Campus Dangerously Divided Over Discussion of Anti-Semitism

Jade Schiff, Assistant Professor of Politics

I am outraged and devastated by what my colleague, Associate Professor of Africana Studies Meredith Gadsby, wrote in her April 23 letter to the Review “Black Professors Pressured into Solidarity.” These are difficult times on campus. We feel ourselves painfully divided, and it is not clear how we can come back together. Professor Gadsby’s letter only tears us further apart. But perhaps we cannot heal until we get the pain and the anger and the fear out in the open. I hope I can achieve that in some small measure here.

Before I address Professor Gadsby’s letter directly, I want to point out that there was no necessary reason for this issue to become racially divisive at all. The material Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega posted is indisputably anti-Semitic, as Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Jewish Studies Abraham Socher has demonstrated in these pages and has reiterated publicly. There is no room for equivocation on this point. The faculty who criticize Professor Karega for these posts do so for that reason, not because she is African-American. Indeed, this issue did not become so openly racialized until Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Theater Professor Justin Emeka published an April 1 letter to the Review titled “Personal Facebook Posts Not Ground for Dismissal,” to which I have already responded publicly. In it he put criticism of Professor Karega in the context of the “beautiful and troubled” history of relationships between Blacks and Jews, a relationship to which Professor Gadsby also refers. This is a distraction that has nothing to do with the criticism of Professor Karega’s posts. That criticism is of their anti-Semitic content, and her race has nothing to do with that. It is unfortunate that this confusion has arisen, but it has, and here we are.

This is the context in which I read Professor Gadsby’s letter to the editor — a context in which race has been made an issue where it need not, and should not, have been. It is truly a bitter irony that she responds to feeling singled out in front of her colleagues by singling out another colleague, Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies Marc Blecher, in the most inflammatory terms and in front of our entire community. And now I find myself in the doubly ironic position of singling her out as well. I do it not out of a petty desire to respond in kind, but out of what I think is necessity under these circumstances. The fact that we have descended to public attacks on one another is not only sorrowful, but shameful. The shame that we have gotten to this point is not Professor Gadsby’s, of course. I would hope this would go without saying, but nothing can go without saying in these wrenching times. We are experiencing a sad, frightening and total failure of community, and a perilous dearth of trust and good faith.

Professor Gadsby refers to the historically unequal attention paid to the concerns of different groups on campus and to missed opportunities for dialogue and solidarity along the way. She is right to do so, though she overstates her case. But to use that as an argument against this most recent mobilization, as she and others have done, is indefensible. When hateful messages emerge in our campus community, we must stand against them. That we have not done so consistently in the past cannot be an argument for sitting quietly now. AntiSemitism is vile, violent and has historically led to the murder of millions. That cannot be denied, and it, not Professor Karega, must be denounced. I know that some faculty of color cannot believe they have to put into words their condemnation of anti-Semitism. I feel exactly the same way about my repudiation of antiBlack racism, which I condemn absolutely and without reservation. But that is where we are. And I will point out, therefore, that Professor Gadsby offers no such condemnation of anti-Semitism in her letter.

Where we agree completely is in our assessment of the horror of this moment. Professor Gadsby captures it when she invokes the hateful violence of lynching. For me, and for other Jewish faculty with whom I have spoken, this climate conjures up trains and death camps and ashes. But let us be very clear: no one is being lynched here, no one is being incinerated. To even approach suggesting either would be disingenuous and would trivialize the histories of both Black and Jewish suffering. However Professor Gadsby does exactly this in a vicious attack when she writes that “Professor Blecher came for some of us early Sunday morning.” She concludes, “Fortunately we were wide awake.” I respectfully disagree. To be unable or unwilling to acknowledge and condemn the indisputable anti-Semitism of Professor Karega’s posts and the suffering they have caused on our campus — for Jews and non-Jews alike — suggests sleep more than wakefulness.

I do not have any illusions that this essay will quench any fires. That is not my intention, nor is it my intention to fan the flames. My intention is to confront directly the bigotry and divisions that currently rend our campus in two. In a very different context, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “What cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence.” We cannot pass over bigotry in silence. We must speak! And not only speak, but act! We can do neither productively until we share our pain. I have taken Professor Gadsby’s letter as an invitation to do that.

Professor Gadsby closes her letter with “A Luta Continua,” which was part of the rallying cry of the FRELIMO movement during Mozambique’s anti-colonial struggle against Portugal. It means “the struggle continues.” She omits the end of that cry, “vitória é certa,” “Victory is certain.” I do not know who the victorious party ought to be in Professor Gadsby’s imagination, or what victory would look like to her. To me, victory would be a healing of the deep, devastating fractures I address here and that threaten the Oberlin that I love. “A Luta Continua” indeed.