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The Real Scandal at Oberlin Is Much Bigger Than One Professor’s Anti-Semitism

What does it say about Oberlin’s hiring processes that it picked a bigot–who claims Israel did 9/11 and created ISIS–to teach social justice writing courses to undergraduates?

Yair Rosenberg
March 15, 2016

By now, the story of Joy Karega is familiar to many. An assistant professor at Oberlin College and strident proponent of boycotting Israel on campus, Karega moonlighted as an unhinged anti-Semite on social media. On her Facebook page, she labeled ISIS a “CIA and Mossad operation,” claimed Israel downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, said the Mossad perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo attacks, posted a video arguing that Jews perpetrated 9/11, and shared an anti-Semitic meme of Jewish banker Jacob Rothschild that proclaimed “We own your news, the media, your oil, and your government.”

After the exposure of Karega’s hateful propagandizing was met with a muted response from the university–its president defended Karega’s academic freedom, yet did not exercise his own to condemn her statements–Oberlin’s board of trustees was forced to step in and condemn the postings as “anti-Semitic and abhorrent.” It called for a full investigation into Karega.

Amidst all this controversy about Karega’s lurid anti-Semitic outbursts, however, a much wider and more troubling failure by Oberlin has been overlooked. Because the truth is, the scandal at the prestigious school is much bigger than one professor’s anti-Semitism.

As the New York Times reported, Karega, a professor of rhetoric and composition, teaches “social justice writing courses.” According to Oberlin’s course catalog, one such class is “RHET 204 – Writing for Social Justice.” In it, “Students will develop, negotiate, and revise their own writing strategies and ethics as they write on social justice issues relevant to their interests.”

In other words, Oberlin hired an unrepentant bigot to teach undergraduates to write about justice and guide them in their moral development.

This astounding fact suggests that the entire hiring process for social justice-related fields at Oberlin is fundamentally broken and easily gamed. After all, it’s difficult to imagine a greater or more systemic failure than Karega being chosen to teach students how to communicate about moral causes.

Seen in this light, the debate over whether Oberlin should discipline or fire Karega is a distraction from an even more serious reckoning. Because whether Karega herself leaves or stays on, Oberlin must account for itself far beyond one individual professor. It must ask how its hiring committees missed the signs that they were contracting a bigot to teach ethics. What questions did they fail to pose during the interview process? What areas of the applicant’s background and past work did they fail to investigate? Did any members of the faculty who chose Karega share her prejudices and thus allow them to slide? If Karega could slip by, who else might have?

On the other hand, if the school merely scapegoats Karega while letting off those who enabled her to come in contact with undergraduates in the first place, Oberlin will have demonstrated that it is not interested in addressing its prejudice problem, but rather suppressing its symptoms.

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