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

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

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

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 catalogue.

Dr. 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.

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 Karena’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 that there had been similar verbal attacks against blacks. Or the LGBT population. Or Muslims.

Would President 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 the Jew hatred, we are supposed to be open-minded, and to entertain multiple narratives and truth possibilities. No matter how far-fetched, bizarre, and anti-intellectual they might be.

But, wait a second. What about all of that current 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.”

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. It’s 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 ADL has said that 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 that 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.

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 that 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 — that 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.

  • As an alumnus of Oberlin (’82) I have been increasingly distraught and dismayed by my alma mater’s tolerance of rhetoric that – by any reasonable standard – has crossed the line from spirited academic debate (where facts & critical thinking should have some relevance) to intimidating hate speech and wacko conspiracy theories that would place “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the non-fiction section of Barnes and Noble. Although distressed by recent developments, I am sadly not surprised. On a visit to the campus more than a decade ago, the signs were all there…literally: “Zionism = Racism”; “Israel is an Apartheid State”; “Free Palestine”. In recent years, along with many other liberal campuses, Oberlin has shown sympathy for the nefarious BDS movement which absurdly targets the only Democracy in the Middle East for Human Rights abuses while ignoring the heinous treatment of women, homosexuals, political dissenters, and minorities in other countries. Where is the…

  • Michele Wojtyna
  • Christopher W. Chase

    Anti-Semitism is always threatening and needs to be addressed, especially on campuses where the very notions of "ethnically collective responsibility" can and should be interrogated. By the same token there can and should be critical reflection on those questions as they manifest in Israeli society, such as in another article published today in RNS: “The report also highlights the precarious relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, with nearly half (48 percent) of Jewish Israelis favoring the expulsion or transfer of Arabs from the nation.” Addressing either of these topics shouldn’t preclude the addressing the other.

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  • Liz Wagner

    First, Jeff, thanks so much for writing this. The situation on college campuses is increasingly dire, and there has yet to be a coordinated response to it across the Jewish community.

    Second, to Christopher Chase: After 4 declared wars of aggression prosecuted against Israel by her Muslim and Arab neighbors and 60+ years of terror attacks against them by Palestinians, with no end sight, it is completely rational for Israelis to consider expulsion of Arabs may have to be pursued. No one has a problem when Jews are forcibly transferred from their homes in the cause of “peace.” What, then, makes the transfer of hostile Arabs unacceptable?

    It’s easy for us, safe and comfortable in the USA, to invoke detached, armchair liberal pieties and feel righteous about it. But if we do it without honestly confronting what Israelis are facing, this is pure vanity. Israelis are in serious danger. The longer the world pretends otherwise, the uglier the consequences will be.

  • Michael Cantor

    Oberlin should do what it does best: Speak the truth to each claim of truth by this faculty member. If the individual’s “truth” doesn’t measure up to the college’s “truth”, let a third party expert from another institution pass judgement in a public forum. This is an important “teaching moment”. Oberlin should not miss the opportunity to teach.

  • Chris Dixon

    Why is Oberlin College allowing an associate professor to drag their good name threw the mud. Based on a knowledge of history this so called intellectual has gone beyond questioning facts and jumped straight into Fantasy Land

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  • Ron O

    Very similar to a Florida university which recently terminated a conspiracy theorist who abused free speech by hateful diatribes. Spouting nonsense and claiming free speech may work if you are an ordinary run of the mill looney but not a professor seeking to instil hate