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Oberlin’s board chair says it’s time for quick action against anti-Semitic words

Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. (Tony Dejak/AP)

After a professor at Oberlin College posted comments on social media and shared posts claiming that Jews and Israelis control much of the world and were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Islamic State, the college’s president defended the principle of academic freedom.

But as reaction intensified from alumni, some Jewish groups and others, the chairman of the board of trustees called for quick action at the college in Ohio.

The controversy was the latest addition to a fundamental debate that has bubbled up at many campuses across the country, as university officials grapple with where to draw the line between protecting free speech and stopping hate speech. Pressure has intensified in many places as student protests have demanded a stronger response to offensive comments, raising awareness and sensitivity to racial and cultural slights — and bringing pushback from others worried about censorship or ridiculing calls for “safe spaces” free of objectionable ideas.

At Williams College, the president recently canceled a speaker whom many describe as a white supremacist, despite the president’s firm belief in the First Amendment. At the University of Oklahoma last year, two students were swiftly expelled after a video surfaced of them singing a racist chant. At Oberlin, the tension between the two principles is very clear: The president has written that he is personally, as a Jewish man and the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi, offended by a faculty member’s social-media posts, but that he is also the son of a tenured faculty member — and he believes academic freedom is essential, ensuring an environment in which real inquiry is not stifled.

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“There definitely is increasing pressure on universities to act,” said Peter Bonilla, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s individual rights defense program. In recent months in particular, that pressure has been escalating rapidly. “A lot of the demands student protesters are making are increased punishment for anything they deem ‘hate speech.’ ”

More and more often, he said, people who take a stand that the views expressed are offensive but that the person has a right to his or her own views, “is seen as, if not a hostile act, something that students say makes them feel marginalized. There are more calls to actively condemn, actively show you’re on our side, not theirs.”

Marvin Krislov also wrote, in a public statement responding to the outpouring of messages after the social-media posts were reported in The Tower, that “cultivating academic freedom can be difficult and at times painful for any college community.

“The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are not just principles to which we turn to face these challenges, but also the very practices that ensure we can develop meaningful responses to prejudice. This freedom enables Oberlin’s faculty and students to think deeply about and to engage in frank, open discussion of ideas that some may find deeply offensive.”

Several days later, Clyde S. McGregor, an alumnus and the chair of the board, took a less nuanced stance. He said, “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.

“From its founding, Oberlin College has stood for inclusion, respect, and tolerance. We still do.”

Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition who is writing a book about a black student group at Michigan State in the late 1960s and 1970s, wrote on social media, “It’s troubling that in this day and age, where there is all this access to information, most of the general public doesn’t know who and what ISIS really is. I promise you, ISIS is not a jihadist, Islamic terrorist organization. It’s a CIA and Mossad operation and there’s too much information out there for the general public not to know this.”

(Mossad is the Israeli intelligence service.)

After the attacks at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, she posted a picture of a man dressed like a terrorist with a Jewish Star tattooed on his arm, pulling off a mask of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Karega, who earned her doctorate at the University of Louisville in 2014, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Her Twitter account is  now private, and she posted on Facebook:

I will no longer be making any statements concerning my situation at Oberlin. We have reached a point where it is time…

Posted by Joy Karega on Saturday, March 5, 2016

She praised an essay in which a student group argued, “In East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, this injustice is happening everyday.  Israel employs policies that seek to continue the ‘systemic oppression and domination’ of Palestinians for the purpose of maintaining the Israeli occupation.  This is apartheid.”

Great article by Oberlin’s Students For a Free Palestine. So proud of these students. Very proud. This is so strong.

Posted by Joy Karega on Sunday, March 6, 2016

Her comments prompted some strong reactions, including outrage.

It also drew the attention of  a professor who was fired recently for things he wrote on social media.

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James Tracy, who wrote that the mass killing of children in Newtown, Conn., was an elaborate hoax engineered to elicit support for gun-control laws, was fired from his position on the faculty at Florida Atlantic University.

Abraham Socher, an associate professor of religion and director of Jewish Studies at Oberlin, wrote in the Oberlin Review:

“… Professor Karega-Mason is certainly right that there is both a historical and a conceptual distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, though it is also true that the two are not mutually exclusive. As with other hatreds, sometimes defensible political opposition becomes indistinguishable from indefensible group hatred, and sometimes politics is simply an excuse for hatred.
“… To be clear, I do not contest Professor Karega-Mason’s right to say whatever she wants on Facebook or anywhere else, her own skepticism about freedom of speech notwithstanding. But anyone who is tempted to think that what she has said was not anti-Semitic or can be creatively contextualized away ought to think about what would constitute anti-Semitic speech, and whether they would apply such alibis or restrictive, ahistorical definitions to any other form of hate speech.
“… In my 16 years at Oberlin College, I have never publicly criticized a colleague. But it seems to me that to look quickly away from Professor Karega-Mason’s posts without explaining exactly what is wrong with them would be to confirm that Oberlin College is indifferent to — or at least very squeamish about — anti-Semitism. I would prefer to think otherwise.”

Karega wrote in a Facebook post that she welcomed his “well-articulated” essay and that:

I would love to respond directly to the arguments that Professor Socher presents here in his essay. I can AND would apply pressure to and complicate his arguments, particularly along the lines of politics, rhetoric, and epistemology. But that conversation won’t take place. There are power relations and issues of positioning that have the potential to compromise the productivity (in-process and after-the-fact) of that conversation. What do I mean here? I am not tenured yet. And we can close our eyes and act like that doesn’t matter, but it does. Professor Socher and I cannot come to the table to have such a conversation because the reality is that what I say in that conversation (or what I don’t say) has the potential to inform and shape my future employment here at Oberlin. And that’s real folks.
So my hope is that people — particularly in the Oberlin community — will talk, listen, and/or debate and even argue over issues of academic freedom, contested/controversial knowledge (in the academy and beyond), the definitions and parameters of anti-Semitism, all the things that Professor Socher’s essay touches on. But I also hope that the glaring absence of my voice from such conversations compels folks to also consider and raise the hard questions about issues of labor and positioning in the academy.

Her posts prior to that had been deleted from her account (other than a photo of Bootsy Collins’s (of Parliament-Funkadelic) Space Bass guitar).

Leaders of several Jewish groups met with Krislov and other college officials last week and issued a statement saying they “understand and accept that the college is required to follow established academic procedures when addressing questions regarding an individual faculty member. The Jewish community members present were satisfied that Oberlin College is following those procedures and look forward to learning the outcome of that process.”