Oberlin’s Jewish problem
Protesters at Oberlin College. (photo by Pteranadons via Wikimedia Commons)
(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. The second article examines the student-as-customer approach at universities and its relation to identity politics on campus.)
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote in a June article that “Oberlin College would certainly be in the running” if he picked one campus “that has been roiled the most by struggles over political correctness.”
While university president Marvin Krislov has acknowledged upheaval, he wrote – in the same Times section – that Oberlin’s “faculty and staff … maintain high academic standards and rigor.”
Since I attended the 50th reunion of my class, I realize I do care about the calamity that Oberlin College now exemplifies.
Every town in northern Ohio has history built around either its bar or its liberal arts college. Oberlin was a “dry” town, founded in 1833, the same year as Oberlin College. Then, in 1893, Oberlin became the birthplace of the Anti-Saloon League, the political movement behind the U.S. Constitution’s 18th amendment: prohibition, which took effect in 1920. That social experiment was a disaster, and the 21st amendment repealed the 18th in 1933. Oberlin College finally eased its ban on beer decades later, yet zealotry still haunts the campus.
Bruni scorns “the demand for a so-called trigger warning to students who might be upset reading Antigone,” and he seems bemused by “complaints about the ethnic integrity of the sushi in a campus dining hall.” But it was not funny when, in September 2013, a Latina Jewish student helped plan a Shabbat dinner where Latin American food would be served – and another Oberlin Latina student denounced the event’s “cultural appropriation.” As one Jewish student recalled in a Tablet article this past May, posters for a previous Asian Fusion Shabbat were “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” – so a Jew cannot be Latin American, cannot be a “person of color,” etc. – and, therefore, all Jews on campus should eat “white” food. Of course, such dogma defies both fact and logic, harms individuals and undermines the college’s stated “diversity” goals.
In the same Tablet article, it was noted that, in 2013, the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association revoked affiliation of one dining hall, “the Kosher-Halal Coop (used predominantly by Jews).”
Timothy Elgren became Oberlin’s dean of arts and sciences in July 2014. In February 2016, Oberlin’s online news site posted the transcript of conversation in which Elgren told Krislov that “changes to the way we run our faculty searches have been very important.”
One such search for an assistant professor led to the appointment of Joy Karega. By March, Karega had received worldwide attention for her social media postings of anti-Jewish hatred and conspiracy theories. Karega has neither denied nor disavowed her connection to these items.
In November 2015, for example, Karega wrote that “ISIS is not a jihadist, Islamic terrorist organization. It’s a CIA and Mossad operation….” In other online postings, Karega asserted that Israel and/or Jews also were responsible for bringing down the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001; for murders at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January 2015; for the massacres of 130 people in Paris in November 2015; for shooting down a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine; and for “weaponizing the weather” to inflict the damage of Hurricane Sandy in New York City.
Karega’s illustrated postings also have claimed that the Rothschild family is “worth 500 trillion dollars,” owns “nearly every central bank in the world” and owns “the media, your oil, and your government.” Abraham Socher, an Oberlin associate professor of religion, noted in the student newspaper, the Oberlin Review, that such notions harked back to the infamous antisemitic fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He reminded his readers that a U.S. government definition of antisemitism specifically includes: “Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as a collective – especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
While Karega posted anti-Jewish bigotry and conspiracy theories online, she also taught “social justice writing” to Oberlin students. When I spoke with Krislov on April 6, he could not identify any actual research or publication by Karega at Oberlin. Yet, Karega retained her professorial position there.
Starting in March, publicity about Karega and Oberlin spread among online news sites and print newspapers in the United States, then to papers in England and Israel. Articles about controversy at Oberlin had appeared months earlier in The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, as well as a New Yorker feature that followed in May.
As I learned about Karega, I found that broad anti-Jewish manifestations at Oberlin predated her – and that other campuses in the United States and Canada may have similar cultures, in which it is acceptable to denounce, mock, bully or intimidate any student who is perceived to be Jewish. Perhaps only “fringe” individuals on campus indulge in bigoted behavior, but the community as a whole may ignore or appease the fringe – as part of “free speech” and “academic freedom” or to avoid personal reprisals?
Some of the fringers, however, restrict free speech. They disrupt presentations that they disdain and they have invaded Hillel meetings or other Jewish activities, according to one unnamed “longtime Oberlin professor,” quoted in the same Tablet article as the student cited previously.
Hadas Binyamini, a 2014 Oberlin graduate and co-founder of the college’s J Street U chapter, wrote in the Forward in March this year: “I was uncomfortable publicly identifying as a Zionist” but, even more importantly, “What I didn’t find at Oberlin were spaces to engage with prevalent forms of antisemitism that have nothing to do with Israel. No tools were offered for students to critically examine American Jewish identity and to deconstruct antisemitic motifs….” And, Binyamini continued, “the Multicultural Resource Centre … remains silent on antisemitism. Similarly, the department of comparative American studies, which trains students to ‘investigate power, inequality and agency through the analysis of … race … class … and citizenship,’ [seems] unable to engage students with these same issues when it comes to American Jews.”
Marc Blecher, an Oberlin professor of politics and East Asian studies, agreed: “our Multicultural Resource Centre has been silent on antisemitism.” It is worth noting that, this year, Oberlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of its MRC, which “strives to advance … multicultural understanding among all campus communities.”
Isabel Sherrell, another Jewish graduate of Oberlin – who, according to the Forward, attempted some dialogue with Karega – compiled a list of anti-Jewish incidents and attitudes on the campus. She permitted the use of her name when a Washington Post blog publicized her observations this past February. For instance, Item #6 on her list is anti-Zionist advocacy in the classroom of an African studies professor. Item #18 includes, “Being told I was simply European and Judaism is a religion not an ethnicity,” although the latter view logically contradicts the (false) campus dogma that a person cannot be both Jewish and a “person of color.”
Item #10 on Sherrell’s list begins, “The fact that so many Jewish students are bullied into silence….” Unlike Sherrell, I have zero personal knowledge of “cyber-bullying” or “trolling” or “doxing” via “social media” and I have no idea how a target on campus should respond to such abuse. But Jonathan Weisman – who is not a student, but rather is an editor at the Washington bureau of the New York Times – announced in June that he felt obliged to quit Twitter altogether, because, “For weeks, I had been barraged on Twitter by rank antisemitic comments, Nazi iconography of hooknosed Jews stabbing lovely Christians in the back, the gates of Auschwitz, and trails of dollar bills leading to ovens.” (Weisman believes that the tweets he received came mostly from right-wing white supremacists, not from left-wing campus “social justice” warriors.)
By mid-April, Oberlin’s board of trustees and a majority of faculty members had publicly criticized Karega. Also, some sort of investigative process was announced. But at least three members of the Africana studies department individually voiced some support for Karega. One concern was that
Karega might be a scapegoat, burdened with blame for an anti-Jewish climate that pervaded the campus before she arrived.
I have found no record of public comment by Krislov regarding Karega or related issues until after her story went viral. Then, he issued a statement, which the Oberlin news site posted on March 1, about “The Mission of Liberal Arts Education”: “At Oberlin, we are deeply committed to … ensuring our students a diverse, inclusive and equitable educational experience. We demand intellectual rigor….”
In his mission statement – as in his Times essay and elsewhere for months – Krislov minimized campus problems, promulgated platitudes and did not mention Karega by name.
Oberlin has an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and it released on May 19 a “Campus Climate Report,” which also did not include Karega’s name in its Jewish section.
During the first week of August 2016 – five months after the earliest Times article about Karega, and fast approaching the start of the 2016-2017 academic year – Oberlin finally announced that “Dr. Karega has been placed on paid [emphasis added] leave and will not teach at Oberlin” until “the faculty governance process … plays out.” Karega’s attorney accused Oberlin of “pandering to the dictates of a handful of vocal and wealthy religious zealots.”
The Atlantic, back in 1941, invited and published an article on “The Jewish Problem in America,” in which the journalist (formerly an Episcopal priest) Alfred Jay Nock wrote: “The problem, stated in the fewest words, is that of maintaining a modus vivendi between the American Jew and his fellow citizens which is strong enough to stand any shocks … such as may occur in the years ahead.”
From New York City, he observed with alarm: “… in the late summer of 1939 … anti-Jewish street demonstrations … were going on in Brooklyn, Jackson Heights, the Bronx and Yorkville at the rate of 50 or 60 a week. “These were assaults, baitings, intimidations, picketings, soapbox speeches, incitements to boycott, and the like.
“I think it is not impossible that I shall live to see the Nürnberg laws reenacted in this country and enforced with vigor.”
The Nürnberg – or Nuremberg – laws, which were announced by Nazi Germany in 1935, stripped Jews of citizenship and institutionalized their persecution. Happily, Nock lived to see Hitler and Nazism defeated in 1945.
In 2014, the Nuremberg city council adopted a one-page resolution stating: “We are decisively opposed to every form of antisemitism…. Jewish life in Nuremberg enjoys our very special protection and our care [and] demonstrations in the context of the Israeli-Palestine conflict must be prevented from being misused as political manifestations of antisemitism.”
Oberlin’s official online optimism outshines Pollyanna, Pangloss and Pinocchio. But the actual campus – the college on the ground in Ohio, about 35 miles southwest of Cleveland – does have a Jewish problem in 2016.
Ned Glick lives in Vancouver. His baccalaureate is from Oberlin College and his PhD is from Stanford. After teaching at the University of Chicago, he had University of British Columbia appointments in mathematics, in statistics and in the faculty of medicine. He retired to emeritus faculty status in 1992.