As a Jew, a historian of Judaism and a faculty member, I was outraged when I read David Gertsman’s story in The Tower, “Oberlin Professor Claims Israel Was Behind 9/11, ISIS, Charlie Hebdo Attack” (Feb. 25), which provided screenshots of several of Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega-Mason’s Facebook posts. In those posts, Professor Karega-Mason claims, among other things, that Israel and super rich “Rothschild-led banksters” were behind 9/11, the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and, in fact, all of ISIS.
The first thing to say is that these were posts for her friends, not lectures to her students, and, no doubt, she intended for them to stay that way. But that isn’t the only thing to say. The College immediately noted that, while it respects the right of faculty members to express their personal views, these posts “do not represent the views of Oberlin College.” Since no one thought otherwise, that can’t be all there is to say. President Marvin Krislov’s recent column From the President’s Desk, “The Mission of Liberal Arts Education,” comes closer when he writes: “The screenshots affected me on a very personal level. … Members of our family were murdered in the Holocaust. As someone who has studied history, I cannot comprehend how any person could or would question its existence, its horrors, and the evil which caused it. I feel the same way about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Regardless of the reason for spreading these materials, they cause pain for many people — members of our community and beyond.”
The point about Holocaust denial may lead us slightly astray. As far as I can tell, none of the published screenshots of Professor Karega-Mason’s posts deny the Holocaust, though at least one seems to express contempt for its survivors. But anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are what is at issue. I want to focus not on how such paranoid fantasies make anyone — including me — feel, but on what they are and where they come from.
The most infamous of these conspiracy theories was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a bizarre, incoherent transcript of supposed secret meetings by powerful, shadowy Jews plotting to take over the world by manipulating the world economy and fomenting war. It drew on 19th-century French royalist documents and was published by ultra-nationalist Russian anti-Semites in 1903. Henry Ford — and, later, Hitler — promoted it, and it’s still a favorite of cranks worried that a nefarious New World Order is about to take over. As a key anti-Semitic document in the 20th century, The Protocols were instrumental in persecutions, riots and, eventually, genocide. The Protocols conspiracy theory was parallel to — and sometimes combined with — the claim that the Rothschilds, a famous Jewish banking family, were also guilty of planning world domination. A Google search will quickly lead you to claims by neo-Nazis that The Protocols are a “Rothschild handbook,” often focusing on the 87-year-old English philanthropist Jacob Rothschild.
Which brings us back to Professor Karega-Mason’s Facebook posts. In a screenshot of a December 2014 post, she posted a meme of a reptilian-looking Jacob Rothschild — he looks a little like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons — with the text, “Hello there, my name is Jacob Rothschild. My family is worth 500 trillion dollars. We own nearly every central bank in the world. We financed both sides of every war since Napoleon. We own your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” In her post, Professor Karega-Mason comments, “Yep. This family and several others. Which is why I’m not concerned with or interested in any discussions or plans of action that don’t get at things from the top-down.” One can only hope that Professor Karega-Mason is unaware of the actual history of “plans of action” against the nefarious Jews who control the world.
On Oct. 4, in commenting on a news story about the Obama administration’s allocation of funds to Holocaust survivors, Professor Karega-Mason wrote, “One of these days some of My Peoples gonna learn who ALL American presidents work for and why they are chosen and placed in office,” above a picture of Jewish women Holocaust survivors. It turns out that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that one-quarter of Holocaust survivors residing in the U.S. are living below the poverty line. Apparently, poor 80-something-year-old Jewish women who survived the hell of Nazi death camps are part of the Jewish cabal that controls President Obama.
Last January, Professor Karega-Mason posted a meme of a black-masked fighter, with JSIL (rather than ISIL) tattooed on his forearm beneath a Jewish Star, pulling off a fleshy Netanyahu mask (the image may be indebted to neo-Aryan occult theories of Jews as non-human “shapeshifters”). The legend reads “France wants to free Palestine? Time for a false flag.” In the course of her comment endorsing this calumny — which would require, among other things, that Amed Coulibaly murdered four Parisian Jews as they shopped for the Sabbath on Israeli orders — Professor Karega-Mason ridicules free speech as an “ideological construct,” and says: “Try generating a similar kind of satire attacking Zionism. I dare you. And I didn’t say attacking Jews. I said attacking Zionism. But let some tell it, an attack on Zionism is an attack on Jews. It’s anti-semitic, so they say. Total nonsense.”
Since, in this very post, Professor Karega-Mason had no trouble at all finding an anti-Zionist “satire” more demonizing, vicious and humorless than anything ever published in Charlie Hebdo, this is not a very good argument. This is not to speak of the fact that she posted an image of a duplicitous, shape-shifting Jew with a Magen David tattoo who is apparently the unique embodiment of evil in the world.
Professor Karega-Mason is certainly right that there is both a historical and a conceptual distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, though it is also true that the two are not mutually exclusive. As with other hatreds, sometimes defensible political opposition becomes indistinguishable from indefensible group hatred, and sometimes politics is simply an excuse for hatred. Does Jacob Rothschild, whose family has been in England for generations, run the Mossad? And just where do the poor, aged Holocaust survivors to whom the Obama administration must apparently pay obeisance fit in?
To be clear, I do not contest Professor Karega-Mason’s right to say whatever she wants on Facebook or anywhere else, her own skepticism about freedom of speech notwithstanding. But anyone who is tempted to think that what she has said was not anti-Semitic or can be creatively contextualized away ought to think about what would constitute anti-Semitic speech, and whether they would apply such alibis or restrictive, ahistorical definitions to any other form of hate speech. Perhaps a simpler way to put it is this: the Rothschild meme seems to have originated on neo-Nazi websites. Did it somehow become less repellant when Professor Karega-Mason posted it on her Facebook page? And, if so, why?
As it happens, the State Department has defined anti-Semitism. Its second example is: “Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as a collective — especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
But perhaps I’m forgetting for whom all American presidents, and presumably all State Departments, work. In my 16 years at Oberlin College, I have never publicly criticized a colleague. But it seems to me that to look quickly away from Professor Karega-Mason’s posts without explaining exactly what is wrong with them would be to confirm that Oberlin College is indifferent to — or at least very squeamish about — anti-Semitism. I would prefer to think otherwise.