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Antisemitic incident at Stony Brook carnival draws reactions from students, administrators

A poster hung by the Seawolves for Israel (SFI) was ripped on West Campus. Incidents of antisemitism have been popping up on campus, including at this year’s Wolfieland carnival. PHOTO COURTESY OF ISABELLA MILGAM 

Antisemitic symbols and phrases were written in a public area during Stony Brook University’s “Wolfieland” carnival on Sept. 10. Student leaders say it is the latest in a series of antisemitic incidents on campus throughout the past year and a half.

An unknown student drew an “SS” lightning bolt symbol on a beach ball as soon as the carnival began. The same student later returned and wrote the German word “oberstgruppenführer.” Both symbols are references to the Schutzstaffel, a military group in Nazi Germany. The lightning bolts are a common symbol used by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The College Republicans club intended to use the beach ball as a “free speech ball,” an activity that president Sara Adcock said the group often uses to promote free speech on campus.

The club did not remove the imagery from the ball, but other students crossed it out during the carnival.

“We told people when they came up that they could put whatever they want,” Adcock said. “I didn’t want to go up and erase it because that was his free speech — and not a very good use of free speech, in my personal opinion — but that was his free speech … Stony Brook College Republicans does not condone or encourage any hate speech that was written on the ball.”

Photos of the ball circulated on the Instagram account “Jewish on Campus” and the Stony Brook Reddit page, where further hateful language was used. One Reddit comment from a user named “SBU_ANTI_SEMITE” read “6 million wasn’t enough,” referencing the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The comment was removed by the forum’s administrator.

Stony Brook administration was first made aware of the episode following the social media posts, according to Chief Diversity Officer Judith Brown Clarke. 

Clarke said that the school looked into the reports and interviewed campus members.

“We definitely tried to find the person that wrote it,” Clarke said. ““It was a collective response … We’re looking at it from a DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] perspective, a legal perspective.”

The College Republicans were in conversation with Samantha Thompson, an associate director in Student Affairs, but were never contacted directly by the administration for further details, according to Adcock. 

The administration also met with Stony Brook Hillel, the largest Jewish cultural organization on campus. Jessica Lemons, executive director of the Hillel, said that the meeting included Clarke, Vice President for Student Affairs Rick Gatteau and Dean of Students Ric McClendon, and was meant to find actionable solutions.

“We emailed them, and within 24 hours, we had a meeting scheduled,” Lemons said. “The response level was exactly what I think any Hillel would want to see from their administration, in terms of taking it really seriously. Hearing the concerns that students were having, understanding that this is an issue of student safety.”

On Sept. 23, Stony Brook sent an email to its student body addressing the incident.

“As a unified team, we addressed a recent hateful incident that involved an individual who wrote an antisemitic word and symbol in a public place on our campus,” the email said. “We are united in supporting our Jewish students and condemning antisemitism and acts of hate meant to sow discord in our community … [We will] implement a robust plan that will address … welcoming freedom of expression, encouraging civil discourse, and taking a firm stand against intolerance and insensitivity.”

Jewish students’ reactions to the email and to the administration’s overall response ranged from joy to outrage. 

Roy Harel, the former president of Seawolves for Israel (SFI), expressed anger at the fact that this was the first time the administration used the word “antisemitism” in an email to the student body despite past incidents.

“When we’re discriminated against, it almost seems like it’s somewhat addressed, half addressed; never fully called out completely,” Harel said. “There was always a dialogue of ‘oh, it’s very bad, but we need to be respectful on both sides’ [during the rise in antisemitism over the past two years].”

Isabella Milgam, the current president of SFI and an Undergraduate Student Government (USG) senator, said the email was worded effectively.

“I actually thought it was a great email,” Milgam said. “I know that there’s some people who didn’t really like it in the community, but I think what the email did amazing was that it specifically called out antisemitism. It didn’t just lump antisemitism in with other forms of discrimination.”

The incident comes during a time of rising antisemitism on American campuses. The most recent ADL antisemitism survey reported an all-time high of 244 incidents at colleges during the 2020-2021 school year. It also noted that 43 percent of Jewish college students witnessed or experienced antisemitic activity in the last year. The ADL is a nonprofit founded in 1913 to combat hatred and bigotry.

“Students need to understand when they see something that doesn’t feel quite right … it’s not just this isn’t a nice joke,” Rabbi Ron Fish, an advocacy and education director at the ADL, said in a phone call with The Statesman. “[Antisemitism] is actually very dangerous and very troubling and is rooted in exclusion of Jews over millennia, and we need to do something about it.”

There was a 167% increase in violent anti-Jewish crimes between 2020 and 2021 in the country as a whole.

“One isolated incident can very much feel like a very big indicator of what’s to come, because it’s a national trend,” Lemons said. “And I think that often makes it feel like there’s something more nefarious brewing beneath the surface.”

Students discuss antisemitism on campus

The Statesman’s investigation into the incident revealed further occurrences of antisemitism beyond the carnival. Multiple students expressed a disconnect between the administration’s view of antisemitism and what students actually experience from peers and faculty.

None of the students interviewed by The Statesman identified antisemitism as an overwhelming trend on campus. However, multiple students said they had experienced antisemitism and expressed a desire for school administration to take further concrete steps to combat it.

When asked what the school’s definition of antisemitism is, Clarke said the administration defers to the Hillel and student leaders in order to ensure students’ concerns are addressed.

“I look at it any way that someone feels they’ve been offended or there’s an attack on their identity,” Clarke said.

However, students say their interactions with some Stony Brook students and faculty do not align with that. When asked if Clarke’s definition reflects her experience, Milgam gave a short answer: “Absolutely not.”

“If that is the definition that Judith Clarke is going by, I think there needs to be a more comprehensive definition,” Milgam said.

In the Spring 2022 semester, Milgam consistently experienced rhetoric she viewed as antisemitic during class discussions in her globalization studies class. One student remarked that “All Israelis are colonizers,” a statement Milgam viewed as an attack on her mother and Holocaust survivors.

“I had panic attacks over this class,” Milgam said. “I felt unsafe … I had so much anxiety when I thought about coming to the class because I’m like, ‘What is someone gonna say today to undermine my identity as a Jewish person?’”

Milgam brought her concerns to the class’s two professors in the beginning of the semester and again after the “colonizer” comment. The professors scheduled a meeting with her but canceled an hour before. Milgam also cc’ed Hillel staff on all her emails, but the professors repeatedly removed them from the conversation and replied only to Milgam.

Milgam requested that the professors not be named.

“The professors don’t say anything. That was the worst part,” Milgam said. “Whenever there was an opportunity to say ‘Hey, there are two sides to this story,’ [they did not].”

Milgam escalated her concerns to two senior staff members in the globalization studies department, who did not take action.

“It really felt like the entire department was gaslighting me, and that opinion was shared by Hillel,” Milgam said. “I repeatedly said in my emails that it was antisemitism, that I feel unsafe, and I feel like I cannot learn in this environment, and all [the senior staff member] said was that professors cannot intervene in political matters … I felt horribly ignored.”

In an unrelated event this August, Milgam found a poster advertising an SFI club meeting torn in two outside Frey Hall. She filed a police report afterwards.

Harel said he has never experienced antisemitism in person on campus. However, he was harassed online by Stony Brook students during the Israel-Hamas confrontation in May 2021, an 11-day escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Harel and other Jewish students posted media coverage of the conflict on their Instagram stories. In response, Harel said he received direct messages from Stony Brook students arguing that Israel was causing genocide and had no right to exist. Harel was also reported on Instagram and locked out of his account.

Fish explained that it is possible for anti-Israel rhetoric to eventually cross the line into direct discrimination.

“It’s protected speech … it’s fine, even when we don’t like it,” Fish said. “What happens though, is when those views about Israel and Israel’s right to exist are weaponized and then targeted directly at Jewish students on campus. What happens then, is that there’s a racial targeting, which requires a university to push back and say ‘Our Jewish students are entitled to their identity.'”

Harel sent emails to multiple Stony Brook administrators, but they were all ignored except for one to Gatteau.

Michael Rahbar, a graduate student studying computational linguistics, had a similar online experience. 

Also in early 2021, Rahbar responded to a Facebook post made by a Stony Brook RA that included what Rahbar called “gross mischaracterizations of Jewish identity,” according to an email Rahbar sent Gatteau at the time. In response, the RA told Rahbar over Facebook that “there is no antisemitism, you just want an excuse to put yourself over people who are actually oppressed.”

“It literally has nothing to do with your ethnicity or religion — it’s how annoying you are about it,” the RA said, according to Rahbar’s email. “You just want things to be antisemitic so you can play the victim card, because you put your identity over the needs of the others, instead of equally.”

School administrators sent an email in May 2021 to the student body following reports from Harel, Rahbar and others. However, Harel said many students viewed the email as “vague.” It was not signed by President Maurie McInnis and did not use the word antisemitism.

“They’ll specifically mention racism … homophobia, Islamophobia, but when the issue is antisemitism, they’ll always just say blanket discrimination,” Harel said. “It’s almost like they’re scared to acknowledge that the problem in this case is this specific form of discrimination. The way that it makes us feel is first of all, the university is not there for us. And the second thing is that it doesn’t see it as a problem.”

The issue is not limited to Stony Brook. This July, a group of Jewish students and faculty met with CUNY administrators because they were afraid to return to campus. In February, two Jewish master’s students at Brooklyn College filed a complaint after allegedly being harassed by faculty and students.

Solutions and administrative response

Interviews revealed that Jewish students and staff have differing ideas on how the university should respond to this issue, but they all involve finding a new way of communicating to non-Jewish community members what antisemitism is and how to address it.

The Wolfieland incident was not the first time Stony Brook administration has made efforts to address antisemitism on campus. Lemons, who arrived at Stony Brook one year ago, said she and the Hillel were already having “proactive conversations” with administrators.

“When we say something is antisemitic … I’ve never heard anyone at the administration saying ‘That’s not antisemitic,’” Lemons said. “They hear us. They listen.”

Stony Brook is also one of 40 universities participating in the Campus Climate Initiative, a Hillel program aimed at training administrators to recognize and combat antisemitism.

However, the fact remains that some students are experiencing antisemitism, making the search for a solution even more pressing. Hillel estimates that 1,200 undergraduates and 500 graduate students at the university are Jewish, making up 7% of the school’s population.

“We’re partnering and collaborating [with USG and student groups] and literally reaching out and saying, how do we address this?” Clarke said. ”With our freshmen and our transfer students, they may not have been in a diverse community before … We have to create opportunities to work with everyone, so that those that may not have been offended understand how it feels, and maybe the history behind it.”

The school has also developed optional antisemitism training for RAs in response to Rahbar’s email to Gatteau. However, Lemons said the training was “barebones.” 

Lemons wants to see Jews represented as a minority group in the university’s existing diversity initatives, rather than having standalone antisemitism programs. 

“Antisemitism is meant to fit in with a broader framework of what the university is doing diversity, equity, inclusion wise,” Lemons said. “So the university — if they’re offering trainings around homophobia, transphobia, anti-blackness, anti-Asian hate, all of those pieces that are horrific, obviously — how does antisemitism fit in with what’s already being done around education and prevention trainings?”

Rahbar and others said that such training needs to emphasize that Jews are an ethnic group in addition to followers of a specific religion.

“What [Jews] are is a community that defines themselves as having a shared heritage, a shared identity and having a shared nation of origin,” Fish said. “Those are the terms that apply not just to Jews, but to all students on campus who deserve protection and who deserve a safe space on universities. That’s not just me saying, that’s not just ADL, that’s the view of the Civil Rights Code of the United States.”

Milgam said her experience with the globalization studies department is what inspired her to become a USG senator. She wants to make antisemitism training mandatory for all professors.

“I think it’s great that Judith Clarke [understands antisemitism], but I don’t think that professors know that definition, and I don’t think they know how to enforce that in class at all,” Milgam said.

Some students believe the remedy is for the university to adopt a clearer definition of antisemitism, as explanations of the word can vary widely.

“People don’t even understand what the term means,” Fish said.

Rahbar started an online petition for Stony Brook to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition, which states that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The petition currently has 70 signatures.

“We’re creating an entire list of what we would like the administration to do in response to the Wolfieland incident,” Milgam said. “I know that we have a lot of people in administration who are very supportive, so I just hope that they turn that support into tangible action.”

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    Isabella MilgamOct 4, 2022 at 11:32 am

    Jeremy, this is an incredible article. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to meet with the Jewish community on campus to listen to your concerns, and then share them with the rest of the campus community. I hope we can partner with the university to make our environment even better this year.

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