At Oberlin and Elsewhere, Anti-Semitism Was Canary in the Coal Mine
Last month, the Department of Justice held a conference on the growing problem of anti-Semitism. One panel focused on anti-Semitism on college campuses, including the crusade to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS). U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was quoted at the conference as saying, “These campus bullies claim they stand for human rights but we all know BDS stands for anti-Semitism.” Cornell law school professor William Jacobson, of the Legal Insurrection blog, noted at the conference that groups promoting BDS and “intersectionality” doctrine have as their goal “the isolation of Jewish students on campus.”
As BDS and other forms of anti-Semitism gain footing on college campuses, they open the door for other problems as well. In recent years, three institutions of higher learning have self-destructed in highly public, spectacular ways: the University of Missouri, Evergreen State College and, most recently, Oberlin College. Prior to their self-immolation, all three had embraced anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic activism, and with it, unacademic thinking that is sloppy at best and conspiratorial at worst. Often, when an institution adopts or merely tolerates anti-Semitic movements such as BDS, this can be the earliest outward sign of moral and intellectual decay at the institution.
The University of Missouri gained national notoriety in the fall of 2015 when student protests raged out of control. The students appeared to have legitimate complaints about racist slurs and vandalism on campus. However, the demand that the university president resign, the surrounding of his car, and finally, assistant communications professor Melissa Click’s request to get “some muscle over here” to remove a journalist covering the protest from public property, severely damaged the school’s reputation.
Two years later, freshman enrollment at the school had fallen by over 35%. “The university administration acknowledges that the main reason is a backlash from the events of 2015, as the campus has been shunned by students and families put off by, depending on their viewpoint, a culture of racism or one where protesters run amok,” the New York Times reported.
But this train wreck was a long time in the making. “Anti-Zionism on Campus,” a book edited by Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar, relates how in 2014 and 2015, academic departments sponsored talks by propagandists David Sheen and Saree Makdisi, but refused to sponsor pro-Israel speakers such as Dumisani Washington and Kasim Hafeez.
In the spring of 2015, the university announced an honors course planned for the fall, to be called “Perspectives on Zionism.” It was to be taught by a biology professor, George Smith, with a demonstrated anti-Israel bias and no credentials to teach in this area. After outside pressure, the course was cancelled, ostensibly on the grounds of lack of enrollment. The relevant point is that the university was prepared to permit it.
That year, the university also allowed Smith to promote a series of maps that completely falsify the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They purport to show “Palestinian land loss,” falsely presenting all land that was not privately owned by Jews prior to 1948 as “Palestinian.”
These maps have been called “egregiously, almost childishly dishonest.” Yet, a professor at the school used them on a flier posted around the campus to advertise an event, and continued to use them even after a complaint was made. Missouri alum Daniel Swindell noted that the university’s Peace Studies Department, which sponsored the event, “promoted a map of Palestine as if it had once existed as a county, followed by an image of the Jewish people annihilating this country, which means that PSD has invented a false crime committed by the Jewish people, then hosted events to spread awareness of this false crime in order to encourage students to fight against this fictional injustice by destroying the Jewish state.”
Anti-Semitism differs from other bigotries in that it often manifests itself as a conspiracy theory. The most infamous example is the forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. According to the ADL, “the booklet’s twenty-four sections spell out the alleged secret plans of Jewish leaders seeking to attain world domination.” The alleged conspiracy has “taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.”
Modern anti-Semitic anti-Zionism also includes much conspiracy-based thinking.
Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., also saw its enrollment plummet after it put similar impulses on display. The school’s total enrollment was about 900 students short in the autumn of 2018 after it received unwanted national attention the previous spring over a planned “day of absence” for white students and faculty members. When biology professor Bret Weinstein refused to comply, “a group of Evergreen students disrupted a class he was teaching, surrounded him, cursed at him, screamed at him, called him a racist, and called for him to resign or be fired.” Heterodox Academy founder Jonathan Haidt has compared the whole episode to a witch trial.
Years earlier, Evergreen students had embraced BDS. TESC Divest, the Evergreen group that promoted the BDS movement, reported that “in the Spring of 2010, the student body voted overwhelmingly to support two resolutions, one calling for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the other prohibiting the use of Caterpillar Inc. equipment on campus.” Two years later, in 2012, “the Flaming Eggplant Café, a student worker collective at The Evergreen State College (TESC), formally announced its decision to boycott Israeli goods.”
Again in 2016, the Evergreen student body voted by large majorities for two BDS resolutions – one against Caterpillar and one against Sabra hummus. That same year, the Socialist Worker reported that “for years, Evergreen’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter … has been instrumental in educating students by hosting speakers, workshops and displays commemorating Nakba Day, for example. … Earlier this year, activists staged a sit-in at a Board of Trustees meeting to protest Caterpillar, and students have consistently plastered Caterpillar machinery with educational flyers and removed black duct tape placed over the company’s logo --a pathetic attempt to disguise Caterpillar's presence and quell student dissent.”
BDS, of course, ignores the fact that Israel has attempted repeatedly to create a Palestinian state and Palestinian leaders have resisted those efforts. It puts pressure on the wrong party to make peace – the party that has already attempted repeatedly to do so. With such an ingrained tradition of activism that’s grounded in emotion and divorced from reality, it was a short leap for Evergreen students to turn on Professor Weinstein.
This brings us to Oberlin College, my alma mater. The amount of media coverage of the $44 million jury verdict, reduced by the judge to $25 million with another $6.5 million in attorney’s fees added, against the school in Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College has been stunning. Much of it, however, misses the connection between this case and the school’s earlier problems with anti-Semitism.
The Gibson lawsuit was based on events that occurred in 2016 in which Oberlin students, with the support and participation of members of the college administration, protested a family-owned bakery after its cashier attempted to stop a student of color from shoplifting. The allegations of racism and racial profiling made at this protest, which proved to be without foundation, led to the verdict. The school has now been ordered to post a $36 million bond as a requirement to stay execution of the judgment during the appeal process, out of fear that Oberlin ultimately may not be able to pay it.
But the story starts earlier than that. As I’ve written on CAMERA’s In Focus blog, Oberlin is the school that hired, and first defended (before ultimately firing), rhetoric/composition professor Joy Karega. Karega had written on Facebook that the Mossad was behind the 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, that “Israeli and Zionist Jews” were responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center, and that Jacob Rothschild and his family “financed both sides of every war since Napoleon,” and “own your news, the media, your oil and your government.” She also claimed after Hurricane Sandy that the weather had been “weaponized.”
When Karega’s hatreds and myriad conspiracy theories came to light, the first instinct of Oberlin President Marvin Krislov was to defend her. As the controversy around her swirled, a few professors tried to explain to students what was wrong with her posts and that she was not being attacked, as some claimed, because she was a woman of color but that being a woman of color did not exempt her from the same standards that would apply to anyone else. For his part, Krislov allowed the inmates to run his asylum.
The problems at the school, moreover, went much deeper than one professor. A year earlier, some students celebrated the Jewish High Holidays by posting a huge banner, designed to appear as if it were written with blood, saying that tuition money funds genocide committed by Israel. And anti-Semitism was being taught by at least one professor in her classes.
Prior to becoming dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, the administrator whose actions so offended the jury in the Gibson case, was a professor in Oberlin’s Department of Comparative American Studies. In 2016, it was reported that Raimondo’s syllabi had included work by several professors widely perceived as anti-Semitic.
Melissa Landa, Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness* president, raised concerns about Raimondo to Krislov and was ignored. Had her concerns been heeded, it’s quite possible that Oberlin would not, today, be trying to figure out how to deal with a $31.5 million legal judgment. But Oberlin at that point had already abandoned critical thinking as far as Israel was concerned, and was soon to abandon critical thinking in other realms as well.
“The appearance of anti-Semitism in a culture is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of collective breakdown,” according to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. At Oberlin, Evergreen, Missouri and other colleges, anti-Semitism was the first visible public sign that the administration had abandoned reason and moral leadership; it was the canary in the coal mine of their self-destruction.
*Full disclosure: I am an active member of Oberlin Alums for Campus Fairness.