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At the end of January it was reported that Oberlin College Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo would be stepping down from that role at the end of the semester, and last Friday it was announced that she had left her post six weeks ahead of schedule. Raimondo had a central role in two lawsuits that were brought against the college, so the most surprising thing about this news is that it took so long. Indeed, some alumni welcomed the news.
After a sabbatical, however, Raimondo will be returning to teaching. Due to the fact that, when she was last in Oberlin’s classrooms, she taught material in her class that would be considered antisemitic under the widely-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, this raises serious concerns.
The IHRA adopted its working definition, first developed by former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky, in 2016. In January of this year, Guatemala became the 29th nation to adopt this definition. It’s also been adopted by the US Department of Education and many universities in the UK. In January it was adopted by 51 of the 53 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (including CAMERA), representing the vast majority of the mainstream of American Jewry. While specifying that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” the definition does include specific examples of delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel, and holding Israel to a double standard that are considered antisemitic.
In 2016, when Raimondo was first elevated to her position as Dean, it was reported that her classroom syllabi included writing from Joseph Massad, Judith Butler, and Jasbir Puar.
Jasbir Puar is the Rutgers professor who first coined the term “pinkwashing” to turn Israel’s progressive record on LGBT rights into a weapon with which to attack the country. While Raimondo’s old syllabi don’t seem to be available online anymore, Oberlin alumni, including me, from the Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness have documented that Raimondo’s syllabus included Puar’s “Citation and Censorship: The Politics of Talking about the Sexual Politics of Israel.” The abstract of this paper explains that it argues, “in order to redirect focus away from critiques of its repressive actions toward Palestine, Israel has attempted to utilize its relative ‘gay-friendliness’ as an example of its commitment to Western ‘democratic’ ideals …. [and] looks at the ways in which accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ function in academic and activist contexts to suppress critiques of the implicit nationalism within Israeli sexual politics.”
Puar runs afoul of the IHRA definition by demonizing Israel with mendacious allegations. She then applies what has become known as the Livingstone Formulation, “a means of refusing to engage with an accusation of antisemitism; instead it reflects back an indignant counter-accusation.”
Regarding Massad and Butler, it’s not clear at this point specifically what materials Raimondo was teaching. But including their work in classroom materials without corresponding materials critical of them legitimizes them as authorities. Judith Butler is among the foremost academic promoters of the antisemitic movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel – a movement that regularly demonizes and delegitimizes Israel and holds it to a double standard.
In his book Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State, University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Cary Nelson details Butler’s campaign to dismantle the Jewish state. Nelson writes of Butler, “some of Butler’s critics claim she is anti-Semitic. I have no knowledge of what is in her heart…. The point she has difficulty addressing is that her positions have anti-Semitic consequences and lend support to anti-Semitic groups and traditions.”
Jewish opponents of Zionism understood the movement since its early age as one that shared the precepts of anti-Semitism in its diagnosis of what gentile Europeans called the “Jewish Question”. What galled anti-Zionist Jews the most, however, was that Zionism also shared the “solution” to the Jewish Question that anti-Semites had always advocated, namely the expulsion of Jews from Europe.
This falls afoul the IHRA’s example of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
In 2016 Oberlin – a school that prides itself on a claimed history of inclusiveness, but that hasn’t always lived up to its lofty goals – became the subject of a scandal when it was revealed that a member of its faculty promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories online. On a campus that has struggled with issues around antisemitism for years, holding individuals such as Puar, Butler, and Massad out as authorities seems to be playing with fire.
To avoid another such embarrassing incident, Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar should join Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the US Department of Education in adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism. While such an action will not prevent anyone from engaging in any type of scholarship, it will aid both students and faculty in identifying when criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism – as well as when it doesn’t.
Contributed by assistant director of CAMERA’s Media Response Team and Oberlin College alumna Karen Bekker.