Professor’s Alleged Anti-Semitism Gains Local, National Traction

Sydney Allen and Jake Berstein

After an Oberlin professor was accused of posting anti-Semitic messages to Facebook, the College has once again become the subject of national controversy. Outside opinions seeped into the campus community Sunday, when an anonymous individual sent an inflammatory, anti-Semitic email to around 500 students with the subject line reading, “ISRAEL DID 9/11.” The email included a variety of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with seditious implications.

Eric Estes, Oberlin’s vice president and dean of students, sent a follow-up email the same day alerting students to the spam. In his response, Estes referred to the email as “deeply offensive” and directed students toward the appropriate channels for reporting future cases of discrimination or harassment.

Though administrators were initially concerned about a breach in security, the College’s Chief Technology Officer John Bucher confirmed that there had not been a breach in the College’s computer systems. Administrators were also able to confirm that the email came from an outside source unconnected to any Oberlin students or faculty.

“We deeply regret that this has happened at a troubled but crucial time for our community,” Estes said in an email to the student body. “Moments of challenge give each of us an important opportunity to re/affirm our values and commitments — individual and collective.”

In his email, Estes referred to the recent controversy surrounding Joy Karega, an assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition.

Karega wrote and shared a number of Facebook posts over the course of several months not only asserting that Israel and the U.S. were behind 9/11 and last year’s Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris but also that Israel is responsible for creating ISIS. A Feb. 25 article in The Tower publicized these postings, which she has since taken down.

Letter to the President

A group of more than 300 alumni, parents, students and faculty signed an open letter sent on Jan. 3 to College President Marvin Krislov, the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students concerning allegations of anti-Semitism on campus.

This letter came in the wake of a proposal submitted by Students for a Free Palestine asking the Board of Trustees to divest from companies financially tied to Israel as part of a growing national movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. The letter highlighted several incidents of alleged anti-Semitism on campus and specifically criticized the BDS movement.

“Several student organizations at Oberlin have assumed the role as the mouthpiece of the BDS movement, which claims to be a defender of Palestinian rights but whose inflammatory language falsely portraying Israel as an illegitimate, colonialist and murderous regime demonstrates that its primary goal is to demonize the Jewish state,” the letter stated.

SFP responded to the letter on Jan. 21 with a post on its website that denied the charges of anti-Semitism. The group asserted its right to protest on the basis of freedom of speech and the campus code of conduct, which states, “Proscriptions of verbal harassment must not have the effect of limiting the free exchange of ideas or opinions.”

“We see these accusations as a way to limit the free speech of students, silence political activism and intimidate pro-Palestinian activists,” SFP stated. “We believe that solidarity with an oppressed people and demands to defend their human rights do not and will never constitute anti-Semitism. It is our conviction of self-determination and autonomy that will continue to drive us, no matter how many attempt to malign us, to call for a free Palestine.”

Not all members of the Jewish community supported the predominantly alumni-backed letter. In an op-ed written by College sophomores Sarah Keller, Eli Hovland and Emily Isaacson to The Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 23, the students criticized the letter’s contents, saying it oversimplified the campus discussion.

“To the surprise of current student leaders on campus, there was virtually no student involvement or input on the letter’s contents,” Keller, Hovland and Isaacson wrote. “Leaders from Hillel, Chabad, Oberlin Zionists and J Street U came together to discuss our reaction to the letter and group. We found the language of the letter to lack a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics on Oberlin’s campus.”

Alumni Discuss Anti-Semitism

Several alumni visited campus last week to meet with Krislov, students and administrators to discuss the recent accusations of anti-Semitism on campus, fulfilling one of the goals of the Jan. 3 letter.

Melissa Landa, OC ’86, Norman Birnbach, OC ’86, Abigail Lofchie, OC ’12, and Marta Breiterman Tanenbaum, OC ’72, arrived at Oberlin on Feb. 28 to meet with Krislov, Estes and Special Assistant to the President for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Meredith Raimondo. During this meeting, the alumni discussed the open letter that was sent to administrators, the recent controversy surrounding Joy Karega’s social media postings and what the alumni see more generally as a hostile attitude toward Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus.

Landa, who was a driving force behind the Jan. 3 letter, said she stands by what was written.

“Krislov accused us of trying to suppress free speech,” Landa said in an update attached to the alumni letter.

“I responded … by saying that free speech allows someone to stand on the street corner and say whatever he chooses. It does not mean that Oberlin College should be paying for that privilege and providing a platform for someone to use their academic credentials to promote their own inflammatory views.”

After speaking with administrators, the visiting alumni met with students and leaders from the Cleveland Hillel Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

“[We wanted] to meet students face-to-face and hear from them directly to get a better sense of the sentiments on campus,” Landa said. “The meeting with students was very productive. The issue that I’ve heard is that the Jewish students on campus, with a variety of views, feel that they don’t fit into any of those Jewish organizations and groups. As a result, they don’t really have a channel to express their thoughts. Those are the students that came tous.”

For now, the alumni group is moving forward by creating a Facebook group for Oberlin parents interested in getting involved in the pro-Israel movement at Oberlin, and are compiling a more than 30-page document of testimonies detailing anti-Semitism on campus.

Board, Administration React to Posts

The administration has defended Joy Karega’s freedom of speech and said they will not take disciplinary action against her.

“Oberlin College respects the rights of its faculty, students, staff and alumni to express their personal views,” Krislov said in a statement on Feb. 26, after the Tower article was published. “Acknowledgement of this right does not signal institutional support for, or endorsement of, any specific position. The statements posted on social media by Dr. Joy Karega, assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition, are hers alone and do not represent the views of Oberlin College.”

A day after its quarterly board meeting on March 4, the College’s Board of Trustees released a much harsher response to Karega’s posts that denounced them as antiSemitic and abhorrent.

“The Board has asked the administration and faculty to challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings and to report back to the Board,” Board Chair Clyde McGregor, OC ’74, said in an email to the Oberlin community.

Professor of Theater and Dance Roger Copeland is one of the faculty members trying to do so.

“This strikes me as a direct challenge not only to bigotry and hatred but also to any meaningful definition of academic freedom — a concept expressly designed to protect even the most ‘abhorrent’ ideas a faculty member might espouse,” Copeland wrote in a statement he tried to send to his colleagues after reading the Board’s email.

However, there is currently no mechanism for communicating seamlessly with the greater community, Copeland said in an email to the Review.

Since the Tower article surfaced online, Krislov and administrators have met with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, American Jewish Committee Cleveland, the Anti-Defamation League Cleveland Region and the Cleveland Hillel Foundation to discuss Karega’s posts and the campus atmosphere. On March 4, the College released a joint statement with the representatives of these organizations.

“We discussed, openly and candidly, the potential implications of a professor’s personal views on classroom activity and student intimidation. We also discussed our shared respect for academic freedom.”