An Oberlin College religion professor's history as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations and his curriculum that suggests antisemitic sentiments is at the center of a series of demonstrations and lectures, including a Nov. 2 planned protest, and a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, the college's Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East Studies, served as Iran's ambassador to the UN from 1987 to 1989, amid 1988 executions of political prisoners. Families of those political prisoners are expected to be present at the demonstrations.
A 2018 report by Amnesty International alleges Mahallati was among senior officials and diplomats that were actively involved in denying the killings in media interviews and exchanges with the UN to cover up the operation and shield responsible parties from accountability.
Mahallati, who joined the liberal arts college's faculty in 2007, is tenured. He is involved in various courses that focus on Islamic peace and friendship studies, and founded the Oberlin College Friendship Festival that celebrates commonalities shared by people of different religious and cultural backgrounds.
But, Melissa Landa, a 1986 graduate of Oberlin College, who filed the December 2019 complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, told the Cleveland Jewish News Oct. 19 that Mahallati is part of a bigger problem on the college campus. Landa also founded the Alliance for Israel to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting the Jewish state and hostility toward Jewish students for their pro-Israel views.
Her complaint, which a spokesman from Office of Civil Rights said they couldn't confirm receipt of or provide information about pending investigations in an Oct. 22 email, includes a running list of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incidents from 2014 to 2017, including student comments about the antisemitic environment on campus. She also included detailed anti-Israel teaching material from Mahallati's courses, specifically noting a fall 2016 incident where students in his Religion 270 class were tasked with creating "anti-Israel blogs online that reflect the professor's lectures and assigned readings," that his teachings refer to Israel as a "colonialist state," and citing him in connection with "support for Hamas and terrorism."
"In December 2015, I formed a group called Oberlin Alumni Against Antisemitism and I had advertised I was leading a study abroad group to Israel in my capacity as a then-professor at University of Maryland," Landa, who lives in Rockville, Md., told the CJN. "I was lambasted for supporting Israel and there was a tremendous amount of anti-Israel sentiment as a result. It became evident to me then that there was a real problem of anti-Israel sentiment."
Following the creation of the group, Landa said current students started sharing social media posts with her that contained antisemitic language. That's when she decided to document and "expose" antisemitism at Oberlin College, which led to her December 2019 complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, she said.
Landa added she attempted to express her concerns about the college and Mahallati with the Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar.
"I expressed my desire to work with her to try and address the issue, and she refused to acknowledge that there was an issue, showing no interest in working with me or our alumni group," she said. "I felt I had no other choice than to file a complaint. They refuse to acknowledge there is an issue with antisemitism on their campus. They have no understanding of the fact that, to many students, the celebration of the state of Israel is also an expression of Judaism. It is up to us to explain it to them."
Scott Wargo, director of media relations at Oberlin College, wrote in an email to the CJN that the college "extends its sympathies to all victims who suffered" during Mahallati's tenure as Iran's ambassador to the UN and who "continue to suffer today."
"Recently, allegations have arisen that while he was ambassador, professor Mahallati was aware of and helped conceal the executions of MEK members in Iran, and that he engaged in antisemitic behavior, including calling for the destruction of Israel," wrote Wargo, adding he couldn't comment on the planned protests and lectures. "Oberlin deeply empathizes with the pain and suffering caused by the executions in Iran. After becoming aware of the allegations against professor Mahallati, Oberlin initiated its process to determine their validity."
After consulting a "number of sources and evaluating public record," Wargo said the college found no evidence to corroborate the allegations against Mahallati, including "specific knowledge" of the murders in Iran.
"Over the years, as a scholar and teacher, he has developed a reputation for espousing religious tolerance and seeking peace and understanding between all people," Wargo told the CJN. "His record at Oberlin includes no instances of the antisemitic or anti-Israel behavior of which he has been accused."
Wargo also wrote that Mahallati is teaching this semester at the college. Multiple attempts to reach Mahallati were unsuccessful.
But Landa said she still wishes to see Mahallati barred from teaching.
"I hope that he will not be permitted to teach any content about Israel following my examination of his course material and student work – it was at best anti-Israel and political indoctrination," she said. "But more accurately, it was antisemitism. It was promoting the destruction of Israel. I just hope he isn't permitted to teach at all."
Ahead of the protest, which will be from noon to 2 p.m. Nov. 2 in front of the Cox Administration Building on West Lorain Street in Oberlin, Landa said she hopes students and other alumni will also come out in support of the cause. She is planning to attend, as well as her classmate, Thomas Sigel of Homerville, who told the CJN in an email that Mahallati's "presence on the Oberlin faculty is a disgrace to the college."
"I hope students will come out on Nov. 2 and speak to the family members of political prisoners murdered in Iran's 1988 mass execution, in which Mahallati was complicit," Landa said. "This will allow them to ask questions about why Amnesty International has named Mahallati a war criminal, and hopefully urge them to challenge Oberlin College in its misguided and disturbing defense of Mr. Mahallati. We're trying to shine a light on a college that has lost its way, and lost touch with its legacy of human rights and standing up for what is right."