Swastika at Brandeis Frat Is Latest Incident to Rattle Boston Jewish Community

The incident – uncharacteristic at this predominantly Jewish university – joins a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the Boston area and on campuses.

Chen Arad
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 banner with a crossed out swastika flaping in the wind in front of Berlin's synagogue at Oranienburger Street, November 9, 2000.
banner with a crossed out swastika flaping in the wind in front of Berlin's synagogue at Oranienburger Street, November 9, 2000.Credit: Reuters
Chen Arad

Students and officials at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts reported that a swastika was drawn on a house in the campus’ vicinity between late Friday and early Saturday, where the local chapter of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) was hosting a party.

Brandeis University was founded in 1948 at a time when Ivy League universities used quotas to limit acceptance of Jews, making it an important symbol for the American Jewish community. Close to half of its students are Jewish.

In an e-mail to the student body on Saturday afternoon, Lisa M. Lynch, interim president of the university, wrote that “crude graffiti involving a swastika [was] outlined in condensation on a window at a house where several Brandeis students live off-campus, and where an unofficial event hosted by a Jewish group was being held.”

On the day it opened, Brandeis had 107 students and 13 faculty members.Credit: Brandeis University website

Lynch condemned the actions and clarified that the incident was reported to the local police. She added that “such heinous acts violate every value for which Brandeis stands,” stressing Brandeis’ “Jewish heritage.”

AEPi Brandeis chapter president, Gabe Goldstein, confirmed the incident but declined to comment. Jon Pierce, a spokesman and former national president of AEPi, said the organization was working with the university and local police, but declined to provide additional details.

The general response by students at Brandeis was shock and dismay. Misha Villenchuk, a senior who heads a Brandeis-based advocacy group battling anti-Semitism in Europe, said the incident made him feel extremely uncomfortable and linked it to “a torrent of global incidents that too often manifest in violence.”

Brandeis’ J Street U chapter released a statement on its Facebook page, expressing shock and calling the community to “stand together against hatred.” Jonas Singer, president of the AIPAC affiliated students club at Brandeis called for the community to “work towards building a more tolerant campus for all our students.”

Brandeis students on campus.Credit: Robyn Spector

The incident at Brandeis comes on the heels of a series of high profile anti-Semitic incidents in recent months in the Boston metropolitan area, home to around 200,000 Jews and Israelis.

Three weeks ago, during a high school basketball match in the heavily Jewish Boston suburb of Newton, fans of the all-boys Catholic Memorial High School, responding to taunts from fans of Newton North High School, which has a large Jewish population, chanted “you killed Jesus, you killed Jesus.”

“I found it chilling,” Newton North’s Superintendent David Fleishman told the Boston Globe. The incident raised bitter memories for the Jewish community, which has historically faced some anti-Semitism in this largely Irish-Catholic city.

According to the report in the Globe, Catholic Memorial’s president released a statement apologizing for the incident and stating that the school is “deeply disturbed by the behavior of a group of student spectators who made an unacceptable chant.”

Local Catholic and Jewish leadership, as well as Newton mayor Setti Warren condemned the chant and, together with both schools’ administrations, called for a discussion of the issue. However, as the Globe reports, in the week following the basketball game, three incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, were reported at Newton North High School.

Additionally, in early November, a swastika was drawn on a classroom table at Harvard Law School several days after a controversial lecture by a former senior legal counsel of the Israeli military. In an e-mail to the entire student body on November 10th, the law school dean Marcia Sells wrote that “a desk surface in the WCC was defaced with a symbol of hatred.”

Jewish students at the law school found the administration's response insufficient. In an email to Haaretz, one student took issue with the fact that the email placed “emphasis on the school property being defaced, without making any mention of a swastika or anti-Semitism.”

A July 2015 report by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, based at Brandeis University, indicates a rise in anti-Semitism on campus. According to the study, which surveyed thousands of Jewish students, three quarters of respondents reported “having been exposed at one time during the past year to at least one of six anti-Semitic statements, including the claims that Jews have too much power and that Israelis behave ‘like Nazis’ toward the Palestinians.”

A third of respondents reported being verbally harassed because of their Jewish background, and 20 percent said they were blamed for the actions of Israel because they were Jewish. The center also tried to gauge the connection between the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and anti-Semitic sentiments, but did not reach conclusive results.

Pierce told Haaretz that many of AEPi’s 190 chapters worldwide have suffered from “an increase in anti-Semitic activity on college campuses.” Though he could not provide a precise number, he said dozens of incidents, some including physical violence, have been recorded recently, prompting the organization to employ a global security expert “to do what they can to protect our members.”

Pierce pointed to the University of California’s Board of Regents decision last month to adopt a “Principles Against Intolerance” as a successful attempt to battle anti-Semitism on campuses.

The decision bans intolerant behavior from the state’s university system, which serves close to 250,000 students, and associates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and racism. It was prompted by a series of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents, including swastikas found on Jewish fraternities and the attempted exclusion of a candidate for a student government position on account of her Jewish faith.

“We are in a period where the targeting of different communities, including Jews, has become very commonplace,” Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, said in a phone conversation. “If you consider the regular analogies being made in the current election campaign to the Holocaust and Hitler, that brings up the swastika – a universal symbol of hate. It is becoming part of the discussion in the media and the community.”

Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, echoed this sentiment. “The increasing number of hate crimes - not just those targeting the Jewish community - is, I believe, being fueled by the rise in discriminatory and hateful rhetoric that is driving our political discourse over this election period," he said. "Much of this discourse is driven by a manipulation of our fears that is leading to the blaming and targeting of 'the other.'"

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