When news first broke that an Oberlin professor posted anti-Semitic content on Facebook, I was skeptical. In our culture there is a huge conflation of criticism of the Israeli state and Zionism with anti-Semitism. I thought that perhaps Professor Karega had criticized the government of Israel and was being targeted for it, so I decided to investigate for myself. Upon further investigation, I was disheartened to see that her posts indeed contain blatantly anti-Semitic content.
I want to preface my analysis by saying that I do not support the Israeli government and I oppose the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Criticism of the Israeli government’s actions are acceptable and should be encouraged. Professor Karega has the right to criticize the Israeli government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Knesset and the Israeli military. I also want to state that I do not want Professor Karega to be fired. Being a radical Black woman at a historically white college with many systems working against her, she is bound to be under more scrutiny than other professors. The fact that she has been threatened and harassed, especially in racist ways is deplorable and must cease immediately. We must acknowledge that somebody, a journalist or otherwise, went digging in Professor Karega’s Facebook history, going back years to get dirt on her. While Professor Karega’s statements are in the public sphere now and must be dealt with, we must also examine the ways in which Professor Karega could have been unfairly targeted. We must look at her words in context and call her in on her beliefs.
Many times in social justice movements, people are elevated to a perfect untouchable status. It is as if they can do no wrong. However, the truth is that while members and leaders of social justice movements do incredible work, they are still human. When these people mess up, people often have one of two reactions. Either all of their positive work is discredited because of their mistake, or people choose to disregard their wrong and pretend that it didn’t occur because they do so much good.
Some of Professor Karega’s Facebook posts do not mention Israel and were instead anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish people. I took particular issue with a post about the banker Jacob Rothschild. This post did not mention Israel but discussed a conspiracy theory which claims that Jewish people control all of the world’s money, accompanied by a creepy picture of Rothschild with small beady eyes, an enlarged nose and an unsettling smirk.
The historical implications of this imagery are problematic. In Nazi Germany, Hitler promoted the idea that the white Aryan race was superior and that eugenics should be implemented in order to cleanse the population of the inferior races. Jewish people were not considered white, and images that depicted the aforementioned traits were used as evidence that Jewish people were biologically inferior. The U.S. also did not consider Jewish people to be white and implemented laws that limited the number of Jewish people who could enter the U.S. The federal government knew that the genocide against Jewish people was underway and that those denied visas would most likely perish.
I also find the content of the Rothschild posting to be frightening, which claims that Jewish people “fund every central bank in the world,” “financed both sides of every war,” and control “the media, your oil, and your government.” Once again, this is not just a harmless theory Professor Karega is proposing.
In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published initially in Russia. This was an anti- Semitic propaganda text that laid out a supposed Jewish plan of world domination. This text had no basis in fact, but was reproduced widely by multiple governments in order to paint Jewish people as a threat and justify institutionalized anti-Semitism. Hitler ordered the text to be printed and taught in all classrooms. The book included assertions that Jewish people had a disproportionate amount of money and control, much of the same assertions that are reoccurring again today.
Another one of Professor Karega’s posts criticizes the Obama administration for giving money to Holocaust survivors and hints at Jewish conspiracy by saying that we need to find out who “ALL American presidents work for and why they are chosen and placed in office.”
These ideas about Jewish people are rooted in white supremacy. They were created in order to divide oppressed communities in order to target them further. These stereotypes ensured that Jewish people would not have allies because others would view them as the perpetrators of oppression rather than the victims. These anti-Semitic views did not end with the attempted genocide of the Jewish people but continue today.
It is also vital to acknowledge though that Black people have suffered endlessly for the entirety of American history and the entire U.S. economy was built on the backs of African slaves. Despite all of this, reparations have yet to be made. Professor Karega is absolutely justified in wanting reparations. However, reparations do not need to come at the cost of another group. The need for reparations for Black Americans does not make Holocaust survivors living under the poverty line undeserving of financial assistance. Under the framework of intersectionality, all oppressions are linked. Therefore, we should not limit our ideas of justice to an either or dichotomy in which one group can only receive justice at the expense of another.
Beyond Professor Karega’s posts that that focused primarily on Jewish people, some of her posts that focused on the State of Israel also included anti-Semitic content. There are many ways to criticize the Israeli government, but Professor Karega’s critiques are not just focused on the government. Instead, they hinted at larger conspiracies. One of these is the idea that all Jewish people are somehow tied to the government of Israel and control its actions. This is an anti-Semitic myth. Jewish diasporic peoples are not responsible for the actions of Israel. The fact that Professor Karega utilizes anti-Semitic tropes in her arguments against Israel and alleges that Jewish people were somehow behind the Charlie Hebdo and 9/11 attacks also delegitimizes her very real criticisms of Israel, capitalism and corruption in government.
I would also like to further break down some of the terminology being used within this debate. The terms “Zionist” and “anti Zionist” are often taken to mean supporting the Israeli government or standing against it. Zionism was born out of the fact that Jewish people were not safe in so-called secular states. In 19th-century Europe, Jewish people were targeted and murdered, even when they attempted to form their own communities to take shelter from violent anti-Semitism. Some Jewish people needed a place where they wouldn’t be a persecuted minority and could finally be safe in their ancestral homeland. After the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people were massacred, the idea of needing a safe home for Jewish people became even more pressing.
Today, many Jewish people identify as Zionists because they see that Jewish people worldwide are still in need of a safe place where they can flee. Just this year, nearly all Jewish people were expelled from Yemen or killed, Jewish people were targeted and murdered in France and a neo-Nazi party won parliamentary seats in the Greek elections. However, for many Jewish people, identification with Zionism does not mean support of the Israeli government. It is possible to be a Zionist while disagreeing with the Israeli government. This is also why I take issue with the multiple mentions of “Zionist Jews” being responsible for a variety of things.
Furthermore, it troubles me that while I do not support Israel, I must denounce it for my statements on anti-Semitism to be taken seriously. Support of Israel is too often a litmus test that Jewish people must pass in order to be considered “good Jews.” This is part of the myth that all Jewish people are affiliated with the Israeli state and should be held responsible for Israel’s actions.
Returning to Professor Karega’s posts in particular, what I find most frightening about them isn’t just that they were posted by an Oberlin professor but the fact that a number of people defended her words on social media. Seeing people who I respect so highly and to whom I often defer when it comes to social justice issues post and like such blatantly anti-Semitic content was disheartening. I was upset that my peers, who usually utilize the intent vs. impact model — which states that only affected groups get to determine if they are hurting or not — appeared to disregard the pain that the Jewish student community has expressed.
While I am upset that the feelings of the Jewish community are being disregarded, I do identify with some of those who are conflicted when we ask them to stand in solidarity with us. The truth is that racism and oppression are rampant in the U.S. and at Oberlin in particular. There have been many times when Black and Brown people on campus have expressed pain and hurt and people have not mobilized for them. In the past, some Jewish people have shown up and stood in solidarity for Black and Brown communities, but others of us have not. Some people made their very first call for solidarity when they were the ones targeted. I understand that some Black and Brown people have trouble standing with us when we haven’t consistently stood for them.
I ask my Jewish peers then that we use this as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with all oppressed communities. We have to believe Black and Brown people every single time they express hurt without asking for proof. We have to truly show up for all racial justice. We can only take down white supremacy if we resist the urge to divide and attack one another.
Although Jewish people have not historically been considered white and have been targeted by white supremacist ideals, many Ashkenazi Jewish people are currently considered white at Oberlin (This is not to deny, of course, that there are also Sephardic, Mizrahi and other Jewish people of color on campus). We must therefore use this white privilege to demand justice on campus and at large. We received emails from both the president and the Board of Trustees when anti-Semitic events occurred. However, this reality has not been the same for our Black peers. Many allegations of racism among professors and administrators as well as outright violent incidents have been leveled without proper action from the administration. The fact that so many marginalized groups are neglected by the administration means that we as the student community must decide what a just response from the administration looks like in these instances and demand it be applied equally for every single group.
My Jewish upbringing taught me about Tikun Olam, the idea that we must repair the world. We live in a world that is wrought with violence, oppression and many other evils. This is why, as a Jewish person, I support the ABUSUA demands, because we must understand that all oppression is connected and the only way we can truly work against it is through strong solidarity.
Calling in Professor Karega is vital, as is targeting all forms of oppression and challenging ourselves and our peers to think critically of the oppressive systems in which we have been brought up in.