In February of 2016, Oberlin professor Joy Karega made headlines for the antisemitic conspiracy theories she posted on Facebook. Nearly nine months later, after much hand-wringing about free speech, she was fired. But Oberlin’s problem with antisemitism neither started nor ended with Joy Karega.
Karega was only a symptom of the problem at Oberlin. If it were otherwise, how could other faculty members have turned a blind eye to her antisemitic Facebook rants for so long? More importantly, how could several of them have publicly defended her when she was exposed? In Anti-Zionism on Campus,* a current Oberlin student writes that “most disturbing of all was the way that students reacted to the [Karega] story. … All this demonization [of Israel] expresses, and fuels, the antisemitism. There exists such a high level of double standards, demonization, and delegimization of Israel that it makes it possible not only for a Karega to say such vile things about Jews – but for an enlightened liberal arts community to accept them.”
What one former faculty member recently called the “insane anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic rhetoric and atmosphere on campus” persists, despite Karega’s dismissal and despite the resignation of Marvin Krislov, the President who presided over the school during the time that she was employed. In the Fall semester of 2017, Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness, using the school calendar, Hillel weekly email blasts, and Facebook events listings, counted 16 anti-Israel events and only two pro-Israel events on the campus (counting two “pro-Israel events” was even generous, as one of those “events” was simply an email inquiring about interest in a Hebrew-speaking language table at mealtimes).
The school’s claim that it is powerless over this imbalance because students control events is disingenuous – obviously the College can host speakers if it chooses to – as well as beside the point. Regardless of the cause, the effect is that one side of the debate is being silenced, and students at Oberlin are being indoctrinated against Israel.
In the past three weeks alone, Oberlin’s central square, Wilder bowl, has hosted two antisemitic exhibits and one anti-Israel exhibit. The first, displayed right before Passover, portrayed the ten plagues as Israeli actions against Palestinians. This display coopts a religious observance and Jewish religious symbols. It also blames Israel for problems caused by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas: specifically, lack of water, electricity, and medicine in Gaza. While these problems are real and surely do inflict misery on the people of Gaza, Israel did not cause them. The shortages are caused by power struggles between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and by Hamas directing resources towards building rockets and underground tunnels with the intent to attack Israel instead of towards meeting the needs of the people of Gaza. By putting it up right before Passover, and demanding that Jewish students focus on this issue on their holiday, the exhibit implies that Oberlin’s Jews bear some responsibility for problems on the other side of the world.
Under the project name “Deadly Exchange,” JVP asserts that joint training and exchange programs are responsible for rising levels of police brutality and racism against minorities in the US because the American law enforcement are inculcated with disrespect for minorities and a cavalier attitude towards violence by their Israeli counterparts. A recent promotional video from JVP implicitly blames US Jewish organizations, who run many of the exchange programs, for rising levels of racism and violence in the US. The video demonizes both Israelis and American Jews and blames them for some of the worst problems in society.
Writing in the Forward, Andrew Mark Bennett called this campaign, “the most glaring example of JVP’s obsession with Jewish wrongdoing,” and asserted that “the campaign was undeniably anti-Semitic libel designed to paint Jews with blood and hold Jews responsible for state violence.”
In my correspondence with a current Oberlin faculty member about whether the school should issue a condemnation of these two exhibits, he pointed to the school’s new hate speech policy, which is to deny the speakers the “microphone” they want – that is, more attention in the form of condemnation. In other words, the professor implicitly acknowledged that these displays, erected in Oberlin’s central locations, presumably with the required permissions to do so, constitute hate speech, but said that for that very reason, they were best ignored by faculty and the administration.
All of this was before Oberlin’s annual “Israel Apartheid” week began. Oberlin’s Students for a Free Palestine has events scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week, including “teach-ins about Hamas, Liberal Zionism, and Pinkwashing.” That’s a total of six events that are either anti-Israel or antisemitic or both, in less than a four-week period.
The fact that both of the antisemitic exhibits were put up by a group that purports to be a Jewish student organization only makes them more, not less, disturbing. “The anti-Israel hate,” wrote the student in Anti-Zionism on Campus, “pressur[es] Jewish students to conform.” The idea that this is what Jewish students will learn – and learn to promote – at Oberlin should give any Jewish parent pause.
* Anti-Zionism on Campus, edited by Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar.
Contributed by Karen Bekker, Assistant Director of the International Letter-Writing Group at CAMERA and a graduate of Oberlin College