Muhammad Jafar Mahallati, a professor of Religion and Peace Studies at Oberlin College, has been identified by Amnesty International as a senior Iranian regime official who was complicit in crimes against humanity for his cover up of Iran's 1988 prison massacres of over 5000 political prisoners when he was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. The victims were young men and women who had been members of left wing and labor groups.
On November 2, these three authors attended a protest at Oberlin College, organized by the Oberlin Committee for Justice for Mahallati's Victims. Family members of those who had lost their lives in the mass executions spoke at the protest and called for Mahallati's removal from the Oberlin faculty, as did Melissa Landa, a member of the committee and a representative of Oberlin alumni supporting the grieving families.
During his tenure as Iran's U.N. Ambassador, Mahallati also made dehumanizing remarks about Iran's Baha'i community. Mahallati described the religion of the community, a persecuted minority in Iran, as a cult and referred to its members as child molesters and terrorists. Furthermore, Mahallati delegitimized the State of Israel, celebrated violence against innocent Israelis, and called for a global jihad against Israeli Jews. In a November 1, 2021 letter to Oberlin Dean David Kamitsuka, Mahallati explained that he was merely following orders, stating, "I was doing my job, delivering the official statements of Iran to the U.N. U.N. envoys cannot defy their official mandates to pursue their personal agendas and opinions. In the rare cases that they do, they get fired from their positions if not labeled as political traitors." However, nowhere did Mahallati retract his statements. Additionally, as we will show, he continues to promote terrorism against Israeli civilians by encouraging support for Hamas among his students. Hamas is a group designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization and is funded and equipped militarily by Iran.
The Oberlin Review, the college's student newspaper, demonstrated moral leadership when its editors drew up a critical and courageous article, "Evidence Against Mahallati Irrefutable." The Oberlin Review also published an op-ed by alumna Azadeh Pourzand, asking the Oberlin administration to engage with the families and be transparent about how they obtained the results of a sham internal investigation. Lawdan Bazargan, the spokesperson for the families, who lost her brother Bijan in the prison massacre, has been seeking a dialogue with the Oberlin College administration since October 2020, but they have, to date, refused to meet with her. Instead, they have presented the following statements about their inquiry:
"The inquiry did not find proof to corroborate the allegations that Professor Mahallati knew of the atrocities at the time he was asked about them during his tenure at the United Nations"; "The review could not identify a pattern of anti-Semitic behavior or ongoing calls for the destruction of Israel"; "His record at Oberlin is exemplary, and includes no instances of anti-Semitic behavior."
Despite the college's claims, we have ample evidence to show that Mahallati indoctrinates his students with anti-Israel, antisemitic propaganda, and promotes pro-Hamas views—and, therefore, does indeed endorse the destruction of Israel. While he attempted to delete the files, we retrieved Mahallati's student blogs from one of his courses, which he had made public before the accusations against him were launched. In several examples, we see a chilling celebration of Hamas, citing Mahallati's lectures as its source: "Though there is no concrete difference between Hamas or the Irish Republican Army, the combination of religion and politics causes groups like Hamas to be labeled terrorists, while similar groups in Europe or America are thought of as expressions of free speech." A similar statement is made by another student, who writes, "These groups are usually automatically branded as terrorist groups whereas other ethno-national groups are legitimized by the West."
Unlike Oberlin students, who have shown honesty and courage in their analysis of Mahallati's crimes, others have deflected from his actions. Communicating with Frieda Fuchs, Jewish Studies Professor Matt Berkman described our efforts as guided by right-wing political motives. Likewise, in Mahallati's letter to Dean Kamitsuka, he contended that the families of the victims have started a propaganda smear campaign that is motivated by a right wing agenda and based on questionable documents. Neither Berkman's nor Mahallati's claims are true. All three of us are center left regarding the Israel question, while the families represent diverse political leanings. We are here to condemn an anti-Israel advocate who has found himself a safe sinecure behind the walls of academia. We also feel it is our duty to support the victims of human rights abuses. The victims' families have reached out to Republican as well as Democratic politicians on the belief that human rights are a universal value that transcends partisanship.
Also in contrast to the Oberlin students who rigorously examined the evidence against Mahallati and declared it was overwhelmingly against him, some Oberlin alumni appear to be joining the college's president Ambar in whitewashing his alleged crimes against humanity, genocidal antisemitism, and anti-Baha'i incitement. The three authors of this article—all members of the Oberlin Committee for Justice for Mahallati's Victims—have experienced a sharp reaction to our efforts from an online forum of 2,500 members of the Oberlin community. On Tuesday, November 2, the same day that Landa spoke at the protest, she was abruptly "muted" and thus prevented from participating in the "Uncensored Unofficial Oberlin Alumni Discussion Group" in which she had been a long-standing member. Subsequently, Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum and Frieda Fuchs were also prevented from participating in the group soon after Landa's ousting. The Facebook group is administered by Oberlin alumna Rica Mendes, who formerly administered another online forum with Rachel Roberts, also an Oberlin alumna, and a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Hamas affiliated organization. Mendes is still in close communication with Roberts, as she recently reported to Braiterman Tanenbaum via voicemail.
The Facebook group had generated a good deal of antisemitic rhetoric since we had begun to share information about Mahallati and the November 2 protest, including accusations that the protest was being funded and organized by AIPAC, rather than by the Iranian families. Upon our expulsion, Robert Hayes, the former administrator of the group, wrote a vicious and arguably antisemitic attack: "None of you have contributed anything of notable value. Nothing. I have not met a single one of you that I care for as a person. Not all of you have lied or misrepresented or broken rules; some of you are just torpedoes for the people who do." Hayes had recently expressed sympathy for the Iranian families while writing that he had no interest in hearing about Mahallati's support for Hamas. His vitriolic views about us were warmly applauded by other members, while our arbitrary ousting from the group was celebrated in large numbers.
As Oberlin College faces one of the most pressing human rights crises since its founding, the Oberlin administration, the college Trustees, and many alumni have failed to respond honorably. The only response to discovering that Mahallati was complicit in crimes against humanity and promotes terrorist ideology in his classroom is to remove him from the Oberlin faculty. We applaud Oberlin student leaders for their moral leadership during this crisis and hope that the Oberlin administration, the Trustees, and Oberlin alumni will act on the students' intellectual and moral clarity.
Melissa Landa attended Oberlin College, completed her M.A. at Tufts University, and her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. She has been an educator for thirty years, and runs a non-profit, Alliance for Israel, that addresses anti-Israel forms of antisemitism in education settings.
Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum attended Oberlin College and holds two Masters degrees. A NYS certified teacher, Marta led classrooms in underfunded minority public elementary, Jewish teen and adult, and prison schools.
Frieda Fuchs has a Ph.D. in Government and European Studies/Civilization from Harvard University.