College Must Openly Condemn Bigotry, Anti-Semitism

Jade Schiff, Assistant Professor of Politics

To the Editor:

In the wake of revelations about anti-Semitic Facebook posts by Professor Joy Karega, our College community finds itself once more on a precarious edge. Sometimes it seems like we live here full-time. This is not itself a bad thing, though it is difficult. Precariousness can be a sign of institutional life — a sign that we are asking important and difficult questions and resisting the comforts of certitude, and that we are risking ourselves and our sense of community in the process. That is indispensable to the critical inquiry and politics that we value. It is equally true that not all of us are vulnerable in the same way and that for many, that vulnerability is unchosen. The confluence of anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism in the case of Professor Karega illuminates that point.

While precariousness can be a virtue, when accompanied by silence, indulgence and evasion it can become vicious. It is easy to fall over the edge, for a critical politics to give way to one that is indifferent and cruel, that wounds rather than strengthens, that destroys rather than builds. I fear recent signs that point in this direction. Some are obvious. There is a shocking campus silence in the face of accusations of anti-Semitism against Professor Karega and against the College by various media outlets. The administration has also been largely silent. While Deans Elgren and Kalyn quietly released a statement on April 8 condemning bigotry, that statement is unlikely to be noticed beyond our campus and it equivocates badly on the question of anti-Semitism, saying only that some “found” the posts to be anti-Semitic. As Professor Socher recently made clear in [the March 4 edition of the Review], there can be no equivocation on this point. In the face of the administration’s failure to respond more publicly and forcefully, a number of faculty members — including me — have added their names to a statement crafted by Professor Marc Blecher, my colleague in the Politics department. I am grateful to him for this initiative, but it is no substitute for a forceful public statement by the administration on behalf of the College.

Other, more subtle signs that we are teetering dangerously have appeared in these very pages. The Review has published substantial opinion pieces by Professor of Jewish Studies Abraham Socher and Associate Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Justin Emeka, OC ’95. They are impassioned and enlightening, as befits the work of engaged scholars. They are also impossible not to read as opening (and closing?) statements of prosecution and defense in a never-convened public trial — though I suspect they were not intended as such. Professor Socher marshals the history of anti-Semitism to explain why Professor Karega’s Facebook posts are anti-Semitic. The prosecution rests, Your Honors. Professor Emeka puts the controversy in the context of the complex historical relationships between Blacks and Jews. He attests to Professor Karega’s competence and her character and rightly worries about the implications of potentially disciplining a member of the faculty for her Facebook postings. The defense rests, Your Honors. In the absence of — and perhaps in order to spark — a broader campus conversation, my extraordinarily conscientious colleagues shoulder the burden of “trying” Professor Karega’s case in the Review. The result is a perilous confusion of a personnel matter with the issue of anti-Semitism on campus. The personnel issue may be complex. Our stance on anti-Semitism cannot be. And yet, in the face of Professor Socher’s analysis — the clear lesson of which is that Professor Karega’s posts are anti-Semitic — Professor Emeka finds the question of whether the posts are anti-Semitic or not to be almost beside the point, and indeed to get in the way of addressing other “infinitely complex” issues.

But the question is not beside the point. In this case it is the point, and the answer is that the images are anti-Semitic. They are hateful, they are painful, and not only do they not reflect what Oberlin stands for, but they reflect something that we stand resolutely against. If the College cannot publicly acknowledge what should be both an obvious truth and a moral imperative, we have indeed tumbled into an abyss.

Jade Schiff
Assistant Professor of Politics