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Oberlin Clears Professor, Ex-Iranian Official Accused of Antisemitism, Covering Up Political Killings

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Bosworth Hall at Oberlin College. Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia

Following an investigation, Oberlin College said it has cleared a faculty member accused of lying about mass political executions in Iran during the 1980s and of making antisemitic statements, according to a student newspaper report.

Professor of Religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, who served as Iran’s representative to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989, had been accused of concealing the 1988 killings of thousands of dissidents in an Oct. 2020 open letter, signed by families of the victims and two faculty members.

Later, reports of Mahallati’s declaring that “Palestine is an Islamic territory” under “occupation by Zionist usurpers” surfaced online, as well as statements disparaging the Baha’i faith — prompting the university to confirm that his past comments and conduct were under review.

The Ohio liberal arts college said its investigation did not find evidence supporting the allegations over the 1988 killings or antisemitic comments, the Oberlin Review reported Friday.

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“Oberlin deeply empathizes with the pain and suffering caused by the executions in Iran,” the statement read.

“After becoming aware of the allegations against Professor Mahallati, Oberlin initiated its own process to determine their validity. After consulting a number of sources and evaluating the public record, the College could find no evidence to corroborate the allegations against Professor Mahallati, including that he had specific knowledge of the murders taking place in Iran.”

The Review noted that the the statement did not address Mahallati’s anti-Baha’i statements.

Signatories to the 2020 open letter said that the 1988 mass killing stood out out for its “depravity and cruelty” among human rights abuses committed by Iran over the years, citing one estimate that at least 3,800 were executed. It quoted an Amnesty International report alleging that Mahallati, as Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, “denied the mass executions in a meeting with the UN Special Representative on the situation of human rights in Iran,” and falsely claimed that killings had occurred “on the battlefield,” in wartime.

The decision by the college drew outrage from family members of victims of the massacre, as well as from several alumni who have been active in a campaign to have Mahallati removed from his position.

Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum, a 1972 alumna, said the college’s “blank slate” response “flies in the face of Amnesty International and the testimony of these relatives, whose loved ones were dumped in unmarked graves.”

“I can’t believe that a top diplomatic representative, working for a despotic regime, was blithely unaware of a mass execution of political prisoners,” she told The Algemeiner. “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.”

Melissa Landa, another alumna who has filed a civil rights complaint over Mahallati with the US Department of Education, castigated the college’s process as biased.

“In addition to the absurdity of Oberlin College refusing to conduct an impartial investigation of Mahallati and, instead, engaging in a charade of investigating its own employee, there is their disingenuous claim of empathizing with the families who lost relatives in the 1988 Iranian massacre in which Mahallati is implicated,” she said.

Mahallati previously denied the allegations against him, writing in the Oberlin Review, “I categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran when was serving at the United Nations. There was not a single communication from Tehran to Iran’s UN embassy informing Iranian diplomats of those incidents.”

Recently-elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was placed under US sanctions in 2019, in part for his role as one of four judges who oversaw the 1988 executions.

Responding to the conclusion of the inquiry, Oberlin Hillel said it was committed to ensuring that the campus remains a “welcoming and safe environment for Jewish students.”

“We appreciate the college’s investigation of Professor Mahallati, its commitment to addressing these issues and its partnership in preventing, combatting, and mitigating antisemitism on campus,” Rabbi Megan Doherty told the student outlet Friday.

An advocacy group has announced a protest planned for Nov. 2, the newspaper said, calling for the professor’s “immediate removal.”

Editor’s note: this article has been updated with further responses to the result of Oberlin’s inquiry

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