Sharansky urges Oberlin College to fire alleged Iran ‘war criminal’

"Mahallati was aware that the Iranian regime was massacring thousands of innocent political prisoners and covered up the facts of the massacre."

Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at TEDxTehran. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at TEDxTehran.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

NEW YORK – The internationally famous freedom and democracy campaigner Natan Sharansky on Wednesday urged Oberlin College in Ohio to fire its scandal-plagued religion professor Mohammad Mahallati because of his alleged role in aiding the Islamic Republic of Iran in crimes against humanity as Tehran’s ambassador to the UN.

“According to Amnesty International, in 1988 Mr. Mahallati was aware that the Iranian regime was massacring thousands of innocent political prisoners and covered up the facts of the massacre, implicating him in a crime against humanity. Today, thousands of Iranians live in anguish, mourning the loss of their family members, who were mercilessly buried in mass graves, unable to grieve at their gravesites. Many of those family members have contacted Oberlin's President Ambar and requested a full investigation into Mahallati’s past, but have received no response,” wrote Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), Dr. Charles Asher Small, Executive Director of ISGAP, and Haras Rafiq, Interim Managing Director of ISGAP and a trustee of the UK Charity Muslims Against Antisemitism.

The joint letter was first obtained by The Jerusalem Post and addressed to the college’s president Carmen Twillie Ambar and the college’s board of trustees. ISGAP is a non-partisan organization that is dedicated to scholarly research into antisemitism and other forms of racism with a focus on education and public policy. 

The signatories of the letter wrote that “It is time for Oberlin College to reconsider its defense of Mr. Mahallati and prioritize its students, as well as the victims and survivors of Mr. Mahallati’s crimes. It is time for Oberlin to remove Mr. Mahallati from its faculty.”

The ISGAP letter added that “Oberlin College is an institution with a proud legacy of promoting human rights and social justice and where students value global awareness. Oberlin College now has an opportunity to provide its students with tangible lessons in civic and ethical responsibility, political and historical awareness, and empathy.“

Natan Sharansky. (credit: BYHMC)Natan Sharansky. (credit: BYHMC)

In a statement to the Post on October 2020, Mahallati flatly denied that he was involved in the 1988 massacre in Iran.

However, Oberlin students, alumni, Iranian-Americans and legal experts have asserted Mahallati’s excuses are a collection of lies.

Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum, a 1972 graduate of Oberlin, told the Post: ”How could he not know? I can’t believe that a top diplomatic representative, working for a despotic regime, was blithely unaware of a mass execution of political prisoners. Oberlin College, where I and 4 family members attended, has always employed faculty who recognized and aligned with human rights causes for two centuries, from the Wellington Rescue in Ohio through the anti-Vietnam War era until today’s concern for inclusion."

She added that “I am stunned that our current college president failed to meet with Iranian refugees and families, who brought their concern to her early on, and now requiring public protest to get a simple reply. The recent blank slate statement, given by the college, flies in the face of Amnesty International and the testimony of these relatives, whose loved ones were dumped in unmarked graves. My alma mater Oberlin wants to distinguish itself as a place for people of conscience. This whitewash statement instead of investigating their own professor, who is accused of covering up such heinous crimes, is the opposite of everything I learned at Oberlin: critical thinking, protection of those whose rights were violated, and employing faculty whose close relationships with students impart decent values.”

The Oberlin College student paper Oberlin Review published on November, 5 a scathing editorial titled “Evidence Against Mahallati Irrefutable,” and blasted the college’s management for its fact-challenged defense of the former Iranian regime envoy.

The student journalists wrote that”The conclusion to all of this is that Oberlin College, an institution we hold dear, is employing and defending someone likely responsible for covering up crimes against humanity. The College claims that it exonerated Mahallati in an internal investigation, yet it refuses to release any details of the investigation, including who the investigating party was, which materials they looked at, and what would constitute a ‘guilty’ verdict. The College also refuses to speak with the activists and family members decrying Mahallati’s employment at the College. Many activists assert that they have been blocked by president Carmen Twillie Ambar on Twitter after attempting to bring her attention to this issue by tagging her.”

Oberlin College refused to provide the Post with a copy of its report clearing Mahallati. The Oberlin Review took the management of the college to task for a “blatant omission of multiple other groups that were — and continue to be — persecuted in Iran, including leftists, LGBTQ+ individuals, and Baha’is.”

According to the student editorial, “Iran has so successfully obfuscated its crimes against humanity — through mouthpieces like Mahallati and many others — that it has been able to continue perpetrating such crimes to the present day. Most egregiously, Mahallati’s rhetoric about the Baha’is laid the groundwork for Iran to commit genocide against the Baha’i community. To this day, Baha’is are systematically persecuted, tortured, and killed in Iran.”

In a straight news story on the November 2, protest against Mahallati at the college, the Oberlin Review reported that the Iranian-American student Sophie Bernstein said that “I think that it’s very unreasonable that the administration has not seen the organizers of this event and I think that [it] is trying to cover up something that is undoubtedly true, adding “I think it’s not correct for him to teach specifically ethics and morals as a professor here, especially when he did cover up mass murderings of political activists. I think that a lot of Oberlin students here, we take for granted the freedoms that we have — for example, questioning authority, questioning the government, being gay, being a communist, … but our people were murdered for that.”

The Post reported on the demonstration against Mahallati from Oberlin. 

The student Max Stuart told the Review that he was aware of  the accusations against Mahallati before starting his first year in 2021 at Oberlin.“I hope not only does he get fired, but he gets in prison,” Stuart told the paper.

The entry of Sharanksy, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons for his human rights activism, into the row at Oberlin ups the ante in a controversy that the college management seeks to gloss over, according to its critics. Sharansky and his co-authors charged the college with also tolerating Mahallati’s genocidal antisemitism and incitement of jihadi violence against Jews and Israel.

“It has come to our attention that a member of the Oberlin College faculty, Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, engaged in war crimes and called for a global jihad against the Jews of Israel during his tenure as Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations in the late ‘80s. We are also aware that Mr. Mahallati has perpetuated his vicious pursuits on the Oberlin campus, by assigning anti-Israel readings to his students and requiring them to portray the terrorist organization, Hamas, in a positive light, “ noted the letter.

The US and EU governments designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

The Post contacted members of the college’s board of trustees. The only member to respond was Ted Brandt, the Chief Executive Officer for Marathon Capital, LLC, who wrote that “Your note is the first I’ve heard of this issue. I’m traveling today/tomorrow in the US but would expect to be briefed on the situation later this week.”

The chair of the board, Chris Canavan, who is a partner with Lion's Head Global Partners, declined to respond. Post media queries to the vice chair of the board, Chesley Maddox-Dorsey, who is the CEO for A Wonder Media Company, went unanswered. President Amber did not answer a Post query.

Lawdan Bazargan, the Iranian-American human rights activist, who organized the protest against Mahallati in November told the Post that she has sent letters to the trustees but they have not responded.

Bazargan, whose brother Bijan was murdered by the regime for his left-wing views in 1988, said: “We want Oberlin College to fire him [Mahallati] because Amnesty International accused him of crimes against humanity.” 

An online petition at change.org calling for Mahallati to be dismissed has accumulated over new 500 signatures within the last two weeks, pushing the current signature level to 2,571.

Sam Kermanian, a senior advisor to the Iranian-American Jewish Federation, told the Post that "Mahallati is someone who used his 'diplomatic' cloak to lie, to deceive and to provide cover for the atrocities of a terrorist regime for decades. He is the last person we should want instructing our youth."