OBERLIN, OHIO - Iranian-Americans turned out in large numbers on Tuesday to demonstrate for the removal of Oberlin College, professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati who, according to Amnesty International, committed crimes against humanity in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the summer of 1988.
“It hurts a lot deep inside,” said Sara Salehi as she looked at the two pictures of her brothers, Hamid and Ali, who were executed along with over 5,000 innocent prisoners by Iran’s regime that year because of their dissident political views.
Hamid was 26 years old and Ali was 30 when the regime killed them. Their photographs, along with other victims of the 1988 massacre, blanketed the lawn across the street from the college’s Cox Administration Building.
“They should fire him; he shouldn’t teach kids,” said Salehi about the college’s controversial religion professor. The common themes among the protest participants, which attracted at least 75 people on the ground and over 100 viewers on a video Zoom call, were demands for justice, accountability, transparency and the swift termination of Mahallati’s employment at the liberal arts college.
"I will never give up until I see justice," said Salehi.
The lead organizer of the demonstration, Lawdan Bazargan, whose brother Bijan was murdered by the regime for his left-wing views, said: “We want Oberlin College to fire him because Amnesty International accused him of crimes against humanity.”
Bazargan and her newly created organization – The Oberlin Committee for Justice for Mahallati’s Victims – electrified the rustic town of Oberlin with a mass mailing of flyers detailing Mahallati’s reported role in the mass murder while serving as the Iranian regime’s former ambassador to the UN.
In 2018, Amnesty International published a 201-page comprehensive report titled “Blood-Soaked Secrets” that cited Mahallati nine times with respect to allegations that he aided the theological state’s rulers in covering up the massacre.
OBERLIN'S LARGELY secretive corporate culture outraged protestors, Oberlin alumni and students. The college declined to publish an October report that it claims exonerated Mahallati. Critics say the unpublished report whitewashed Mahallati’s enabling of the mass murder, anti-Baha'i propaganda, and antisemitism.
Speaking on the Zoom call from Toronto, Kaveh Shahrooz, a prominent lawyer, said “We will not stop our campaign until you conduct a real investigation, not the sham investigation.”
In a response to the Oberlin report, Shahrooz and Bazargan wrote on October 29 in the college’s student paper The Oberlin Review that “the evidence is, in fact, overwhelming” against Mahallati and that “ Oberlin’s investigators must have exerted great effort not to find it.”
"The case against Mr. Mahallati is rather simple, and Oberlin does not have to take our word for it," they wrote. "It merely needs to consult readily available UN documents and Amnesty International reports. Those very documents are currently being used by Swedish prosecutors as the basis for a high-profile trial of a man implicated in the 1988 massacre.”
Shahrooz, whose uncle was executed by the clerical regime, told the protestors that Mahallati “is an evil man.” The prominent lawyer said the 1988 massacre was a “double crime.” The first crime was the mass murder and the second was Mahallati’s role as a “leader in the cover-up.”
“Why was Mahallati hired in the first place without proper due diligence?" he asked.
Critics argue that Mahallati’s revolutionary zeal is still intact and that he embodies the Islamic Republic of Iran’s violent and imperialistic ideology.
THE DEPARTMENT of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is evaluating a complaint against Oberlin College that cites Mahallati’s glorification of jihadi terrorism in his classes. The United States government – under Democratic and Republican presidents – has classified Iran’s regime as the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism.
Fatemeh Pishdadian said about the pictures of her murdered parents that “it is surreal to see them here. Forty years later outside of Cleveland, Ohio, on the other side of the world, we still have no justice.”
The clerical regime executed her parents while she was an 8-month-old baby in 1981.
Iranian-American students at Oberlin College attended the protest. “I thought he would not be employed, after reading an article in the Oberlin Review in 2020 about Mahallati’s alleged crimes against humanity," an Iranian-American Oberlin student said.
“I wanted to stand in solidarity with those affected” the student continued. “I would want the university to meet with these people and acknowledge the truth. Acknowledging that these families are here and still exist is essential.”
Bazargan noted in her speech that Oberlin College sought to deny the victims the right to display pictures of their murdered family members on the small patch of lawn during the two-hour duration of the protest.
“As an Iranian student, it is an interesting position to be in. I had family members who were political prisoners," said a second Iranian-American student, adding that college president Carmen Twillie Ambar “should engage them [the victims' families].”
At least two students distributed flyers about Mahallati’s reported crimes.
JACK GLAZIER, professor emeritus of Anthropology at Oberlin, said that the charges against Mahallati are extremely serious, and are “very worthy of investigation, especially because Amnesty International signed onto it.” He said he opposed the college’s efforts to shut down discussion on the public row.
Ambar has vehemently refused to meet with the families of the victims and blocked Iranians and human rights experts on Twitter who have asked her questions about Mahallati.
The Jerusalem Post sent press queries via email and mobile telephone to the 69-year-old professor, and made a house visit to his condominium in Avon Lake, Ohio, as well as his academic office on campus; he did not respond.
Mahallati’s course listing states he is teaching remotely. It is unclear if he is teaching from Shiraz, Iran, where he spends time. The course listing for religion professors shows, with the exception of Mahallati, that the faculty teaches in person.
Scott Wargo, a spokesman for Oberlin College, sent the Post a reply by Mahallati’s attorney, Gregory Kehoe, stating that the professor “categorically denies any knowledge about the 1988 executions while serving at the UN. There was not a single communication from Tehran to Iran’s UN Mission informing Professor Mahallati of these incidents. Professor Mahallati, who was in New York, had no knowledge in real-time about the covert executions nor did he attempt to conceal the facts once they were revealed. “
Mahallati said in the Oberlin statement that “I firmly believe that all human beings including Muslims, Jews, Bahais and others must be free and fully respected in choosing their faith and must enjoy religious freedom irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality and other identity factors.”
Rabbi Lauren Werber from Temple B'nai Abraham in neighboring Elyria, Ohio, appeared at the protest with members of her congregation. “ I hope that they would terminate his employment,” she said of Mahallati’s alleged involvement in actively promoting jihad and violent uprising and hate.
“The antisemitism issue brought me here,” Werber said, adding that Mahallati's anti-Israel tirades “crossed a line” and are “extremism under a different guise.”
TOM SIGEL, a 1986 graduate of Oberlin College and the first elected Jewish Homer Township trustee in Ohio near Oberlin, said Mahallati “should not be in a liberal arts institution” and “should not be in any institution [while] inculcating hatred and bigotry.”
"Back in the 1980’s, it was a liberal arts college. It was diverse, open-minded and accepting,” he said about Oberlin, adding that “things have changed” and there has been a “resurgence of antisemitism.”
The two campus rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Elkan from Chabad at Oberlin College and Rabbi Megan Doherty, were not present at the protest.
Melissa Landa, an Oberlin graduate and founder of the Alliance for Israel, told the Post that "the Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save the entire world – and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati stood by while thousands of innocent people were murdered, lying and covering up their executions.
"And while the families of those murdered came to Oberlin to protest his employment at the college, the two campus rabbis, who have taken oaths to uphold Jewish values, could not find it in their hearts to show support for their families."
“I am currently not in Oberlin, as I have been at a fellowship for Experiential Jewish Education all week," Elkan said when asked via email about the ongoing situation. "It is not my practice to make public statements on hiring policies of other institutions and organizations [that I do not work for].
"That being said, I have been in conversation with the College's administration and do hope a full and thorough investigation will occur and, based on substantive evidence, the appropriate decisions are made.”
When asked about Oberlin’s completed investigation and the shocking allegations against Mahallati in a follow-up press query, the rabbi declined to respond.
Doherty, who according to her critics, supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting the Jewish state, declined to comment on the protest and criticism of her failing to show support for the vicitims of the 1988 massacre.Doherty wrote the Post by email on Thursday: "I am not a supporter of the BDS movement."Landa and other Oberlin Jewish alumni provided the Post with examples of Doherty promoting BDS groups on campus and her reported signing of a letter organized by the pro-BDS entity Jewish Voice Peace in August, 2017. JVP hosted the convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh at its 2017 spring conference. An Israeli court convicted Odeh and for planting explosives used in two 1969 Jerusalem bombings. The first terrorism attack murdered two Hebrew University students and wounded nine others. The German and Austiran parliaments classified BDS as an antisemitic movement that recalls the Nazis boycott of German Jewish businesses. Doherty declined to say if BDS is an antisemitic campaign.
FRIEDA FUCHS, a former professor in the college’s political science department, said Mahalatti “should be fired and sit in jail,” adding that there is “so much circumstantial evidence that points to his guilt.”
She noted that “he was a top official during the regime’s most radical and repressive phase, and has not openly broken his ties with its former leadership. The fact that he lives there part of the year is further proof of his complicity with the regime.”
The Post obtained text messages between Fuchs and Matthew Berkman, a political scientist and visiting professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin. Berkman wrote that he supports “efforts to draw attention to… the crimes themselves and the victims” and he is not sure “whether Mahallati actually had knowledge about them.”
Regarding “the Israel stuff that has been tacked on,” he said that “I find it to be not very credible at all.” Beckman’s office is next to Mahallati’s office in the religion department.
When asked about criticism leveled against him by protestors for ignoring Mahallati’s reported lethal antisemitism targeting Jews and Israel, Berkman said that, “by ‘the Israel stuff’ I was referring to the opportunistic use of Professor Mahallati’s thirty-year-old remarks about Israel as ammunition in the long-running, dishonest campaign to manufacture a distorted image of Jewish student life on Oberlin’s campus.”
Berkman did not respond to queries about how he defines antisemitism and whether Mahallati’s promotion of a global jihad against Israel and his rejection of the existence of the State of Israel constitutes antisemitism. According to UN archived material examined by the Post, Mahallati has stated that “the establishment of the Zionist entity was itself in violation of provisions of the United Nations Charter.”
Mahallati defended the first Palestinian Intifada – a series of violent protests against Israel – as “the heroic uprising of Palestinians,” at the UN in 1989.
"Palestinians are setting an example for Arabs and Muslims across the world in connection with the “holy struggle against oppression and Zionism,” he said, frequently classifying the entire State of Israel as Palestinian territory at the world body.