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Oberlin College professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, who has been given the title, “professor of peace,” is anything but.
He has been accused of war crimes for allegedly covering up the murder of 5,000 Iranian political prisoners when he was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. In a speech to the United Nations in 1988, he also argued against Israel’s right to exist—referring to Israel as “the Zionist entity”—and stating, “The adoption, by the General Assembly in 1947, of resolution 181 (II) on the partition of the land of Palestine and the establishment of the Zionist entity was itself in violation of provisions of the United Nations Charter, as well as of the rules of international law.”
And in a U.N. speech in 1989, during the First Intifada, Mahalatti referred to and justified Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians as a “heroic uprising.”
The “professor of peace” continues to spread his message of hatred at Oberlin. In his Islam 270 course, his students write online blogs (all recently deleted) in response to his propaganda-filled lectures and anti-Israel readings. Having listened to his rhetoric, they respond by expressing support for the BDS movement, rationalizing Hamas terrorism as liberation efforts, portraying Israel as an apartheid regime and equating Zionism with racism.
Recently, former Iranian political prisoners, family members of some of the murdered 5,000 political prisoners and some Jewish advocacy groups wrote to the Oberlin administration about Mahallati. They likely believe Oberlin administrators were unaware of his past and will now do the right thing.
They will not.
I base my prediction on my first-hand encounters with Oberlin administrators, representing Oberlin alumni since 2015, when a recent Oberlin graduate shared the outrageously anti-Semitic Facebook posts of Oberlin professor Joy Karega with me. Karega blamed Israel for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and for shooting down a Malaysian aircraft. She accused Netanyahu of working for Islamic State, and blamed the Rothschilds for all of the world’s wars. And as I discovered, her posts had been publicly available for over a year without outcry from anyone in the Oberlin community.
I shared the images with then-President Marvin Krislov, and reasonably assumed he would take action. But he did not. The posts remained visible and Krislov remained silent. Even when the posts were leaked to the press, Krislov defended Karega’s right to free speech. In addition, many students and faculty members voiced their support for Karega, and accused my colleagues and me of racism for daring to criticize her.
Oberlin’s commitment to Critical Race Theory was on full display, bifurcating the world by race. In the Oberlin universe, all whites are oppressors, and all people of color are victims, individual behavior notwithstanding. Karega was black, and therefore a victim, and we were Jews, who, according to Critical Race Theory, belong in the “white privilege” and oppressor category. In fact, as I discovered on another recent Oberlin alumna’s page at that time, the sentiment at Oberlin was that the Holocaust was simply “white on white crime.”
At Oberlin College, racial profiling, historical revisionism and self-righteous political agendas are the name of the game.
For the remainder of the 2015-2016 academic year, Karega remained on the faculty. When my colleagues and I checked the course listings for the following fall, she was assigned to her regular classes. It took several more alumni petitions, op-eds and letters to the Trustees, before the Trustees voted to dismiss her. In the end, it was not the administration that fired her. In fact, Krislov “stepped down” from his position as president.
Like Krislov, the current president of Oberlin College, Carmen Ambar, also permits egregious attacks against Jews and Israel to be launched from her campus with impunity. In the fall of 2017, when anti-Semitic flyers were posted around campus, Ambar told the community that she would not inform them about future hate crimes. Two years later, students were permitted to display and maintain a memorial to commemorate the deaths of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists in the central quad of the campus.
I expect that as calls for his dismissal increase, like Karega, Mahallati will be protected and defended as a person “of color” and that those calling for the administration to take action against him will be accused of racism and Islamophobia.
I, therefore, reiterate my call to Jewish students and families to avoid Oberlin College at all costs. It is a place where hate is relativized, and where being Jewish means being unworthy of protection. It is a hostile, anti-Semitic environment, where Jews are expected to condemn Zionism, remain silent, or face harassment and accusations of racism from students and faculty members alike.
I also call on all Oberlin alumni to make an appeal to the Trustees for a full investigation into Mahallati’s past and his teaching at Oberlin, and, based on those findings, to take appropriate action. (Sign petition here.)
If the Trustees do not act, I take comfort in the fact that Oberlin is producing fewer graduates who will become political and academic leaders and in a position to influence others with the hatred that they are learning on their otherwise tranquil Ohio campus. Sadly, Oberlin is losing its prestige as it is earning a reputation for being a bastion of immorality and anti-Semitism. Its acceptance rate has increased from 28 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in 2018, indicating its rapidly declining competitiveness.
If the Trustees do take action, they will give hope to the Oberlin community that the college has chosen to prioritize truth, honesty and integrity. And by doing so, perhaps they will encourage thousands of “Obies” to come together and help rebuild Oberlin’s badly tarnished image.
Melissa Landa is a former professor of education at the University of Maryland with a background in cross-cultural competence and anti-bias education. She is the founding director of Alliance for Israel, a Maryland-based nonprofit that opposes BDS activity in schools and communities, and that provides education about Israel’s multi-ethnic society.
Thanks to Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum for her important contributions to this article.