Recent anti-semitic events, ranging from the national scale down to the local level on campus, have caused many members of NC State’s Jewish community to reflect on their experiences as minorities on campus and how that has evolved over time.
On May 6, a swastika as well as other anti-semitic images were found spray painted on the Free Expression Tunnel at NC State. While the university condemned the images, calling them “hateful expressions,” they appear on campus when anti-semitic incidents in the U.S. are at near-historic levels, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“The Free Expression Tunnel is a place on our campus where we allow for such expression, even if we are not in support of it,” said Sheri Schwab, interim vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, in a news release. “However, these specific acts take on additional weight because they occurred on the heels of several other acts of hatred and violence against the Jewish community, such as the murders at Tree of Life Synagogue and the Chabad of Poway Synagogue.”
Sarah Cohn, director of Hillel at NC State, said people should recognize the long-term impact actions such as this can have on a student’s experience on campus.
“Just because [anti-semetic imagery] has been painted over doesn’t mean the impact of that experience ends,” Cohn said. “Any time Jewish students are made to feel... targeted, the impact is further reaching. That is an experience that they are carrying with them of being different in the world. And just as we’re mindful of how those things impact other communities, this is something Jewish students are carrying that their non-Jewish friends and community might not understand. The impact goes beyond ‘someone spray painted something.’ It could undermine someone’s sense of safety or community longer term.”
Cohn said she believes that on the whole, NC State is a great place to be a Jewish student because of the support received from the university and Student Government, as well as the level of engagement from undergraduate students. However, she said that they are mindful of rising levels of anti-semitism nationwide and the acts and threats of violence towards the community on university campuses.
“The ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, reports that anti-semitism is at near-historical levels in 2018, according to data from the FBI,” Cohn said. “CNN ran a report this week that said that there was a spike in anti-semitic surges the most of the year following the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And we know from other universities in the area that they are also seeing anti-semitic content. Duke has experienced it, UNC-Chapel Hill has experienced it right here in the Triangle, and there have been things painted such as the swastika in other free expression tunnels in the state.”
Cohn said these acts of violence can have effects on students mental health and safety on campus.
“I don’t think what we are seeing at State is different than what other Jewish students are experiencing,” Cohn said. “And yet we know that it is emotionally difficult, that it has ripple effects on how people feel comfortable and part of the community and with their lives, and that it impacts how students feel on campus.”
Eli Newman, a second-year studying computer science, was upset with the incident at the Free Expression Tunnel, especially because of its immediacy.
“First I was pretty upset because you never want to see that in your own school, in your home,” Newman said. “I know there was a video, and I watched that. I guess it made me more disappointed than anything else. It really just seemed like the kid, he didn’t really care about anything more than making people upset, and that’s something that is really sad to see, someone that’s coming at a level where they only gain enjoyment from taking these really strong symbols of hatred and bigotry and throwing them out there.”
Newman said that some people do not understand what anti-semitism looks like on a daily basis, and that is where some people do not recognize the impact it can have on students.
“People should know that it’s something that is definitely more in the shadows; it’s not like people are directly going up to Jewish people and being like, ‘Yo, you suck’ or anything like that,” Newman said. “It’s very subtle. There’s a lot of things on the Free Expression Tunnel that people write on there, and others will see it on there, and they usually just want to cause mayhem or make people upset, and I feel like that’s a lot of it. I feel like that’s due to the extra anti-semitic shootings that have been happening recently.”
Anna James, a third-year transfer student, said that the first time she had considered her safety in places such as Hillel on campus was after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. James said that she felt frustrated and angry that she had to consider where she, as a Jewish student, would be safe on campus.
James said that moreover, the hate crimes that have been targeting several religious minorities around the world have had a significant effect on the daily lives of students.
“What’s was frustrating on campus was not feeling like people who aren’t a religious minority understood how frustrating it was or scared people were after every terror attack,” James said. “I think it’s really easy for people to take for granted just feeling safe going places and safe practicing their religion outright, and I think that’s one of those things that if you haven’t gone through it, you don’t really understand, and it’s hard to explain to people.”
James said that the university has done a good job of following up with resources and support for students after significant events; however at times, the timeliness of university responses can be frustrating, she said.
“I think it’s a tricky line administration has to walk between condemning hate speech and not wanting to get the backlash of free speech, but I think there are certain times that I wish they would do more to be more vocal about if something is written in the Free Expression Tunnel or just anything that happens,” James said. “I wish they could be more proactive,”
Cohn said that in her time as director of Hillel, she has seen a significant increase in the support from the administration and is in contact with university administrators to discuss how the event can be further addressed to the campus community. In addition, there will be new programs in the upcoming year to normalize Jewish life on campus.
“While we take this event very seriously, and while we look at nationwide trends and what’s happening in our area very seriously, it’s a great time to be Jewish at State because of that vibrant Hillel community,” Cohn said.