Navigate to News section

How Oberlin Has Repeatedly Failed To Confront Anti-Semitism on Campus

The college was made aware that it had an anti-Semitic professor on staff a month before the media broke the story. It failed to act—and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Yair Rosenberg
May 24, 2016
Flickr / Roy Luck
Oberlin College campus in Oberlin, Ohio.Flickr / Roy Luck
Flickr / Roy Luck
Oberlin College campus in Oberlin, Ohio.Flickr / Roy Luck

Last February, Oberlin College became the flashpoint of a national controversy when it was discovered that the liberal arts school was employing an openly anti-Semitic professor. On Facebook, social justice writing instructor Joy Karega had dubbed ISIS a “CIA and Mossad operation,” suggested Israel downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, claimed the Mossad perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo attacks, posted a video arguing that Jews did 9/11, and shared an anti-Semitic meme of Jewish banker Jacob Rothschild that declared, “We own your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” Karega’s story was covered in the New York Times and numerous other media outlets, and her conduct was condemned by Oberlin’s board of trustees.

At the time, some publications—including Tablet—suggested that Karega’s hiring, despite her prejudiced views, represented a broader institutional failure at Oberlin. Two of Oberlin’s associate deans had served on the small search committee that hired Karega to guide undergraduates in ethical activism, and yet they completely failed to recognize her bigotry. Tablet has learned, however, that the institution’s seeming inability to face up to Karega’s conduct went even higher than previously reported, and that a broader climate of anti-Semitism has gone unaddressed on campus.

On Jan. 26, 2015, a full month before Karega’s posts went public, an email obtained by Tablet was sent by a concerned alumni group to Oberlin president Marvin Krislov. Attached to it was a 28-page document containing testimonies of anti-Semitic incidents at Oberlin. Some of the allegations related to actions that rested on the blurry line between criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish bigotry. They were certainly debatable. But some were not—most notably, a screenshot of Karega’s anti-Semitic Facebook post about the Rothschilds and Jewish global domination. Karega’s name was redacted from the images of her posts, and she was presented only as “an Oberlin faculty member who has been identified by students as someone who makes hostile remarks about Israel in a class whose syllabus does not include topics related to Israel.”

The Oberlin administration did not follow up on the incendiary Facebook posts or ask who had authored them. On Feb. 20, five days before Karega’s posts would be first reported, the head of the alumni group, University of Maryland professor Melissa Landa, reached out to Krislov again, this time with a 17-page document containing all of Karega’s Facebook posts, with her name included. No public action was taken regarding Karega.

After the story finally broke in The Tower on February 25, the Oberlin administration initially refused to confront Karega’s conduct, defending her academic freedom without using its own to condemn her bigotry. “Oberlin College respects the rights of its faculty, students, staff, and alumni to express their personal views,” Oberlin spokesperson Scott Wargo said. “Acknowledgement of this right does not signal institutional support for, or endorsement of, any specific position. The statements posted on social media by Dr. Joy Karega, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, are hers alone and do not represent the views of Oberlin College.”

On March 1, Krislov addressed the incident, without naming Karega, and acknowledged that her postings “cause pain.”

Asked this week for comment regarding when exactly Oberlin became aware of Karega’s postings, Krislov provided the following statement to Tablet: “Upon fully learning of the situation from credible sources, we took steps to review this matter under existing faculty governance procedures. That process is underway. As I have said repeatedly, we will not tolerate bigotry in any form at Oberlin. Nor will we let expediency and demands for summary judgement abrogate anyone’s rights to fairness and process.”

Growing alumni dissatisfaction with the college’s response to such naked prejudice led Oberlin’s board of trustees to step in on March 5, and forcefully condemn Karega’s conduct. “These postings are anti-Semitic and abhorrent,” said Clyde S. McGregor, the chair of the board of trustees. “We deplore anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry. They have no place at Oberlin. These grave issues must be considered expeditiously.”

On April 12, over a month and a half after Karega’s postings first came to public light, a majority of the Oberlin faculty signed a letter condemning her. Others on staff, however, openly defended Karega.

But while Karega’s story is important and illustrative, it is only one bullet point in a broader account of anti-Semitism at Oberlin. An array of other incidents were originally collected by alumni and sent to Oberlin’s administration in January. Below is a sampling of these and other previously unreported instances, many of them proffered by students who, fearful of the climate on campus, asked that their names be withheld:

• Spring 2013 was a fraught time for Jewish students at Oberlin: anti-Israel activists were pushing a student government resolution to boycott the Jewish state, the campus’s Kosher-Halal Coop (used predominantly by Jews) was kicked out of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, and flyers with swastikas had appeared in dorms as part of a hoax. In response, Hillel held a meeting for students concerned about anti-Semitism on campus. But instead of being a place for Jewish students to support each other, the meeting was crashed and commandeered by members of Oberlin’s Students for Free Palestine chapter, many of them not Jewish. Writes the Hillel student co-chair at the time:

About 10 members of SFP (all of the highly involved membership at that time) attended this Hillel meeting, despite the fact that only one of them was a member of Hillel. Most of the SFP members had never been to a Hillel meeting before, and many if not most of them were not Jewish.

Another student present recalled:

As we started to go around in a circle to share our experiences, the students from SFP began interrupting and interrogating us, and the environment turned increasingly hostile. There was so much drama that the meeting lasted about 3-4 hours… After the members of SFP left a few people stayed around to try to comprehend what had just happened. I remember being in tears. There were a lot of tears. Basically, we felt VIOLATED. Like SFP had invaded the Hillel office and interrogated us.

 Many other students relate how ignorant stereotypes about Jews lead to the bullying and marginalization of Jewish students, particularly Jews of color, all of whom are dismissed as “white.” One student recalls a particularly pointed expression of this prejudice:

In September, 2013, the Hillel staff decided to plan a meal titled Latina Shabbat after being approached by a Latina Jewish student who was interested in having a Shabbat dinner where Latin American food would be served. They also saw this as a great opportunity to collaborate with the MRC (Multicultural Resource Center) and made an outreach [sic] to the Latina coordinator and the student leaders of La Alianza (the student organization for Latina students). The night before the event, a Latina member of student senate posted on the Facebook event for Shabbat dinner calling it appropriation and demanding that the event be cancelled. She used her title as a student senator in voicing this demand. The MRC asked her to take down her comments, so I do not have them in writing. After the event, it became clear that this was not the only Shabbat dinner that had been called appropriation: it turns out that one of the posters for the previous week’s Asian Fusion Shabbat had been defaced with graffiti about appropriation and orientalism. Comfort food Shabbat was also ill-received with comments about appropriating Black cooking. There is a common belief at Oberlin that all Jews are white and rich. This misconception, which fails to recognize the diversity of the Jewish community (including at Oberlin) leads to the assumption expressed here that Jews are stealing someone else’s culture, when in fact there are Jews who share that culture.

 Infamously, along similar lines, students report hearing the Holocaust dismissed as “white-on-white crime,” while others recall anti-Israel activists on campus equating the Jewish state with white supremacy, despite the fact that a plurality of its population actually hails from Arab countries. One alumnus from the class of 1997, a former student senator, described how this ignorant attitude pervaded Oberlin two decades ago:

Students of Color (SOC-only) meetings were organized by both students and the administration and Jews were systematically and repeatedly excluded from these meetings. Sephardic Jewish students who attempted to “qualify” as SOC were also excluded because as Jews they were considered to be White.

This sort of stereotyping and exclusion is particularly pernicious on a campus where, as the New Yorker recently reported, some classes are actually self-segregated between white students and students of color.

 Before the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association kicked out the Kosher-Halal Coop in 2013, one student from the class of 2012 recalls how it tried to bar kosher-for-Passover food: “OSCA voted not to guarantee Jewish students the right to have unleavened alternatives provided during Passover, even though they honored other non-medical dietary restrictions. They were ultimately overruled by the coop’s nutrition coordinator.”

 One longtime Oberlin professor writes:

One tactic SFP used at Oberlin was to crash Hillel meetings, on the pretext that the students doing so were after all, Jewish, and take over the meeting/prevent the students who had organized it from holding the meeting they wished to hold, with the agenda they had set. That is not free speech, it is totalitarian suppression of it, using totalitarian mind games…

Students are targeted if they identify Jewishly in any way, e.g., go to Hillel events, eat in Kosher Halal Coop, live or go to events in Hebrew House, take JWST [Jewish studies] courses, speak Hebrew, go to Hebrew/Jewish cultural events, like Israeli dancing. These students are very stressed and are being bullied. It definitely has a chilling effect on such students and their willingness to be involved in things Jewish…

Students told me they were shunned at tables in coops if they were Jewishly-identified (were part of Hillel, never mind Oberlin Zionists; took JWST courses, never mind, majored in it; went to Israel to study; took Hebrew, lived in Hebrew House); that students would demonstratively get up and walk away when such a student sat down at a table. One student told me she was shunned and told she was a fascist colonialist for speaking Hebrew with another student.

With a campaign of sustained vilification of Israel and anyone with connections to it ongoing on campus, such behavior was clearly not political, in the sense of arguing a position, but was part of personalizing persecution of those identified with a position or affiliation.

In short, according to students, what has been transpiring at Oberlin represents a marriage of deliberate prejudice with empowered ignorance that has increasingly marginalized Jewish students and Jewish life on campus. It will take an administration willing to forthrightly combat misinformed stereotypes about Jews, and to confront anti-Israel activism used as an excuse to intimidate and bully Jewish students, to have any chance of changing this deteriorating climate for the better.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.