Why Are Oberlin’s Students So Silent About Anti-Semitism?

Students on campus are quick to protest incidences of supposed cultural insensitivity—even over sushi—but not when it comes to a professor’s anti-Semitism.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Oberlin College in Ohio currently employs Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, who publicly professed on Facebook that ISIS was run by the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli counterpart to the U.S. agency.

Karega also posted on Facebook a (doctored) photo of a terrorist with a Jewish star tattooed on his arm, pulling off a mask to reveal his face as Israeli Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Inside Higher Education reported that Karega has also previously shared a “picture of the Jewish banking heir Jacob Rothschild with the words, ‘We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.’”

Unsurprisingly, some Oberlin alumni want action taken against Karega.

On March 5, the chairman of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, Clyde S. McGregor, released a statement regarding Karega’s posting:

These postings are anti-Semitic and abhorrent. We deplore anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry. They have no place at Oberlin.

These grave issues must be considered expeditiously. In consultation with President Marvin Krislov, 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.

Thus far, Oberlin’s administration has not levied any professional penalties on Karega since her public promotion of completely false information came to light.

When asked by The Daily Beast for comment for this story, Oberlin directed this reporter to the above-cited statement from the Board and Oberlin President Marvin Krislov’s publicly released letter to the school community.

Although Krislov did not specifically name Karega in his letter (he referenced an “assistant professor’s personal social media posts”), he noted, “I am a practicing Jew, grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. 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.”

However, Krislov also cited experience as the son of “tenured faculty member at a large research university” and the importance of “cultivating academic freedom.”

Certainly, Karega is entitled to freedom of speech, though is she is entitled to hold her job as a teacher while espousing factually inaccurate information, especially information that targets a religious and national group?

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What is more curious and in its own way disturbing, though, is that the current student body at Oberlin has been relatively silent about Karega.

Oberlin is, after all, the small Ohio college that had the now-notorious student anger over poorly made sushi and other ethnic foods because they were seen as acts of “cultural appropriation.”

In February, the Oberlin Student Senate tried to designate a special hour-time slot at the gym, during which cis-gender men would be banned from entering the facility because “it’s absolutely imperative that there be some form of safe space or time for ciswomen and trans [people] to use the workout equipment without having to nervously recoil within their own bodies,” sophomore Peyton Boughton told school newspaper the Oberlin Review.

Oberlin is a school where the student body is clearly sensitive to so many cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender groups’ needs.

When author Christina Hoff Sommers, who is known (in part) for holding controversial critiques of contemporary feminism as showing “hostility” toward men (PDF), was invited to speak on campus, student activists didn’t only create designated “safe spaces” for students to cope with Sommers’s opinions.

Some protesters also targeted their peers who were part of the group that dared to invite someone with unpopular views—Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians—making a sign that listed former and current member names under the heading “Rape Culture Hall of Fame,” according to the Oberlin Review.

The silence from students when it comes to Karega’s remarks was deafening to some, and especially disconcerting because the silence seemed disproportionately reserved to matters related to Judaism or Israel.

The Daily Beast spoke to the small group of Oberlin Jewish students who do not identify as anti-Zionists and feel increasingly threatened, censored, and silenced by their peers and the Oberlin community who are impatient and dismissive of complaints of anti-Semitism. They also stressed they loved Oberlin.

These students would speak to The Daily Beast only on the condition of anonymity, a reflection of their fears about expressing pro-Jewish or pro-Israel views publicly. All identifiers are pseudonyms.

Jenny, a first-year student at Oberlin, said she only found out about Karega’s comments when her parents emailed her articles about it, well before her classmates were aware of it.

“Nobody was talking about it,” she said. “I texted a friend from Hillel [an international Jewish student organization] and said, ‘Why is no one talking about it? This is crazy.’”

Jenny and her friend decided to go to a campus Zionist meeting together, which she said had only about eight other students in attendance. “We were the only ones who seemed to be freaking out about it.”

The response from her fellow students (or, more accurately, lack thereof) is curious more when one considers Oberlin’s reputation for social activism and outrage over even the slightest of microaggressions.

“When crazy crises happen in African or Middle Eastern countries, they’re the first to say, ‘We talk about crises in Paris and Brussels. Why is no one talking about this?’” Jenny said.

When it came to the relative student silence on Karega when news initially broke about her Facebook posts, “I was really freaked out because particularly the campus and, students especially on Facebook, are generally the first to react,” Jenny said. “I was thinking if this happened to another minority group, the whole campus would be freaking out.”

If anything, as the news of Karega’s posts became publicly known in early March, there appeared to be support for Karega from students—even some Jewish students.

While alumni (Jewish and non-Jewish) have been more vocal in denouncing Karega and her remarks, in March a group of students that identified themselves as “anti-Zionist Jews,” ardently defended Karega.

“We believe that ‘never again for anyone’ means that anti-Jewish oppression must be fought alongside anti-Black racism, anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and other forms of oppression,” they wrote in the school newspaper, the Oberlin Review. “In this spirit, we are troubled by the implicit and explicit currents of anti-Black racism prevalent in the mass defamation of Professor Karega.”

This defense of Karega from students suggests an uncomfortable double standard within a school community that has a reputation from being a progressive, crunchy-granola utopia, a standout even among the “safe space”-friendly environs of small liberal arts colleges.

According to some Oberlin students, like Jenny, who don’t subscribe to all of more pervasive political views on campus, that commendable embrace of diversity and acceptance of all may have a big exception: Jews, and especially those who voice (even mildly) favorable views of Israel.

Jenny recalled having a conversation with a group of black friends after a group of black students released a set of demands late in 2015 (PDF).

The demands included that the school support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) movement to cut any and all tangential funding of Israeli scholars, researchers, and companies.

Among its hefty 14 pages—which stated demands for “an increase in Black and students of color represented in the institution from the Americas, including the Caribbean and Africa” and “an increase in Black administrators and faculty across departments and governing bodies”—there was also a BDS demand.

The students claimed that “Israel… has exploited many African descendant peoples seeking refuge. Furthermore, because the oppressive and violent acts towards Palestinians mirrors the anti-Blackness currently in the United States.”

China wasn’t criticized for its treatment of Tibetans. Russia wasn’t criticized for its treatment of LGBT people.

To the group of black students who drafted the seemingly endless array of demands, Israel was the only abhorrent foreign oppressor worthy of calling out and penalizing.

Interestingly, also included in the students’ litany of demands was that Karega be “guaranteed tenure upon review”—though she was one of more than a dozen Oberlin faculty that students insisted be granted tenure or placed in higher positions of power to increase black faculty representation.

Jenny noted her friends “didn’t agree with a lot of the demands,” but added, “We were debating the anti-Semitism on campus and racism on campus, and they were essentially like, ‘There’s no anti-Semitism on campus. The Jews are fine.’

“There’s this attitude that, ‘The Jews are always fine. What are you complaining about?’ That’s not the same reaction when black students bring forward oppressive things on campus.”

Other Oberlin students interviewed by The Daily Beast brought up this double standard of label anti-LGBT or racist remarks as “hate speech” but defending anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel remarks as free speech.

“A large reason for that is because Jews are seen as being ‘white and privileged,’” Matthew, a fourth-year student at Oberlin told me in an email.

“Historically, there are countless number of instances where Jews assimilated into the privileged class and every time that happened, the system turned against Jews and used them as scapegoats. So many people at Oberlin are so blind to this and cannot see that they are perpetuating this tradition.”

Jenny recalled that among the relatively small group of Oberlin students who attend Zionist meetings, there is a commonality of “feeling weird about being proud of being Jewish.”

While she believed there is definitely a difference between anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic content, “some of the ways they say things are too aggressive for it to be simply anti-Zionist. There’s something else there.”

Jenny said she’s learned to censor herself when talking about Israel on campus.

Sarah, a third-year student at Oberlin, echoed this sentiment in an email to The Daily Beast: “I do not feel comfortable voicing any pro-Israel sentiment whatsoever to anybody, before knowing what their political views are on the issues. I can’t even trust that friends won’t attack me if I express any support for Israel, so I test the waters very carefully first.”

Jenny said that it’s especially frustrating when fellow students dismiss her when she claims something is anti-Semitic. “People always say, ‘I’m being anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. I have Jewish friends,’” she says.

Sarah also said that her “issue with the response to anti-Semitism is that others feel as though they’re allowed to say what is and isn’t anti-Semitic. This isn’t right, and it should only be expressed by Jewish students.”

Or, at the very least, if students of other minority groups on campus are allowed to define what offends them and what they deem racist or culturally insensitive, should Jewish students (even ones who aren’t anti-Zionist) be granted the same privilege?

Oberlin has been quick to stress that it takes all incidences of discrimination and bias seriously.

In an emailed statement to The Daily Beast, Krislov said: “We condemn anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice or bigotry. We have a discrimination policy and a procedure for filing complaints that we take very seriously. At Oberlin we are deeply committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and inquiry, and to providing our students with an inclusive and equitable education.”

Oberlin also directed The Daily Beast to Anita Gray, the Cleveland/Akron regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

She said that the ADL had been “involved with the school in coordinating a meeting of Jewish community organizations,” and that she, herself, met with President Krislov and other top administrators in recent weeks after concerns over Karega’s remarks.

“I can tell you that I think Oberlin is taking this very seriously,” Gray said, adding, “I’m happy there’s a willingness to provide anti-bias programming for all students on this campus.”

She said the ADL had presented multiple student programs to Oberlin, but she noted the school was still “mulling over” what it would choose.

The problem with Jewish students’ concerns of anti-Semitism (or anti-Semitism shrouded in an anti-Zionist label) is not exclusive to this Karega incident.

The indications that there had been a creeping, growing tolerance for anti-Jewish remarks or rhetoric had already been reported before Karega received attention.

In January, The Washington Post reported that 200 alumni and students wrote an open letter to Oberlin’s President Krislov, expressing their concerns about anti-Semitism on campus.

The letter accused pro-BDS student groups of resorting to tactics to “intimidate, threaten, and coerce Jewish students” and cited examples of their, shall we say, questionable rhetoric—like when Oberlin College Students for a Free Palestine tweeted, “Ohio is infested with Zionism” last year.

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of the signers of that letter were alumni. Only 14 (under 10 percent) were current students by The Daily Beast’s counting, which further suggests that the evidence of anti-Semitism may be more concerning to alumni than the students enrolled at Oberlin. (The Daily Beast reached out to the Oberlin Student Senate for this article but did not receive comment by the time of publication.)

As with Karega, many current Oberlin students defend these type of remarks, as well as Karega’s, under the defense of freedom of speech.

When I asked Matthew if Oberlin students’ seemingly tepid response to Karega and the other incidences when Jewish students feel threatened or pressured not to share their views seemed to contradict the school’s progressive reputation, he, instead, pushed back on my conception of progressive.

To him, the “progressive” label is too often defined by students’ popular opinions on current events, not actually by championing progressive ideals like diversity and respective for different groups and views.

Matthew wrote that Oberlin is “called progressive because the students at Oberlin have the arrogance to think that the way they think and their ideas about social justice are the only ones that matter,” he said.

However, this campus double standard on free speech is far from limited to the confines of Oberlin.

Just last week, former Harvard University president Larry Summers wrote precisely about this double standard on free speech when it came to the topic of Israel. As he pointed out, because the exception was tied to the single Jewish country in the world, wasn’t that inherently anti-Semitic?

“The State Department has made it clear that it regards demonizing Israel or ‘applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’ as anti-Semitism.

“This makes obvious good sense. Does anyone doubt that applying standards to African countries that were not applied to other countries or singling them out for sanction when other non-African countries were guilty of much greater sins would be deemed racism?” Summers wrote. “With very few exceptions, university leaders who are so quick to stand up against microaggressions against other groups remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism.”

Ironically, in an effort to create some superficially progressive utopia, many protesting college students may becoming more and more like the conservative leaders the oppose. That’s what Matthew worried was happening to his Oberlin peers.

“In this way, Oberlin students become just as backwards as highly conservative sentiments. They speak about acceptance and loving each other, but they think it’s OK to bash conservatives and anyone else who disagrees with them,” Matthew wrote.

“It’s a school void of critical thinking skills and voice of sympathy for others. Sounds a lot to me like the fascist movement being led by Trump.”