March 8, 2016

No ‘safe space’ at Oberlin for Jewish students who back Israel (COMMENTARY)

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Students passing through the Oberlin Memorial Arch in front of Peters Hall.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Trump via Wikimedia Commons

Students passing through the Oberlin Memorial Arch in front of Peters Hall.

(RNS) Imagine: You’re a parent of a Jewish kid, and you’ve forked over more than $64,000 for that kid to attend Oberlin College.

The last thing either you or your kid expected was to encounter anti-Jewish hatred on campus.

That wasn’t in the course catalog.

Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin, has been posting anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic diatribes on her Facebook page. She has said that “Israel and Zionist Jews” were behind the 9/11 attacks, that the Mossad orchestrated the Charlie Hebdo attack and that Israel is responsible for ISIS.

She is also obsessed with the Rothschild banking dynasty, posting a photograph of Jacob Rothschild: “We own nearly every central bank in the world. We financed both sides of every war since Napoleon. We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.”

Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, who is Jewish, has defended her right to free speech. He has said that the essence of a liberal arts education at Oberlin is to “interrogate assertions with facts and deep, critical thinking from multiple viewpoints.” Yesterday, the college’s reaction to Karega got sharper; its board of trustees denounced her posts as “anti-Semitic and abhorrent.”

But, it gets worse.


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Every student on the Oberlin campus received an anonymous email with this message: “The state of Israel, Zionist Jews are pure evil. They did 9/11.” This is no coincidence. There is a straight line from Professor Karega’s feverish rantings to this mass email, which was either inspired by, or emboldened by, her hateful rhetoric.

The daughter of a friend of mine attends Oberlin. These are her words: “As a supporter of Israel, I no longer feel safe on this campus.”

Imagine a similar verbal attack against blacks. Or LGBT people. Or Muslims.

Would Krislov be interested in “interrogating assertions with facts and deep, critical thinking from multiple viewpoints”?

I don’t think so.

But when it comes to Jew hatred, we are supposed to be open-minded, and to entertain multiple narratives, no matter how far-fetched, bizarre and anti-intellectual they might be.

But, wait a second. What about all of that academic jargon — that universities should be “safe places”? Or, that we should avoid inflicting “micro-aggressions”?

“Safe places” for everyone — every ethnic group, every identity group and every ideology.

Except for self-affirming Jews and supporters of Israel. No safe places for them.

And micro-aggressions? Let us be overly cautious and oh-so-sensitive against every aggression or perceived aggression — even criticism — no matter how micro.

But, micro-aggressions and even macro-aggressions against Jewish students — especially those who defend Israel?

They don’t count. They’re not part of the sensitivity club. At Oberlin, students have referred to the Holocaust — arguably, one of the most “aggressive” moments in history — as “white on white crime.”


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What about the uber-hip academic fad of “intersectionality” — the belief in overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination? It’s the idea that there are far less than “six degrees of separation” between all oppressions and social movements.

OK, here’s “intersectionality” for you: the intersectionality of criticism of Israel, denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish sovereign state — and raw Jew-hatred.

Of late, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the Trump phenomenon. I find its implications for the American political system and for our nation to be terrifying.

But, the recent explosion of anti-Jewish hatred at Oberlin reminds us that the politics of fear is hardly confined to the right. It is very much at home in the cultural and academic left. It is the mirror image of Trumpism: conspiracy theories, willful ignorance and an equally terrifying mob mentality.

As Max Weinreich wrote in “Hitler’s Professors”: The Third Reich willingly used academics to spread its rot.

And those academics let themselves be used.

Back to Oberlin. The Anti-Defamation League has said Oberlin is now on the right track, beginning the difficult work of addressing this festering sore at the heart of academia.

I leave it to parents, and members of the board of trustees and alumni association, to discern how best to further deal with this anguished situation. I would like to believe it’s not just the Jews who will be upset about this. All people who are connected to Oberlin must speak out, and speak out loudly. For this blackens the name of one of America’s great institutions of higher learning.

One last thing — a memo to Jewish kids, and Jewish parents.


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Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Religion News Service photo by Steve Remich

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Religion News Service photo by Steve Remich

You can forget about colleges being guaranteed “safe places” for Jewish concerns. And, in some ways, this is for the best. A college atmosphere that refuses to coddle you means that you will need to strengthen your own Jewish identity and own your own narrative.

This means the highest priority for all Jewish educational institutions — synagogues, day schools, summer camps, JCCs — is to make sure that when kids leave the shelter of their parents’ homes and their home communities, they know how to stand up for themselves as Jews.

Because when it comes to the university, if the kid gloves were ever on, they are now surely off.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. He writes the Martini Judaism blog for RNS)

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  • David Schneier

    This post is totally on the right track. Liberal thinking can lead to fascism. Jewish donors should withhold their support until the. Professor is fired.

  • Yes, it is important to hear about such blatant attacks on Israel so the people are aware of this kind of hatred. I am always amazed at how foolish some people can be. When cursing Israel they are actually bringing curses on their own lives. Believe it! May God bless Israel and grant peace to the Jewish people. May they find peace in their land and may they find peace in their hearts through faith in Yeshua HaMashiach. Shalom

  • Henry Millstein

    As a Jew sharply critical of the policies and actions of the Israeli government, I am appalled by the blatantly anti-Semitic attitudes displayed by some of the people referred to here. There is a clear line between condemnation of Israeli government policy and actions, including the occupation of land rightfully belonging to Palestinians, and outright anti-Semitism which condemns Jews generally for the wrongs and crimes of the Israeli government–and Ms. Karega, and apparently others at Oberlin, have stepped WAY over that line. All honest and progressive people concerned with the wrongs committed by Israel should be condemning such views and statements vigorously. Firm opposition to anti-Semitism, as to all forms of racial or ethnic bigotry, is foundational to any progressive outlook.

  • Debbo

    The professor’s words actions ate shameful. There is a difference between openness to a variety of opinions and thoughts a hateful words and actions.

  • Susan

    There is also a clear line between criticism of Israel and classic antisemitic conspiracy theories.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    “Anti-Semitic” is a historical term, used to describe political parties which opposed the Semitic Party, when it briefly existed, back in about Metternich’s time.

    The word for anti-Jewish sentiment is “antisemitism.’ There is currently no active doctrine named “Semitism” for anybody to be against.

    -dlj.

  • Charlie in NY

    I am not an Oberlin student or alumnus, but I wonder about campus speech codes. If Oberlin has one and it has rules against “hate speech,” how does Prof. Karenga’s outright antisemitism not violate that code?
    And, in any event, is President Kislov so far above the fray that the “interrogations” he so pompously refers to cannot start with him? No one cares that Prof. Karenga’s deranged worldview hurts him. I would think the Oberlin community looks to him to lead on this issue, not to crumple in a corner, saddened at but incapable of confronting such explicit bigotry. Oberlin deserves better from its President, if for no other reason than to avoid the inevitable anti-gay or anti-black episode that is sure to follow. If History has one inflexible rule, it must be this: what starts with the Jews, never ends with the Jews.

  • Bruce Blumenthal

    It is high time that parents and alumni speak with their checkbooks about such disgusting anti-Semitic rants. Withhold contributions to colleges and universities which defend spewers of hate, besiege their presidents and boards of directors with mail objecting to such so called “professors”, and exert pressure. Our children are too impressionable and vulnerable to these “authority figures” who poison their minds or threaten their developing identities. Silence is tacit acceptance.

  • Wes

    I am not Jewish, nor an academic, but I have seen anti-Semitism up close recently from an academic acquaintance. It was both surprising and extremely disturbing to have to have an argument with someone I thought I knew who suddenly started parroting points that could have come from the Protocols. This seems to have come from her interactions on campus with the BDS crowd. (Confirming my worries that anti-Zionism could just be a cover for anti-Semitism.) I hate to say it, but I think it may be time for someone to come up with an annual list of the “Top 5 Anti-Semetic Campuses in North America”. Maybe having an institution put on such a list would help the campus leaders realize the scope and depth of the problem. It seems that Oberlin and UCLA would be valid candidates. I’m both sad and frightened at what I’m seeing. I thought anti-Semitism was on a permanent retreat, with only idiot klan members hanging on to it. The last couple of years has shown me that I was wrong.

  • astrodog

    The hypocrisy on college campuses is the worst part of it. A value system has been created where certain groups are identified as the oppressed. These groups assume a highly protected status and are conferred with the power to demand safe spaces, attack others for microaggressions, and in the end, when it comes to Jews, to commit acts of hatred against them. Jews, inevitably as history has it, have the least protected status. This creates an environment of unequal protection and hostility. That the Jews are seen as “white”, again history and logic be damned, trumps everything else. This allows bigots to attack them with impunity so long as they frame their hatred as anti-zionism. On campuses such as Oberlin (but in fairness not restricted to it) you will have week long hatefests such as Israel apartheid week. And student organizations fronting for groups such as Hamas have figured out the ease by which they can game this perverse value system. Thus disruptions, endless resolutions,…

  • Aviva

    The situation is the same at Vassar. i visited the school with my daughter and the admissions director told us she can guarantee my daughter (who will have a brother in Israel) will feel safe there. That is one way to make sure they don’t have too many of Jews on campus.

  • And not just Jewish parents, David. Recent developments on America’s campuses are an outrage to every citizen concerned with academic integrity and intellectual freedom.

  • I would agree with you, Susan. But much “criticism of Israel” is anti-Zionism in disguise. I am pro-Zionist and wish all Jews were too, though I know many are not. That said, I find a troubling ambivalence among many American Jews toward Israel while at the same time I see a decidedly unambiguous agreement with Palestinian grievance politics. In many ways, such cognitive dissonance resembles certain antisemitic conspiracy theories in form, if not in substance.

  • Tom

    I don’t buy into the 911/Mossad conspiracy theory. She should have just talked about Irgun, Stern Gang and Levi. Oh yeah, that is all political history revision to Zionists. How come when Irgun blew up Arabs and Westerners that isn’t considered terrorism? When Irgun blew up people to blame the Arabs isn’t taught in schools either?

  • Hannah Katz

    Very sad. But remember that most Jews are white, and white lives don’t matter, per the left, so no safe spaces for you. Or Christians either. None for any productive group.