When I attended college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I viewed Oberlin College as a model for what a radicalized campus should be. After John and I braved a snow storm to visit Oberlin for a debate tournament, my impression was confirmed. Oberlin was in the vanguard.
These days, that position must be difficult to maintain, but Oberlin is trying hard not to lose it. There was the college’s defamation of a bakery that detained black students who were stealing from it. A jury awarded the bakery $44 million in damages against Oberlin (reduced by the trial judge to $25 million).
The business with the bakery probably could have happened at many American colleges. But how many would award a professorship to Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations during the 1980s? Not many, I’d like to think.
The former ambassador from Iran is Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. He teaches religion, but calls himself a professor of peace.
Jewish students allege that the professor of peace required students enrolled in his Religion 270 class to post anti-Israel blog entries that reflect the professor’s lectures and assigned readings. Students allegedly were also required to blog that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) is a pro-peace effort.
The German and Austrian parliaments have passed resolutions defining BDS as an antisemitic movement that harks back to the Nazi’s boycott of Jewish businesses during the 1930’s in Germany. The Germans and the Austrians should know.
As Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mahallati was, of course, a fierce critic of Israel. In speeches at the UN, he denied the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
During this period, the future professor of peace also called for a global jihad against Israel. He touted the first intifada as setting an example for Arabs and Muslims across the world in the “holy struggle against oppression and Zionism.”
Back then, this was his job. Nowadays, it’s his pleasure. Oberlin is happy to indulge it.
Repressing Iranians seems also to have been part of Mahallati’s job. According to the Jerusalem Post, an Amnesty International report accuses him of crimes against humanity by covering up the massacre of at least 5,000 innocent Iranian prisoners in 1988. Reportedly, he also railed against Iran’s persecuted Bahai community.
A former Oberlin student, Melissa Landa, filed a civil rights complaint against Oberlin with the U.S. Department of Education. Landa says that “for six years and throughout two Oberlin administrations, Jewish students and alumni who support Israel have reported to me that they were either forced into silence, coerced into anti-Israel activity, or left with no alternative but to transfer to another institution.” Her complaint reportedly includes a running list of outbreaks of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incidents from 2014 to 2017, including student comments about the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel environment on campus.
It’s not a civil rights violation for anti-Israel students and professors to advocate for BDS or to otherwise attack Israel in strong terms. It’s not a civil rights violation if these views become predominant on campus, as they have at so many colleges.
However, harassment of Jewish students, whether for their views on Israel or for other reasons, is problematic. So is forcing students to present anti-Israel views on blog posts, as the professor of peace allegedly has done.
The complaint raises by implication the perennial issue of whether, or to what extent, hating Israel means hating Jews. Civil rights laws protect Jews, but not supporters of Israel. Unfortunately, rabid anti-Israeli sentiment on campus can easily lead to harassment and persecution of Jews. And a Jew who is pressured into denouncing Israel may well have a valid claim of religious discrimination.
If, hypothetically, a black student were pressured into denouncing BLM, I’m pretty sure the Biden Education Department would be open to a claim that this student was discriminated against on the basis of race.
Apart from any legal issues raised by the complaint filed with the Department of Education, there’s the question of what Oberlin will do, on its own, about the fake peace professor. Oberlin shouldn’t retain a professor who forces students to take anti-Israel positions (or any other controversial position) online.
And even if Oberlin doesn’t see it this way, there’s the matter of employing a professor who has been associated with the mass murder of dissidents. Oberlin College’s chief of staff David Hertz told the student paper Oberlin Review in April that “the college is aware of the allegations and is taking steps to address them.”
Whether Oberlin is serious about this seems unclear. The Jerusalem Post reports that Oberlin has refused to answer multiple queries about its investigation of Mahallati and whether the findings will be published.
Mahallati says he was in New York during the massacres in question and was never informed of them. It’s not clear what his defense is to the claim that he indulged in tirades against Iran’s persecuted Bahai community, members of which were tortured and executed during the 1980s..
If true, this claim alone should preclude Mahallati from teaching religion (or anything else) at any college in America.