Bosworth Hall at Oberlin College. Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia
by Dexter Van Zile
The Board of Trustees at Oberlin must be very proud — because the college has now given cover to a former Iranian diplomat who called for Israel’s destruction at the United Nations, and according to Amnesty International, worked to obscure a round of mass murders perpetrated in 1988.
These days, the professor in question — Mohammad Jafar Mahallati — is preaching a message of “friendship” to his students at Oberlin, as if he never uttered the hateful things he said about Israel, or covered up mass murder.
If this full-blown episode of historical amnesia proceeds unchecked, Oberlin will give Harvard a run for its money when it comes to coddling apologists for fascist murderers. Harvard, as you may or may not know, gave Ernst Hanfstaengl — a high-ranking Nazi and confidante to Adolf Hitler — a warm welcome when he visited his alma mater in the 1930s.
Mahallati serves as Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies, and teaches religion at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. His faculty profile declares that he worked as Iran’s diplomat at the UN from 1987 to 1989.
During his time at the United Nations, Mahallati inveighed against Israel, explicitly expressing hope for its destruction. In February 1989, Mahallati declared that the First Intifada “will continue unabated until the objective of freedom and liberation of the entire land of Palestine is achieved.”
Mahallati was calling for the destruction of Israel, in the name of Islam. “Palestine is an Islamic territory, an Islamic heritage and it remains an Islamic point of identity… Its occupation by Zionist usurpers is a transgression against all Muslims of the world and its liberation is therefore a great religious obligation and commitment,” he said.
Iran, Mahallati said, supported “the holy struggle of Palestinians and will extend all assistance to ensure the emancipation of the entire land of Palestine.”
Let’s be clear. Calling for the liberation or emancipation of “the entire land of Palestine” means the destruction of Israel.
In addition to his hostile incitement against Israel, Mahallati allegedly played a role in covering up the murder of hundreds of political prisoners by the Iranian regime in 1988. This is how Amnesty International described the killings in a 2018 report:
“Between July and September 1988, the Iranian authorities forcibly disappeared and extra-judicially executed thousands of imprisoned political dissidents in secret and dumped their bodies, mostly in unmarked mass graves. Since then, the authorities have treated the killings as state secrets, tormenting the relatives by refusing to tell them how and why their loved ones were killed and where they are buried. No official has been brought to justice and, in some cases, those involved hold or have held positions of power in Iran.”
In its 2018 report, Amnesty declared that “[O]n 29 November 1988, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, Mahallati, denied the mass executions in a meeting with the UN Special Representative on the situation of human rights in Iran, and claimed that ‘many killings had in fact occurred on the battlefield, in the context of the war, following the invasion of the Islamic Republic of Iran by [the PMOI]’.”
These allegations were brought to Oberlin’s attention in 2020, prompting Mahallati to declare that he had no knowledge of the murders perpetrated by the government he was working for, and that his critics overlook his role in bringing an end to the Iran-Iraq War — what he calls “the most prolonged and devastating war in modern history.”
Can’t you see? Mahallati is a man for all seasons. While calling for Israel’s destruction at the UN, he was, at the same time, trying to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq War. He was a pragmatist!
But then there’s the small matter of what he said in 1983, after the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemned the murder of adherents of the Bahai faith by the Iranian government. In response to this condemnation, Mahallati declared that they were not executed because of their religion, but because their immoral behavior contributed to the disruption of public order in Iran.
According to the Oberlin Record, Mahallati dismissed the statement as an example of Westerners meddling in Iranian society.
So here we have Mahallati, the Oberlin professor who promotes an ideology of friendship and peace in the classroom, describing a religious minority in Iran as worthy of death because of supposed violence and abusive sexual practices in the 1980s. This is the type of stuff the Nazis used to justify the murder of Jews in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
But don’t worry! Oberlin has done its due diligence. In response to the allegations against Mahallati, Oberlin administrators said there is no publicly available evidence that he knew of the 1988 murders in Iran. The school has also said that they sympathize with the victims of mass killing.
So it’s time to move on.
Justice for Iran — a human rights group advocating for the rights of minorities in Iran — isn’t having any of it, declaring “Mohammad Jafar Mahallati is an accomplice to the international coverup of the massacre of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 during his post as a representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN. Now, as a professor of Middle East and North African Studies at Oberlin College, Mahallati preaches peace despite refusing to take accountability for his past activities.”
If there ever is an investigation into the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the murderous regime that came to power in Iran in 1979, Mahallati will probably end up as a material witness, and maybe even a suspect in the resulting trial.
When the investigation begins, folks will know where to find Mahallati.
Hiding in plain sight.
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).