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Why Did Oberlin Professors Go to Bat for an Anti-Semitic Colleague?

After a long investigation held largely behind locked doors, Oberlin College has finally fired Joy Karega, an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition who moonlighted on social media as a hardcore anti-Semite. The Board of Trustees accused Karega inter alia of “failing to meet the academic standards that Oberlin requires of its faculty.”

This is the belated but satisfying conclusion of a nine-month drama. The Tower first reported in February that Karega had made a breviary of anti-Semitic posts to Facebook. No mere bigotry, these were wild conspiracy theories in which she suggested that the Jews orchestrated 9/11, control ISIS, and enslave humanity through the vanguard of the all-powerful Rothschild banking dynasty. First responding to the news with uncertainty and ambivalence, Oberlin later suspended and has now terminated Karega.

Despite arguably being the most straightforward and egregious example of rising campus anti-Semitism, stakeholders in the Karega affair drew it out longer and treated it with more nuance than outsiders expected. Pragmatism underlies ideology: College administrations elevate risk-aversion to an art and Karega has met expectations by threatening throughout to sue. Yet identity politics has complicated what in any other configuration would be a textbook case for the campus inquisition.

Joy Karega is an African-American woman whose teaching focus at the time of the scandal was “social justice writing.” And ostensibly, though with the thinnest pretense, the targets of her protest were Zionism and the Israeli government. This combination broke the morality-mold of the “privilege”-obsessed Left that conflates Jews with whites, who are saturated by original sin, and couples anti-Zionism with the cardinal virtue, since 1968, of U.S.-targeted “anti-imperialism”.

Most of us aren’t malicious racists and we know the Arab-Israeli conflict can drive otherwise cool people crazy, so let’s review where Karega is coming from. In January 2015, there was a series of Islamist terror attacks in France. The two main events were mass-murders—one at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and another at a kosher superette in Paris. The killers were al-Qaeda- and ISIS-inspired French Muslims who fought police to the death in two separate sieges.

Karega posted on Facebook that all this was actually Jewish revenge for France’s desire to “free Palestine”; she blamed Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, for the violence. But not all of the violence: she talked only about Charlie Hebdo, failing to mention at all the murders at the Jewish market. The Jews can do without Karega’s sympathy, but her omission is important in light of her interpretation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hurried visit to France to honor those victims: “Netanyahu wanted to bend [President Francois] Hollande and French governmental officials over one more time in public just in case the message wasn’t received…”

So we’re dealing with a person who mixes viciousness and vulgarity in a particularly stiff cocktail of anti-Jewish racism. For Karega, the Jews exist only as a demonic force assaulting and sodomizing the world, even when their supposed machinations result in mass violence to Jews. And there is little relationship between her ruminations and what might be considered criticism of Israel.

Nevertheless Karega found support. While the bulk of the Oberlin faculty released a statement demarcating her “bigotry” from Oberlin’s “institutional DNA,” a groupuscule of professors dissented, refusing to co-sign because they felt Karega was being made a scapegoat for privileged concern about campus anti-Semitism. “I am outraged,” groused English and Africana Studies professor Gillian Johns, “at the irresponsible hostility drummed up against [Karega] as a scapegoated target for what we have been led to believe is a more general concern about anti-Semitism.” Professor of Studio Art and Africana Studies Johnny Coleman complained that “black students’ demands for systemic institutional change are effectively dismissed — while a call to denounce anti-Semitism and bigotry in all forms has been composed and circulated in a manner that specifically targets an early-career black female colleague.” And campus anti-Zionist Jews concurred: “We see the level and form of condemnation as…reinforcing oppressive anti-Black…narratives.”

These startling apologetics are limned by the forensic scrupulosity with which Oberlin disposed of such a plain case. In light of social trends that lead us only to presume that the frequency and acceptance of anti-Semitism will increase, we can draw an important lesson from the Karega affair.

The American analysis of racism is broken: It will not do to resolve that racism equals privilege plus power. The biggest failure of Holocaust education in the U.S. has been to emphasize the aspects of Nazism that resemble our own historical experience of racism. We focus on eugenics and the kooky “racialist” pseudo-science whose antecedents in the European Enlightenment also shaped racism in the United States.

We therefore try to understand anti-Semitism through the lens of the African-American experience, but that leads us to focus narrowly on bias that “punches down” at weak minorities. In fact, the event from American history that is most illustrative of the story of Jewish persecution is never raised in that context: the Salem witch trials. Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, and at root each conspiracy theory is a narrative in which an evil and powerful secret society—earthly agents of the Devil—enslaves and exploits the people. Karega’s ravings make this clear: Hers is a salvationist paranoia in which the Jews are identified as a people of darkness at which the oppressed must “punch up” to liberate themselves. She preaches a racist “anti-racism” and the hatred this sort of thing stirs is ultimately exterminatory.

Yet in the moral cosmos on campus, Karega as an African-American woman is doubly entitled to identify among the oppressed children of light. And Jews, who are conflated with the oppressor-whites, are pickled in post-colonial sin. So it is no wonder that she would not only find defenders among her colleagues on the identitarian Left, but enjoy the latitude of students failing to recognize anti-Semitism when they see it—even when it is expressed in the neo-Tsarist register that Karega favors.

Considering more than immediate dynamics of power when fighting racism will not lead us to forsake the wretched of the earth. If historical and contemporary Europe makes anything clear, it is that racism punches down and up. Recognizing the full sphere of oppression, rather than focusing on the yin of color-bias and excluding the yang of anti-Semitism, fosters a moral intelligence more able to meet the challenges of society and history. This holistic approach seems especially urgent after the recent election, as the forces of a right-wing populism that trains its gunsights on “elites” and “the establishment” gather in the hinterlands off campus.

John-Paul Pagano is a freelance writer.  He blogs at The Socialism of Fools and eponymously. Twitter: @johnpaulpagano

[Photo: Oberlin College / YouTube ]