When I first was made aware of Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega’s postings on social media by a colleague, I was disgusted by her claims that Israel and “Zionist Jews” were somehow behind ISIS, Charlie Hebdo, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 and even 9/11. Even more distressing were posts that promulgated a claim of a secret Jewish conspiracy behind the media, the economy and the world’s governments. I have come across such materials before in archival sources documenting the anti-Semitic propaganda that helped launch the Holocaust and on contemporary neo-Nazi websites. My colleague disseminated other conspiracies, too, like the existence of government-controlled “chemtrails.” Based on one video she posted, for example, Hurricane Sandy was deliberately “weaponized” in order to get Obama reelected.
As a Jew, I was certainly offended by these posts. But I was even more offended as an intellectual. One might expect to find such paranoid accusations festering somewhere on the web, but there is a reason you don’t generally hear such things being espoused by scholars with Ph.Ds. That is because such unsubstantiated, unfalsifiable, speculative hypotheses are not only overwhelmingly wrong, but are also the opposite of research. Scholars doing research begin with questions, and those questions lead them to conduct experiments, consult archives, read historical documents and study and cite other peer-reviewed experts. A conspiracy theorist, on the other hand, begins with the answers — there is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy; global warming is a hoax; the Illuminati shot JFK — and generally offers little in the way of evidence, analysis or citation. The thing that probably troubled me most, then, was learning that my colleague plans her next book to offer a defense of conspiracy theories.
Paradoxically, however, knowing that Professor Karega intends to publish these thoughts was part of why I was able to keep my initial response somewhat in check. I figured that, soon enough, the peer review process adhered to by all legitimate scholarly journals and presses would reveal to Professor Karega what will and won’t count as scholarship. It also seemed clear that competing imperatives — and potentially competing legal issues — were at play. Oberlin students, faculty and staff have a right to work in an environment free from hate speech. Professor Karega has a right to academic freedom. Academic freedom demands academic responsibility. Untenured faculty members deserve protection, though they don’t necessarily deserve tenure. Students deserve professors who can evaluate them without bias (to be clear, it has not been established that Professor Karega demonstrates such bias). Oberlin College has a right to demand professional behavior. Professors who “friend” current students on social media should be especially conscientious about what they say, since this then becomes a space where the student/teacher dynamic remains in operation.
Professors also have a right to extramural opinions. The Tower needs to let go of its fixation with Oberlin. I felt grateful that the board prompted the College to use its faculty governance system to sort through these vexed issues and, trusting in that process, I hoped I could think of these things no more.
But in the weeks since, my sanguinity has dissolved, not because of one person’s repulsive views — I’ve never lived in a bigotry-free utopia — but because others were so ready to defend them, and so few, including even our College president, were willing to unequivocally repudiate them. Out of the awful silence, a document voicing opposition to bigotry emerged. I have spoken up about every kind of bigotry — racism, classism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, sex-worker discrimination, ableism — publicly, proudly and repeatedly my whole adult life. I therefore almost instinctively trusted others would now stand with Jews. The subsequent attacks on the document have been crushing, and, in the age of Donald Trump and escalating ethnic hate, they have even scared me. Recognizing another’s suffering and offering a gesture of redress is not tantamount to abandoning the alleged malefactor. Signing a statement against bigotry is not tantamount to electronic lynching. Support for our colleague’s rights and support for the Jewish community can coexist. This is not a zero sum game.
When opinions become this entrenched and the rhetoric becomes this inflammatory, it is easy to get defensive and angry. Yet when this happens in communities, as in personal relationships, it is a clarion call to try even harder to understand where everyone is coming from, and for all to address the matter in a spirit of radical generosity and openness. No one should be absolved of the responsibility to do better, to err on the side of trying to ameliorate another’s pain, even if it is expressed as anger. That includes me, and that includes you.
To that effect, looking back over the last several years, it seems that the College’s inability to take sufficient action following the events of March 4, 2013, or to offer an adequate response to the ABUSUA student demands document, has created a huge well of resentment — resentment that has now been directed, erroneously, at the Jewish community and the signers of the anti-bigotry letter. We have been charged with hypocrisy. But we bear no more responsibility for the College’s paralysis in the face of these events than any other member of the campus.
There has been, as we all know, at least some institutional response. On that awful March day three years ago, when racist graffiti and swastikas appeared on our campus and in our mailboxes, we cancelled classes and came together in Finney Chapel. We have had subsequent teach-ins and community conversations. Even structural issues were addressed — albeit at what feels like at a degree of abstraction from the daily experience of most faculty and students — by the newly revised Strategic Plan, which prioritizes issues of equity and diversity. But none of these responses has quelled the rising tide of anger and frustration. Semester after semester, it feels like an administrative non-policy of hoping things will blow over has replaced genuine dialogue. It doesn’t help that we lack even a faculty listserv for discussion, so we must resort to speaking to each other at faculty meetings or in this newspaper.
I would love to see more readily available means of communication and a more transparent and timely institutional response. Perhaps that will keep us from remaining in continual crisis. I think it is appropriate, for example, for the administration to offer the Oberlin College community a detailed accounting of what it has done since 2013, and what it proposes to do over the next three to five years to promote equity, diversity and inclusion. As we now have a Strategic Plan Steering Committee for diversity, it would seem appropriate for them to provide something like an annual report. This would indicate seriousness and accountability, and would move our institutional practices closer to our institutional goals. Perhaps it would allow Black students and faculty to finally feel heard on campus.
At the same time, and in the same spirit, Jewish faculty and students deserve to be treated with empathy and respect. Anti-Semitism, too, is an unnervingly potent and insidious kind of bigotry about which we may have differential knowledge. I ask that my colleagues recognize that the dissemination of hateful images of Jewish bogeymen is not anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic. Likewise, I ask you to consider that if you single out Israel for condemnation but have no critique of the Sudan or North Korea or Afghanistan or Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo, unconscious bias may be playing into your political priorities.
As scholars, we must not only model how to defend our views. We also need to recognize when we are reproducing flawed ideologies rather than thinking like true scholars and lifelong learners. Last but not least, let us care enough about our institution, our profession, our scholarship and our students to try harder to bring the best parts of ourselves to this unfolding crisis, instead of only the most angry and the most wounded.