By Erin Wade and Avery Novitch
Student leaders responded on Friday, Oct. 24, to the Oct. 22 discovery of anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti in a Union academic building, opting to fight the vandal’s enmity with an anti-hate march. The march took place at 3:30 p.m. in front of the Nott Memorial on the first day of Homecoming Weekend.
Stan Soroka ’16 saw the graffiti after a student reported its existence to the Office of Campus Safety. Soroka described the graffiti: “‘AEPi’ and a Star of David were etched into the (bathroom) stall, and then, in black pen, the ‘A’ of AEPi was used to write, ‘Nazis,’ and the ‘E’ of AEPi was used to write, ‘Rule.’ And then a swastika was drawn over the Star of David. There were also homophobic slurs written about two other fraternities … I think DKE and TDX.”
Union President Stephen C. Ainlay sent an email to the campus community on Friday morning addressing the discovery of the graffiti. He stated, “Sadly, we have been reminded that acts of prejudice and hate can take place within our own close-knit community. When such things happen, we must stand together and speak out. Simply put, anti-Semitism and other forms of harassment cannot and will not be part of the Union identity or define who we are as a community.”
The anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti comes after a slew of other occurrences of anti-Semitic vandalism abroad and on American college campuses. In the months of September and October alone, anti-Semitic graffiti was found on both the Emory and Yale University campuses on two different occasions each, according to the Yale Daily News and The Emory Wheel. Anti-Semitic graffiti was also found on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as reported by the Jerusalem Post.
In response to the vandalism, Stan Soroka stated, “It (was) a blatant hate crime, and it’s just very sad to see, especially with everything going on on other campuses. People see that there’s a strong response to (anti-Semitic vandalism), so I’m just confused as to why it keeps happening. I never thought it was going to be an issue on Union’s campus — the last thing I thought I was going to find on this campus was a swastika, and all of my nightmares became a reality all too quickly.”
According to Soroka, the idea for an anti-hate rally was originally conceived as a response to speaker Josh Ruebner, who came to campus on Tuesday, Oct. 21.
Professor Andrew Feffer of the History Department described as Ruebner as “critical of current Israeli policy,” but Soroka believed he was “very, very close to … just speaking about hate.”
Professors Valerie Barr, Tom Lobe and Andrew Feffer and Gail Golderman of Schaffer Library sent an email to the campus community on Friday, Oct. 24, expressing that “the talk on Tuesday evening was not (motivated by anti-Semitism)” and that “Criticism of the state of Israel or its policies is not by definition ‘hate speech.’”
The anti-hate walk came to fruition, regardless of its origins, when Soroka heard of the anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti on Union’s campus, and his focus and the focuses of other student leaders involved in planning the march immediately shifted from speaking out against Josh Ruebner to “generally speaking out against hate,” according to Soroka.
On Friday afternoon, members of the campus community gathered at the Nott Memorial, where President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity Kyle Birnbaum ’15 commenced the walk with remarks about hate on the Union campus.
In his speech, Birnbaum explained, “The very name, Union, urges everyone to come together, united. We do not judge people by their creed. We do not judge people by their color. We do not judge people by their orientation. A person’s character is what defines him.”
While most people involved in the event commented on the presence of anti-Semitism on the Union campus, Birnbaum’s speech focused more broadly on the issue of hate and the need for tolerance.
He stated, “We will walk around the building that unites us all to do our small part to make sure that everyone feels welcomed on this amazing campus and, even more importantly, in their own skin.”
A variety of people from the Union community attended the anti-hate event, including members of faculty, staff and the student body.
The event generated an incredibly diverse crowd. Several Greek organizations, the African Student Union and the Board of Chabad attended the anti-hate walk in support of tolerance on Union’s campus.
This turnout was a testament to the incredible diversity present throughout the Union community.
Union’s Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Viki Brooks spoke on behalf of President Ainlay, who was not in attendance.
Brooks remarked after the walk, “Union has never stood behind intolerance; they have always supported diversity in every aspect of its form. One of the ways in which we stand out from other institutions is that we include religious observance under aspects of diversity. I think that it’s a wonderful showing that the students are here and giving a positive way of saying ‘keep talk positive.’ It’s a good response to some of the agitation in the country as well as on campus.”
Union’s Chief Diversity Officer and Coordinator of Title IX Gretchel Hathaway stated, “First of all, I am impressed with Kyle (Birnbaum) and the statement that he made today … and the fact that the students are taking leadership in these anti-Semitism, hate acts on campus and the graffiti that was found. It is wonderful to see the campus community come together on an issue like this. (Birnbaum) is an amazing student leader (with) a wonderful group of students. (…) Just to see the turnout of the campus community is really awesome.”
Adam Becker ’15, one of the student leaders involved in organizing the event, remarked, “Union was one of the first nondenominational colleges in the country and I think, for us here at Union, we really stand for inclusion of everyone no matter what their background is, so the graffiti and slurs that were found this week are really a detriment to what this college stands for. So this event is to preach tolerance, no matter who you are, what your background is, your religious beliefs, using it as anti-hate and inclusion for everyone.”
After listening to remarks from student and college leaders, Union community members were invited to sign their names on banners to pledge tolerance and then walk together around the Nott Memorial.
Following the Erase-the-Hate Walk, Robert Sherman ’16 described what the purpose of the rally and challenged students not to commit hateful acts.
He said, “Not only was this event (organized) to condemn the behavior of students who performed hateful acts within the past few weeks, but it was also to encourage accepting behavior among the rest of the student body. I believe that Union students should exhibit a minimum of acceptable behavior, and that was the true meaning of this event for me.”
Seth Cohen ’16, contrastingly, took issue with the concept of an anti-hate walk.
He stated, “The speech and the rally are successful and accomplish something, but I think that a walk, when we break it down, is really more about people feeling better about themselves, and that tends to take the place of real action. Rather than calling out anti-Semitism when they see it or practicing what they preach, people like to make a single showing and let that ameliorate the guilt, and I think that’s terrible.”