of the smallest endowments of any college, meaning there was very little to divest in the first place. But that small endowment became less of a joke once the school hit financial difficulties and had no cushion to fall back on. While the demise of Evergreen is speculative, the end of Hampshire is a very real possibility with the current entering class consists of just fifteen students hoping the school figures out a way to bail itself out of the current crisis, possibly through a merger with another institution.
Again, Hampshire’s current crisis has nothing to do with BDS, although I do wonder if the school might have had more good will to draw upon in seeking a partner to save them had they not earned a reputation for thoughtless radicalism through the “heroic” efforts of SJP years earlier.
Which gets us to Oberlin. Like Evergreen and Hampshire, anti-Israel forces have been in the ascendant at that college for years, driving supporters of the Jewish state underground (or causing them to apply elsewhere) and this success may have emboldened students towards even greater radicalism. All of the pathologies we have seen on college campuses: accusations of systematic bigotry (targeting a school that was at the forefront of abolition and civil rights movements no less) and demands for ever more subservience to the radicals have been turned up to eleven at Oberlin, which may explain how the college ended up looking down the wrong end of a nine-figure legal settlement.
While it is impossible to read minds or Tardis our way into the past to attend meetings where decisions were made, it seems likely that administrators at the school thought the most effective way to diffuse student attacks against them as being bigots was to deflect student fire towards an innocent small business that some students were accusing of racial profiling after an African American undergrad was arrested for shoplifting at the store.
That seems to be the storyline that won over the jury, and while the college continues to insist it did nothing wrong, there seems to be no acceptance that the school has a responsibility to use its voice to prevent students from harming others (in this case, harming a hundred-year-old small business that had to suffer days of protests – participated in by both and at least one college administrator – where the family that owned the store was condemned as racists).
The world is too complex to draw a direct line between tolerating intolerance towards one group (Jewish supporters of Israel) to tolerating intolerance generally, but it certainly makes sense that once you have decided to throw one group to the wolves that the wolves might take that as an open invitation to demand more food.
In the case of Oberlin, the food bit back and it remains to be seen if other places where BDS reigns supreme will suffer similar fates as Evergreen, Hampshire and Oberlin, now that we know even seemingly permanent institutions (including colleges and universities, academic associations, even centuries-old churches) might not last forever.

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