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New Controversy Swirls at Oberlin Around Appointment of Interim Dean of Students

Oberlin College’s announcement last week of a new interim vice president and dean of students has attracted further controversy as the school works to address what some community members describe as a hostile campus environment towards Jewish students and freedom of inquiry and expression.

Meredith Raimondo, who joined Oberlin’s Department of Comparative American Studies in 2003, was appointed special assistant to the president for diversity, equity, and inclusion and Title IX coordinator in 2014. In this capacity, Raimondo was one of the administrators in charge of addressing the controversy surrounding Oberlin assistant professor Joy Karega, who shared a series of posts on social media that have been widely criticized as anti-Semitic. The posts were first reported by The Tower in February.

However, some members of the Oberlin community have expressed deep misgivings about Raimondo’s suitability to address concerns about discrimination against Jews and Israel, pointing to materials she has used in her own courses.

According to several online syllabi, Raimondo’s classes feature readings from academics including Joseph Massad, Lisa Duggan, Judith Butler, and Jasbir Puar. As Andrew Pessin indicated in The Algemeiner, all of these academics have previously been accused of espousing views that are intolerant of Israel and Jews.

Massad, for instance, has previously written of the “anti-Semitic basis of Zionism,” the “pro-Zionist policies of the Nazis,” and Israel’s “hopes to kill more Arabs and Muslims”; Duggan fully endorsed the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli universities; Butler supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and sits on the advisory board of the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace; and Puar has recently come under fire for allegedly claiming in a lecture that Israel conducts medical experiments on Palestinians and harvests their organs. Puar, who requested that the lecture remain off-the-record, threatened to take legal action against anyone who leaked an audio recording of her remarks.

The syllabus for Raimondo’s 2013 seminar on “Transnational Sexualities” included a paper by Puar titled “Citation and Censorship: The Politics of Talking About the Sexual Politics of Israel.” Puar’s piece, which she presented at a German university in 2010, calls Israel a “not only racist, but also, apartheid state,” and features critiques of what she calls Israel’s practice of “pinkwashing,” its ostensible efforts to distract from “its repressive actions toward Palestine” by emphasizing its progressive policies towards LGBTQ individuals. The paper concludes with a reflection on “the ways in which accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ function in academic and activist contexts to suppress critiques of the implicit nationalism within Israeli sexual politics.”

While addressing the latter point, Puar said that efforts had been made to “censor or silence” her presentation, claiming that “‘in the German context’ it is anti-Semitic to be critical of oppressive Israeli state practices towards the Palestinians.” Objections to her beliefs that Israel is a racist, apartheid state, “are, in fact, the very evidence of the need for this conversation to happen,” Puar argued.

“I think it is worth thinking about the accusation of anti-Semitism for a moment: from whom it comes, who benefits, and what kind of work it does,” she continued.

Raimondo’s willingness to share Puar’s work on Israel and anti-Semitism with her students, and failure to include alternative viewpoints on either topic on her syllabi, led some members of the Oberlin community to question whether she is qualified to deal with allegations of discrimination against Jews and Israel.

“Raimondo is the person who is supposed to be handling the issues that [are now being] raised,” an Oberlin community member told Pessin. “How can she be fit to address claims of antisemitism when she is obviously incapable of recognizing it?”

Hostile views towards Israel at Oberlin – seemingly unchallenged by Raimondo’s coursework – have contributed to a campus environment where some Jewish and Zionist students are made to feel deeply uncomfortable.

A group of over 300 Oberlin students, alumni, faculty and parents charged in an open letter in January that anti-Israel student groups at Oberlin “intimidate, threaten, and coerce Jewish students” and contribute to a “divisive and damaging environment” on campus.

Emily Shire of The Daily Beast on Tuesday quoted a group of Jewish Oberlin students who identified as “not anti-Zionist” and said they “feel increasingly threatened, censored, and silenced by their peers and the Oberlin community who are impatient and dismissive of complaints of anti-Semitism.” The students only agreed to speak to The Daily Beast anonymously, which Shire deemed “a reflection of their fears about expressing pro-Jewish or pro-Israel views publicly.”

The group suggested that there is a widespread failure to identify anti-Semitism at Oberlin, which Shire noted is particularly noteworthy at a college that has previously made headlines due to its students’ forceful activism against perceived microaggressions.

“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,” one student told Shire.

“Some of the ways they say things are too aggressive for it to be simply anti-Zionist,” she added. “There’s something else there.”

The student told Shire she now censors what she says about Israel at Oberlin. Another Oberlin undergraduate adopted a similar approach.

“I do not feel comfortable voicing any pro-Israel sentiment whatsoever to anybody, before knowing what their political views are on the issues,” the junior said. “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.”

These sentiments were echoed in 2014 by another Oberlin student, who wrote in the Jewish Exponent that the “toxic climate at Oberlin around Israel” contributed to her decision to transfer from the school. The previous year, two other Oberlin students wrote in their student newspaper that “Anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric is not only accepted; it is expected. Obies who speak in support of Israel and/or Zionism are quickly silenced with the stifling label of ‘oppressor,’ before anyone bothers to ask why they hold the opinions they do.”

Raimondo has also been the center of controversy for her bold stance on using trigger warnings in classrooms, a contentious practice designed to alert students to the presence of potentially upsetting material in their coursework.

As co-chairwoman of a task force charged with revamping Oberlin’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide, Raimondo helped draft an extensive, non-mandatory policy in 2014 that called on faculty use trigger warnings in their lessons.

“Anything could be a trigger—a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on,” the guide read. “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression.” It also instructed professors to “Remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”

As an example of literature that could be triggering but “is too important to avoid,” it cited Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a critically-acclaimed novel based in colonial-era Nigeria that could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

The guide provoked a backlash from Oberlin’s faculty. “We need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable,” political science professor Marc Blecher told the New Republic. “Making students feel uncomfortable is at the core of liberal arts education.”

While Raimondo argued that trigger warnings are simply “responsible pedagogical practice,” the guide was ultimately reworked.

“There is hypersensitivity to prejudice against most minority groups but what might be called hyper-insensitivity to anti-Semitism,” former Harvard University president Larry Summers recently observed in the Washington Post. “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.”

[Photo: Oberlin College]