Given that the student body at Oberlin College is “clearly sensitive to so many cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender groups’ needs,” its relative silence in the wake of reports that Oberlin Professor Joy Karega posted items on her Facebook account that vilified Jews and Israel is “disconcerting,” Emily Shire wrote in a report published Tuesday in The Daily Beast. Karega’s Facebook postings were first reported on by The Tower in February.
Shire noted that in recent years, students at Oberlin have complained that ethnic foods served on campus were symbols of “cultural appropriation,” sought to ban cis-gender men from using the gym at specified hours to provide a safe space for cis-gender women and transgender individuals, and targeted peers who had invited a controversial speaker to campus.
But when it came to the revelations about Karega’s controversial posts, the students’ muted response “was deafening to some, and especially disconcerting because the silence seemed disproportionately reserved to matters related to Judaism or Israel.”
Shire spoke to a small group of Jewish students, who did not identify as anti-Zionists, of their experiences in the wake of the report about Karega and the atmosphere for Jewish students on campus. The students only agreed to speak anonymously, “a reflection of their fears about expressing pro-Jewish or pro-Israel views publicly,” Shire wrote.
A freshman identified as Jenny told Shire that she had first found out about Karega’s comments from her parents since no one on campus initially discussed the controversy. “I texted a friend from Hillel [an international Jewish student organization] and said, ‘Why is no one talking about it? This is crazy.’” Jenny went to a Zionist meeting on campus with a friend, where she and the few other students who attended seemed to be the only ones bothered by the controversy.
Her peers’ non-reaction prompted Jenny to observe, “I was thinking if this happened to another minority group, the whole campus would be freaking out.”
Shire added that a self-described group of anti-Zionist Jewish students actually came out in support of Karega in the middle of March. “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 student newspaper. “In this spirit, we are troubled by the implicit and explicit currents of anti-Black racism prevalent in the mass defamation of Professor Karega. We urge all Jewish students concerned about anti-Semitism to fight with equal passion for Palestinian liberation, Black liberation and an end to all forms of oppression, on and off campus.”
Shire observed that the implication of this defense is that Oberlin, “a standout even among the safe space’-friendly environs of small liberal arts colleges,” has a “big exception: Jews and especially those who voice (even mildly) favorable views of Israel.”
Jenny also pointed out that when one of the black student organizations sent a list of demands to College President Marvin Krislov and called for greater representation of blacks among the student body, administration, and faculty of Oberlin, the group also demanded that the college adopt anti-Israel boycott measures. “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,” Shire wrote.
When Jenny discussed these demands with some black friends and brought up the topic of anti-Semitism, she was told that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist on campus. “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,” she said.
Matthew, a senior who also got in touch with Shire, acknowledged that many of his fellow students viewed Jews as white and privileged. “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,” he added. “So many people at Oberlin are so blind to this and cannot see that they are perpetuating this tradition.”
Another student, a junior by the alias of Sarah, said that the campus climate was so hostile towards Zionists that she was uncomfortable openly expressing support for Israel. She added that the “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.”
While Oberlin’s president condemned anti-Semitism in response to Karega’s postings, and the school has considered providing students with anti-bias programming by the Anti-Defamation League, Shire observed that Jewish students have been expressing concerns of hostility on campus even before the Karega controversy. A group of (mostly) alumni and students wrote in a January letter to Krislov that students involved with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign on campus sought to “intimidate, threaten, and coerce Jewish students.” The letter also cited what Shire called “questionable rhetoric” of the pro-BDS groups, such as charging that “Ohio was infested with Zionists.”
Shire acknowledged that the exclusion of Jews from protected groups on campus is not unique to Oberlin. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, observed in The Washington Post last week that “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.”
Melissa Landa, president of the Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness, wrote in a Friday letter to the Oberlin Review that her alma mater’s failure to address the concerns of Jewish students threatens to “compromise its legacy of academic rigor and social justice.”
Anthony Berteaux, a student at San Diego State University, addressed the issue of anti-Semitism among ostensibly progressive campus activists in the February 2016 issue of The Tower Magazine:
The recent surge of progressive activism on college campuses across the country has led to many debates on the merits of concepts like “microaggressions” and “safe spaces” in educational settings that should respect free speech and dialogue. Student uprisings against racial injustice and discrimination at Yale, the University of Missouri, and dozens of other universities have shown the power of students who have banded together against institutionalized racism in academia and the student body. But little has been said about how the idea of “intersectionality”—the idea that all struggles are connected and must be combatted by allies—has created a dubious bond between the progressive movement and pro-Palestinian activists who often engage in the same racist and discriminatory discourse they claim to fight. As a result of this alliance, progressive Jewish students are often subjected to a double-standard not applied to their peers—an Israel litmus test to prove their loyalties to social justice.
This is something [Ben] Rosenberg knows all too well as a progressive at UCLA. “It’s becoming increasingly aware to me that, regardless of my views on Israel, people are viewing being a Jew and being a social justice activist as being mutually exclusive,” he said. “The conversation surrounding Israel on campus has turned into a conversation about Jews. Even if Jewish students care about social justice issues, they can’t participate.”
[Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia ]