Jewish faculty members on two campuses were the targets of anti-Semitic language and threats in the last few weeks. Two doesn’t make a trend, but the incidents do echo other instances of hate seen on college campuses in the days since the presidential election -- and they come amid reports since the election of swastikas drawn in various locations on a number of campuses.
Benjamin Kuperman, associate professor and chair of computer science at Oberlin College, and his wife reportedly heard tapping sounds outside their home early in the morning on Nov. 17. They opened the front door to discover smashed seashells and a note behind their mezuzah, a small case that contains parchment with verses from the Torah, which many Jews place on their door frames. The note read, in glued letters, “Gas Jews Die,” according to the local Chronicle-Telegram.
Last Monday, Sanford Levinson, W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas at Austin, received a postcard at his office at Harvard University, where he’s currently a visiting professor of law. According to The Dallas Morning News, the postcard referred to a Trump campaign slogan, saying, “We’re gonna drain the swamp at Harvard Law,” used anti-Jewish slurs and closed with “Juden raus!” Juden raus is a Nazi-era phrase meaning “Jews out.”
It remains unclear who targeted each professor, or why. Anti-Semitism isn't unheard of in academe. Anti-Jewish rhetoric is sometimes invoked in discussions about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel -- and of course many supporters of the boycott employ anti-Israel rhetoric without using anti-Jewish language. These two recent incidents seem different from the kind of anti-Jewish sentiment some saw in academe prior to the election.
Some have noted that the Oberlin vandalism occurred the day after the college announced that it had fired Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition whose false, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements on social media surfaced amid larger concerns about anti-Semitism on campus. Yet Kuperman was not a major player in the case against Karega.
Levinson has publicly spoken out against Trump, calling him a "raving narcissist" whom some have described as a "sociopath" in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But the hateful postcard appeared to be sent from the United Kingdom and made no reference to Levinson's Texas affiliation, by which he is most known.
Kuperman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Marvin Krislov, Oberlin’s president, and other administrators announced the off-campus incident to students, faculty and staff via email, calling it a “cowardly, hateful act.”
The message referenced a recent, unrelated discussion by Oberlin’s general faculty concluding that “this is a moment of great stress and consternation, both nationally and locally.” It continued, “We will need each other's continued compassion and support at this time; please take care of yourselves, your families and your loved ones. As our community grieves for the loss of dignity and personal/physical safety that comes with these sorts of vile attacks, these events also can galvanize us in our resolve to fight bigotry and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.”
Krislov’s memo is similar in tone to an open letter to Trump he and more than 100 other college and university presidents recently signed, following a spike in on-campus incidents of bias or hate, including those against Jews. The presidents and other academic groups have called on Trump to condemn such acts. Trump has said he is not ant-Semitic. But concern remains over some of his statements on the campaign trail and the fact that his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, has said the website he led, Breitbart.com, is platform for the “alt-right,” a movement that espouses white nationalist views.
Levinson more explicitly linked his hate mail to Trump’s election, telling the Morning News, “A lot of those people do feel empowered in a way that they haven't felt for years.” When Trump has “attacked political correctness,” he added, “what was really meant by that is racists should now feel free to speak as they wish.”
Reports of ethnic and racial harassment have spiked on college campuses since Election Day. A number of alleged incidents have targeted Muslim and black students, but anti-Semitic expressions have surged, too. Franklin and Marshall College condemned identity-based violence after a swastika inside a Jewish star was found written in a classroom, and swastikas were found on a dorm bulletin board at the State University of New York at Purchase (a similar vandalism occurred at Purchase last year). AMCHA Initiative’s tracker of swastikas and other anti-Jewish expressions lists 19 campus events since Nov. 9, including the two directed at professors, though several incidents involve anti-Trump language and were likely not meant to harass Jewish students specifically.
Regarding attacks on Jewish professors, Hank Reichman, vice president of the American Association of University Professors, said he didn't know if they were increasing, but that it “would hardly be surprising if they were,” given a rash of anti-Semitic comments directed toward journalists this election cycle. (Many of them were sent as tweets, according to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League.)
In any case, Reichman said, the association’s recent resolution condemning what it called the “unprecedented spike in hate crimes” since the elections was written with anti-Semitism, among other troublesome sentiments, in mind. In addition to “religious minorities,” the statements refers to African-Americans, immigrants, women, people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Rona Sheramy, executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies, said she hadn’t received reports from members about incidents targeting Jewish faculty members, including Jewish studies professors, since the election. Yet “we have received several emails and calls of concern about a rise in anti-Semitic incidents on campus,” she said, “as well as a hostile climate for other minority groups.”
Sheramy pointed to a recent statement from Jewish historians denouncing such acts. “Hatred of one minority leads to hatred of all. Passivity and demoralization are luxuries we cannot afford,” that statement says, in part. “We stand ready to wage a struggle to defend the constitutional rights and liberties of all Americans. It is not too soon to begin mobilizing in solidarity.”
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