On March 14th, a typical Saturday night at Vanderbilt University ended with a sobering and nauseating sight: swastikas spray-painted on the walls of a Jewish fraternity.
The Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs condemned the act in a message to the student body. The Vanderbilt Police Department is investigating it as a hate crime. The executive director of Vanderbilt Hillel called what happened “inexcusable”.
Earlier this week, a gunshot was fired into the West End Synagogue in Nashville. Police were “not aware of recent threats to harm the synagogue or its membership”.
Unfortunately, events like these are nothing new.
In April 2013, three people, including a 14-year-old boy, were murdered in a shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. The gunman reportedly shouted “Heil Hitler” during the attack.
In April 2014, on the eve of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a student at the University of Central Florida had swastikas carved into the wall of her apartment and her mezuzah broken in half. A $500 reward was offered for information about the crime, and the act was condemned by UCF administrators. No arrest was ever made.
In July 2014, swastikas were spray painted on the mailboxes of the Jewish fraternity at The University of Oregon. The Eugene human rights commission “strongly condemned” the “hateful actions”.
In October 2014, shortly after the end of the observance of Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, swastikas were spray painted on the Jewish fraternity at Emory University. Emory University President, James Wagner, released a strong statement “denouncing the abhorrent act” and pledged Emory’s ongoing commitment to raising awareness and preventing all forms of violence and discrimination. The perpetrators were never identified.
On February 10, 2015 a Jewish candidate for the UCLA Judicial Board was questioned not about her qualifications for the position (which were indisputable), but about whether her status as a Jewish student and subsequent involvement in Jewish organizations on campus made her biased. After a 40-minute debate, she was rejected for the position. However, the board’s academic advisor weighed in, and the board subsequently unanimously approved the student’s appointment. The students serving on the board apologized and the UCLA student union passed an anti-Semitism resolution. UCLA’s Chancellor, Gene Block, denounced the board’s action and called it a “teachable moment”. No other action was taken.
There are many more examples than these.
Similar events have been reported at universities and in communities around the country., When did behavior like this become acceptable? When did we let our college campuses and communities become places where some individuals feel unwelcome, or worse, unsafe?
Perhaps these events wouldn’t be as worrisome if they weren’t occurring in the context of the growing tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and other parts of the world. In May 2014, four people were shot to death at the Jewish Museum of Brussels. Pro-Palestinian rallies in Belgium and France this summer not only denounced Israel, but included signage and chants such as “Gas the Jews!” and “Death to the Jews!”. In the wake of these, and many other events, immigration to Israel has reached a 10-year high with 26,500 people making aliyah in 2014. Seven thousand of them were from France alone.
In July 2014, a German synagogue was torched with firebombs. German courts ruled it an “Act of Protest” motivated by a desire to “bring attention to the Gaza conflict”. James Kirchick, a foreign correspondent with The New York Daily News, made the following comparison: “a group of skinheads torch a black church somewhere in the Deep South. Upon being apprehended by the police, they cite the injustices that Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe has visited upon the white farmers of his country as justification for their arson. Mugabe is black, he rules on behalf of ‘the black race,’ and therefore black people everywhere must be made to feel responsible for his crimes.”
Can you imagine the (justified) outrage?
Many defend anti-Semitic words and actions as free speech and worthwhile protest in the ongoing dialogue about Israel and the Middle East conflict. However, in many instances we see the line become blurred. Manuel Valls, the Socialist Prime Minister of France, says, “it is legitimate to criticize the policies of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself. But … [t]here is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.”
Free speech is a fundamental tenet of our democracy and should be protected fiercely. However, we must be cautious in allowing the First Amendment to be used as a shield for bigotry and overtures of hate.
Earlier this month, members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were videotaped on a bus singing undeniably racist songs. The University of Oklahoma’s actions were swift. The University’s President permanently ended the school’s affiliation with SAE and expelled the two students identified from the video. The public response to these actions was positive and echoed President Boren’s sentiments: we will not tolerate this type of behavior. Only now, as the dust has begun to settle, have questions about the legality of the University’s actions been raised.
The student’s behavior was undoubtedly repugnant and indefensible. We should not allow such hatred and intolerance, particularly on our college campuses. Furthermore, our society must stand against such bigotry when it is directed at any group.
The truth is this: swastikas do not feel like a political statement or innocent prank to the Jewish college students that are the victims of these crimes.
Swastikas are a statement of violence and hate, which these students feel very personally. We forget that it has been barely seventy years since the Holocaust, and that many of them may have lost family in the genocide. In this context, the swastika is not a theoretical, ideological symbol; it is synonymous with genocide and extermination. This should be personal not just to the Jewish students, but to our communities as well.
We find ourselves at a critical juncture.
Will our universities and communities rise in defense of our Jewish friends, colleagues and neighbors and stand with them in defiance of these recurrent acts of anti-Semitism? Or, will the United States find itself following in the footsteps of Europe and allow anti-Semitism to continue to grow unabated?
I know where I will stand. Do you?
“Has the like of this happened in your days or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children about it, and let your children tell theirs, and their children the next generation!”
1 Joel, 2-3
Displayed on the walls of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.