Terra Incognita: Oberlin College’s free speech shield for racism and fascism

These anti-Semitic posts were exposed in an article at The Tower by David Gerstman over the weekend.

Anti-Semitic cartoon from Der Sturmer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anti-Semitic cartoon from Der Sturmer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Hello there, my name is Jacob Rothschild...we own your news, the media, your oil and your government.”
This was the meme shared on Facebook on December 23, 2014 by Oberlin College assistant professor Joy Karega, alongside her own note that “yep, this family and several others.” She asserted that confronting Jacob Rothschild was part of “challeging [sic], revolting against, and dismantling real power.” Underneath the screenshot of the Rothschilds-control-the-world post were positive comments. One Chris Stroffolino, now a lecturer in the English department of Laney College according to his current Facebook, agreed with Karega, posting: “yes.”
These anti-Semitic posts were exposed in an article at The Tower by David Gerstman over the weekend. According to the screenshots of the posts, Karega’s Rothschild obsession, which would fit nicely into a KKK conspiracy theory, or have been welcome evidence in Henry Ford’s International Jew writings, carried into other posts she made on social media. On January 10 she shared the following: “Considering the Rothschilds’ propensity for whacking scientists who dare interfere with their depopulation agenda – of which AIDs is a key component...behind the shooting down of MA-17 [Malaysian airlines]...with this false flag the Rothschild banksters... are implementing the World War III option.”
Commenting on the US government assisting Holocaust survivors, Karega claimed, “one of these days My Peoples gonna learn who ALL American presidents work for and why they are chosen and placed in office.”
Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov was quick to leap to the defense of the academic, telling The Tower that the college “respects the right of its faculty, students, staff and alumni to express their personal views...the statements posted on social media by Dr. Joy Karega, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, are hers alone and do not represent the views of Oberlin College.”
In deflecting criticism by using a free speech shield Krislov abdicated his responsibility to investigate how anti-Semitism among faculty creates a hostile and racist environment on campus. A professor who writes on social media, for instance, that they support the KKK, may be entitled to free speech – but they are not entitled to a job teaching students. The US concept of “free speech” doesn’t guarantee one a position at a university, it guarantees one will not be suppressed by the government for one’s views, however abhorrent. When did it become “free speech” for faculty to give out copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to sing the praises of Hitler or support deporting all Muslims from America? Hate speech by faculty should be investigated by universities, not coddled.
Karega’s views do not only extend to her “personal” social media. In one post on November 17, 2015 where she claimed that the extremist organization Islamic State was a “CIA and Mossad operation,” she noted that “we had a great conversation in my Social Justice Writing [class] yesterday.”
She noted that her class had discussed the “French flag business” relating to sympathy for the Paris attacks.
In a January 13, 2015 post she had mocked the Charlie Hebdo attacks with a photo of IS wearing a Star of David and a mask revealing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“France wants to free Palestine? Time for a false flag...” declared the meme she shared, and her comment affirmed “yep, pretty much.”
We are to believe these “personal views” don’t enter the classroom? In an age when every student has access to social media, how can a student not know their professor is posting theories about Rothschilds controlling the world, bashing Holocaust survivors for receiving government assistance by implying Jews control the US presidency, posting photos of IS with a Star of David tattoo. There is nothing “personal” about it. Propagating anti-Semitism on social media is public. You can’t expect an African-American student to take a class from a professor who proudly posts about the greatness of the KKK, and you can’t expect students to accept a professor who shares claims the Rothschilds are behind AIDs and downing airliners.
IT IS the responsibility of a college to create a learning environment in line with its own code of ethics guidelines regarding racism. It is the responsibility of fellow faculty to struggle against racism and intolerance. Yet at Oberlin College the views of Karega, who earned her PhD from the University of Louisville in 2014, went unchecked. “Free speech” has become the shield behind which all racism is accepted, and no critique of that speech is permitted. Ironically Karega understood the elastic nature of free speech in one January 2015 post: “[F]irst thing, there is no such thing as ‘free speech and expression’, in the Power-driven [sic] market-based economies much of the world works under.”
She was already preparing herself then for charges of anti-Semitism.
“An attack on Zionism is an attack on Jews. It’s anti-semitic so they say. Total nonsense. And I stopped letting folks bully me with that ‘you’re being an anti-semitic’ nonsense a long time ago. Just a strategy to shut folks up,” she wrote in January 2015.
The thing is, spreading 9/11 “false flag” truther ignorance, claiming the Rothschilds created AIDs and going after Holocaust survivors isn’t “anti-Zionism.” It’s purely anti-Jewish, it’s racist, it’s ignorant, it’s fascist conspiracy- laden grotesque ideology. Karega has responded to the revelations about her social media activity by playing the victim. “I’ll have a lot to say about the kinds of intimidation and silencing tactics that are rhetorically enacted in digital spaces...and how common it is for Black women, who are early in their career...to be prime targets for these kinds of activities and practices.”
As if the “free speech” shield erected by Oberlin College was not enough, Karega seeks to use being a “black woman” as a shield. It’s obvious that throughout her career as an academic her social media posts of anti-Jewish views have not garnered any pushback. Quite the opposite, judging by the fact that no one called out her Facebook posts before; they received approval.
That is perhaps more disturbing than Oberlin College’s reaction. Faculty and students no doubt saw these Facebook posts. That is evidence of a wider problem, namely the types of extremism and bigotry that have become accepted in some academic circles. Behavior and views that would not be accepted in mainstream society, which in fact would lead to termination in many work environments, are accepted among academics.
Ruthie Blum revealed in October 2014 that an Israeli professor had supported the crimes of Islamic State (IS).
“There is something heartwarming about the way in which this organization responds to the Americans, with a show of power and contempt; with decapitation...get the hell out of the Middle East, you and the corporations your armies serve,” wrote the academic. She suggested that the US should apologize to IS and “try finding out from [IS] what they want and help them achieve it.”
As IS was murdering the Yazidi men and elderly women of Iraq and burying them in mass graves, an academic in Israel was supporting them, saying “help them achieve” the mass rape and genocide of a people. That academic went on in 2016 to advocate the hanging of Supreme Court judges in Israel. Academics have assigned themselves the status of the one group protected from any critique of their views, when in fact as those teaching at public institutions their views should be the most critiqued.
A carte blanche has been given to fascism and racism at universities under the guise of “free speech.” The rules and codes that apply to all of society also apply to institutes of higher learning – there is no invisible force-field erected around them such that they are allowed to be places of hate-speech, intolerance, bigotry, extremism, anti-Semitism, terrorist-supporting, pro-Nazi views.
Extremist views go unchallenged, always accepted as “free speech.” But why is “free speech” free from critique? How did it happen that if you just call someone like Donald Trump, ‘Professor Donald Trump’, suddenly any ignorant nonsense he spouts is above discussion? Year after year the ignorance put forth by those like Karega goes unchallenged, meaning her views never are confronted, she never shows contrition, until in fact she becomes the victim of “bullying.”
The fact is that university students do know how to express their demands for “safe spaces” away from racism and views they find objectionable. A speech by Ben Shapiro at California State University Los Angeles over the weekend created a riot among students opposed to the commentator’s right-wing views. Mass student protests against free speech have been held at Yale and the University of Missouri, precisely because students understand that just because something is protected by “free speech” doesn’t mean it goes unopposed. The nature of free speech is that it can be confronted by other free speech.
And as nice as the US tradition of free speech is, it doesn’t mean those with views like Joseph Goebbels automatically get the right to teach a class.
The Karega case at Oberlin symbolizes the way in which attacks on Jews, including “Rothschild-AIDs” conspiracies and other racist bigotry, are not seen as deserving of widespread solidarity or even offense. A similarly homophobic, sexist or Islamophobic professor, or one who had vile views regarding black people, would be met with mass student and faculty protests. Claim that Jews control the world, though, and it’s fine. Claim that AIDs is a Jewish conspiracy, no problem. Call IS “Islamic” and it’s offensive; call it a “Mossad operation” and that’s fine.
You’d think faculty and students would at least be offended by ignorance, if not racism, but they remain silent.
It’s unfortunate that faculty and students are not outraged.
But Jews can still show America that they don’t accept the “free speech” shield for anti-Semitism. If Facebook posts reminiscent of 1930s anti-Semitism don’t galvanize a mass protest at Oberlin then it’s the US Jewish community that has lost its willingness to stand up and say “enough.” When faculty who express hate against Jews are defended by their university, and show no contrition, the only proper place for Jewish people is civil disobedience and direct action. Oberlin has signaled its unwillingness to examine vile racism. Either people decide today that claiming the Rothschilds spread AIDs is unacceptable coming from faculty, or they let it pass and surrender the rights of Jewish students not to be subjected to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by their professors.
Racism on social media is not “personal,” it is public, and faculty who express bigotry must be confronted. Failure to confront them lends legitimacy to their views.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman