Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Melissa Landa: Fired for the Crime of Teaching While Jewish

Melissa Landa

Melissa Landa had been a popular teacher at the University of Maryland, College Park for ten years when it was decided that her contract would not be renewed. The reason? Landa had become too Jewish, too in-their-face about her Zionism and the immorality of BDS. She had organized her former classmates to fight against campus antisemitism and in particular against Professor Joy Karega, an antisemitic professor at her alma mater.

Landa’s brand of activism, in short, had U of Maryland administrators in a conjoined state of nightly bruxism. This just wasn’t the right kind of activism. It wasn’t Black Lives Matter popular or Free, Free Palestine popular. They needed to find a pretext to SHUT HER DOWN.

Then Landa traveled to Israel for Passover—just long enough that U of Maryland administrators could say she was forsaking her duties as a teacher—even though she’d received prior permission, and had arranged to fulfill her teaching obligations during the time she would be away. (Y’all have heard of Zoom, right?) That’s when the U of Maryland administrators rubbed their hands together and uttered the silent collective equivalent of “Nyuh uh uh,” and failed to renew Landa’s contract.

In other words, Melissa Landa was fired. A popular, award-winning teacher cut from the faculty and from her livelihood for the crime of teaching while Jewish. Landa took the obvious next step and sued the university for discrimination—because that’s what it was: they didn’t like that Landa was being so, well JEWISH.

Did the University of Maryland realize that Landa wasn’t going to “go silent into the night?” If not, they aren’t as smart as you’d think, considering they represent an institution of learning. Landa is good at agitating for change. She is pretty much the reason Joy Karega got cut from Oberlin. So, not smart U of Maryland, College Park. Not smart at all.

Facebook post by Joy Karega depicts PM Netanyahu as an ISIS fighter. Thanks in large part to Melissa Landa, Karega was fired from her position at Oberlin.

As for the rest of us, this story of modern antisemitism should come as a shock to every American. A popular professor fired for being a Zionist? For visiting Israel and displaying the Israeli flag? It’s unconscionable that this is what it has come to for Jews in America and in academia.

Landa, it is clear, has long been fighting for the basic religious rights of her people. It looks like it may be time for us to fight for hers. Here is what you need to know:

Varda Epstein: Can you tell us a bit about your background and family? Where did you grow up, and what is your Jewish background and experience?

Melissa Landa: I was born in Apartheid South Africa. My grandparents had fled the pogroms of Lithuania and had come to South Africa around the time of the First World War. I grew up in a traditional Jewish home with a strong Zionist ideology. My parents were also anti-Apartheid activists.

I first experienced antisemitism after immigrating to the United States and living in an area where there were few Jews. I attended Oberlin College, where I ate in the Kosher Co-op and lived in Hebrew House. At that time, Judaism and Zionism flourished on the Oberlin campus.

My husband is Israeli. He is the 13th generation in his family who was born in the land of Israel. I have been to Israel 18 times and look forward to going again soon. 

Varda Epstein: How long had you been teaching at U of Maryland, College Park prior to what was, effectively, your dismissal? When did things go wrong?

Melissa Landa: I joined the faculty in 2007, four years after completing my PhD in the same College of Education. I was dismissed 10 years later, in 2017. Things began to deteriorate at the very beginning of 2016.

This flier was found pinned to a bulletin board in the Oberlin College student union during the 2013-14 academic year.

Varda Epstein: Your troubles with U of Maryland appear to have begun just after you began to be more vocal in advocating for Israel, in 2015. Was this advocacy a kind of sudden change for you? Was there some kind of awakening, or something else that served as a catalyst to make you speak out?

Melissa Landa: Yes. I joined an Oberlin alumni Facebook group, where I shared my study abroad program in Israel. I was viciously attacked for supporting Israel. As I engaged with those who were attacking me, it became clear to me that Oberlin had become a bastion of anti-Israel antisemitism. Along with three other concerned alumni, I formed a group called Oberlin Alumni Against Antisemitism.

Almost immediately, a recent graduate contacted me and shared with me the Facebook posts of former Oberlin Professor Joy Karega. They included images of Benjamin Netanyahu as an Isis fighter; accused Israel of shooting down a Malaysian aircraft; accused Israel of orchestrating 9/11; and blamed Jacob Rothschild for instigating war. I felt that I needed to pursue these issues with the Oberlin administration on behalf of all concerned alumni.

A Facebook post by Joy Karega suggests Jacob Rothschild is responsible for instigating wars.

Varda Epstein: I’m aware that the group you founded, Oberlin Alumni Against Antisemitism, joined the Oberlin chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness after a few months. The ACF is a nonprofit that fights against anti-Zionism on campus. How many members are in the Oberlin group? What has this group achieved?

Melissa Landa: We have about 100 active members today. As a result of our work, Joy Karega was dismissed from her faculty position. She and Oberlin College settled out of court.

Varda Epstein: You took the step of displaying the Israeli flag in your office. Why? What was the response to this?

Melissa Landa: I wanted to hang an Israeli flag in my office to promote my study abroad to Israel program. My associate chair discouraged me from displaying the Israeli flag and I complied. He told me that it was offensive to many students. I displayed a map of Israel instead.

Melissa Landa with her study abroad students in Israel, a few days before she was fired.

Varda Epstein: Help us understand this: were you a popular teacher? Was the administration happy with you? What happened?? Was your activism really such a sudden change? What is your take?

Melissa Landa: In 2013, I received the College of Education’s Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2017, I received the College of Education’s Exceptional Scholarship Award. In 2017, I also received a letter of commendation from the University’s Associate Vice President for Internal Affairs for my contributions to Study Abroad, including my efforts to raise money for first generation college students to participate in my study abroad program to Israel. And after I was fired, 17 students of color wrote a letter to UMD’s Diamondback newspaper “Letter: We’re Melissa Landa’s former students. She should still work at UMD,” expressing their dismay that I had been fired. They wrote, “Landa is our ally and was one of the best professors at this institution.” 

Melissa Landa (far left) receiving the Exceptional Scholarship Award in the College of Education one month before she was fired.

Varda Epstein: Your lawsuit speaks of religious discrimination. You claim wrongful termination as a kind of retaliation for expressing your Jewish beliefs and affiliations. But this isn’t about Jewish observance, for instance, not being allowed to keep kosher, or avoid working on Shabbat, right? How do you see what has happened as an abrogation of your religious rights?

Melissa Landa: Zionism is part and parcel of my Jewish identity. While I do keep a kosher home, I also express my Judaism by supporting and defending Israel. In addition, there was also the more typical kind of religious discrimination in that I was singled out and treated very differently than my non-Jewish peers when I arranged to miss some classes in order to observe Passover.

Varda Epstein: What happens next? Do you have options? What would you like to see happen?

Melissa Landa: The University of Maryland either submits a response to our complaint or offers to settle out of court.