Disturbing

Berkeley’s Swastika Problem: Are America’s Liberal Colleges Breeding Anti-Semitism?

From neo-Nazi graffiti at Berkeley to the grilling of a Jewish student at UCLA, anti-Semitism is on the rise at liberal schools thought to be bastions of political correctness.

03.19.15 9:25 AM ET

The grilling of student Rachel Beyda over whether she was unqualified to join the UCLA’s student judicial board, merely because she is Jewish, shocked people with its blatant display of anti-Semitism at one of the nation’s most liberal schools.

“Given that you're very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” Fabienne Roth, a member of UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Association Council, asked her. After Beyda left the room, another member of the council opined, “I don't know. For some reason I am not comfortable. I just don't know why. I can definitely see she's qualified. I am just worried about her affiliations.”

The remarks made during her questioning are disturbing, as is the fact that these undergrads appear to be oblivious to how anti-Semitic they sound. (The council passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism last week in response to the uproar over Beyda’s confirmation, after the writing was already on the wall, as it were.)

What’s even more frightening is that Beyda’s case was nothing new, a run-of-the-mill example of the suspicions and hostility directed toward the Jewish community at some of the most socially progressive campuses across the country.

A majority of Jewish college students, 54 percent, reported being subjected to or witness to anti-Semitism on campus during a six-month period, according to a 2014 survey published by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Trinity College. Not only was this survey undertaken before the violent summer conflict in Gaza, which researchers Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar said led to a “worldwide flare-up in anti-Semitism,” but they also noted that the “data suggest there is an under-reporting of anti-Semitism through the normal campus channels.”

Even more disturbingly, students reported that they often felt universities did not take their concerns about anti-Semitism seriously. “The response of many university faculty and administrators to Jewish complaints and outrage often shows that their threshold for the definition of the existence of the crime of anti-Semitism is set ridiculously high,” write Kosmin and Keysar.

At schools where students strive to protect the rights of ethnic and racial minorities, stomp out sexual and gender discrimination, and regularly remind people to “check their privilege,” hate speech against the Jewish community has become a pernicious problem.

“We still find anti-Semitic slogans written on bathrooms. We see swastikas on doors still, but they’re kind of dismissed. They’re painted over because there are just so many things that happened,” says Ori Herschmann, a senior at UC Berkeley who serves in the student government. “A lot of students find swastikas and come to me. [They see it] on dorms, on bathroom stalls, just random places on campus.”

Herschmann said the during the conflict in Gaza this summer, he also came across sidewalk graffiti on campus that exhorted “Death to Israel” and “Kill all the Jews.” (Herschmann shared a photograph of the former remark painted on a sidewalk but did not have one of the latter).

Herschmann says the Jewish undergraduates who come to him are often scared. He believes that part of his responsibility as a student leader is to make the Berkeley campus safer. Herschmann sponsored a bill condemning anti-Semitism on Berkeley’s campus and calling for the creation of a committee to deal with anti-Semitism. “I take this extremely seriously. The more I let the anti-Semitic rhetoric get me down, the less I can do my job,” he says. The Berkeley measure passed on February 25.

After initially telling The Daily Beast that they had not heard any reports of anti-Semitic graffiti this academic year, a rep with UC Berkeley later investigated and confirmed that they had been made aware of reports of swastikas on campus, as well as the “Death to Israel” graffiti.

In the case of the “Death to Israel” graffiti, the rep, Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, maintained the graffiti was technically off-campus, near a popular restaurant called Freehouse. “It looks to me like we can account for that graffiti on the sidewalk, but that was in a public area not on campus,” said Mogulof. “The restaurant was in the city, not on campus. It’s impossible to know if that was someone from the surrounding community, high school kids, or someone affiliated with the campus.”

Hershmann noted that the graffiti was “right across from campus. It's literally across the street…for the university to dodge the question and say it's not part of campus is disgraceful. Students live all over Berkeley. If anti-Semitic events occur all over Berkeley, they [the administration] should make students feel safe.” Freehouse also happens to be only 413 feet from the UC Berkeley Hillel house, according to Google Maps.

What’s more, when The Daily Beast first asked UC Berkeley about reports of swastikas on campus, Mogulof dismissed the concerns, saying, “The last time we had a swastika up had actually more to do with the police … It was posted on the wall in the East Bay in the midst of Ferguson [protests]. That had more to do with the Berkeley Police Department … That was the last time we had a swastika. Those demonstrations were in December.”

Update: After this article was published, Mogulof and Berkeley contacted The Daily Beast to clarify that their comments were in no way dismissive, that they unequivocally condemned the graffiti in question, that the university had an “utter lack of tolerance for this behavior,” and that any student engaged in it would be punished if caught. “I, like everyone here, am, in fact, deeply concerned about these issues and this sort of abhorrent behavior.”

“I’ve seen [it] happen on more than one occasion that a group of students with a very specific political agenda will be on the lookout for any specific rhetoric that they can use to the effect to damage the standing of another student group,” Mogulof added. “The bar is so low—‘You looked at me funny.’  You can make of it what you will, but you have to look at the incident itself.”

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However, after reaching out to police, Mogulof called The Daily Beast back to confirm that there were multiple incidences of swastikas on campus property in the past school year, along with disturbing language that clearly crossed the line into anti-Semitic rhetoric. On October 14, a swastika was found on the exterior of a campus building. “It was promptly removed, nobody claimed credit,” said Mogulof. He said he did not know which building it was and Berkeley police, who confirmed the incident, would not share other details with The Daily Beast. On February 4, a swastika was found graffitied on “university-owned building on University Avenue.” On March 2, graffiti was found in a campus restroom. It read: “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber.”

“This is the one I really find disturbing,” said Mogulof, who noted that Berkeley’s Muslim population has also faced discrimination. (“I assume you’re not interested in those,” he said.) In one instance, a member of the Muslim Student Association reported in September that an older woman had spat upon him. And in February, a threatening call was reportedly made to a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

The Daily Beast spoke with Marc DeColoude of the Berkeley Police Department. He said that in none of the above-mentioned cases, which are considered hate crimes or hate incidences, did the police find out who was behind them. He declined to share other specifics.

The case of the most recent graffiti reported to Berkeley police—“Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber”—shows how protests against Israel’s politics often explode into slurs against the entire Jewish community. Beyda’s interrogation at UCLA, for example, came after months of deliberations by the student council over whether to divest the university of stocks in Israeli companies. A year prior, in April 2014, a petition from the local chapter of SJP—which claims Israel fosters a “system of apartheid” and pushes for boycotts of Israeli products—had alleged that two (non-Jewish) council members shouldn’t be allowed to vote on divestment because they’d recently visited Israel on trips organized by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. The council eventually found no conflict of interest, though the SJP called on 30 candidates for student political office to vow not to take trips to Israel sponsored by the ADL, Hasbara Fellowships, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—and 18 made the pledge.

At UC Davis, a chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), a traditionally Jewish fraternity, had its house defaced with swastikas two days after the student government passed a divestment resolution. “This is not out of the blue. We’re pretty sure this is directly related,” the chapter’s then-president-elect, Joshua Worstman, told a local news station.

A number of AEPi houses on other campuses have also been graffitied with swastikas in the past year. Last Saturday, the AEPi fraternity at Vanderbilt University was found to have two swastikas spray-painted on it: one on its elevator and one on its basement floor. The hate crime is being investigated by campus police.

In July, swastikas were painted on the mailboxes at the AEPi fraternity at the University of Oregon. In October, Emory University’s AEPi was spray-painted with swastikas, hours after the end of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

“It happened just as what was happening in Gaza started. The timing seemed odd. There weren’t a lot of students on campus. I’m making an educated guess, [but] I feel confident there was a correlation,” says Andy Gittelson, the executive director at the University of Oregon’s chapter of Hillel, a Jewish student organization, about the swastika graffiti.

“If you want to debate Israel, debate Israel. We shouldn’t be debating Judaism,” Gittelson says. “There are some cases where it goes beyond the pale. When you have what happened at UC Davis, where the BDS resolution passes and swastikas are painted on a Jewish fraternity, that’s suspect. That’s when it’s hard to tease apart.”

Although not as well publicized, there have been incidences of physical assaults on AEPi members in the past year, as well. A Temple University AEPi member, Daniel Vassel, was punched in the face by someone working at an SJP booth in August of last year. As the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent reported on the incident, “One of the pro-Palestinian students then allegedly punched Vessal, and he and others with the group allegedly started yelling anti-Semitic slurs at Vessal.” SJP denounced the attack and stressed in a statement that “while the student who slapped Vessal is an acquaintance of SJP members, he has not been involved with the group in the past and is not a member.”

Ultimately, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office charged the student, Abdel Aziz Jalil, but did not consider the incident to be a hate crime after further investigation. “It’s clear that the government is prosecuting this, and for that we are appreciative, but it should be called out for what it is, and that is a hate crime,” said Vassel’s lawyer.

Jonathan Pierce, a spokesman for AEPi, noted that the fraternity has seen a “dramatic increase in incidences [against members and chapters] just this year” and that “many of the incidences are connected to anti-Israel activities.” He specifically cited the UC Davis graffiti. “There’s blatant anti-Semitism hiding behind a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric. We saw at the UC Davis chapter. Our young men helped lead a movement against BDS. The next morning, the house was decorated with swastikas. That’s no coincidence.”

In fact, despite that anti-Semitism is generally believed to be a greater problem in Europe than in the U.S., Kosmin and Keysar reported that Jewish students on American college campuses were slightly more likely to report witnessing or experiencing anti-Semitism than Jewish students in the U.K.

To UC Berkeley law student Mark Donig, what is happening on college campuses like UCLA, Berkeley, and UC Davis reflects larger global patterns and attitudes toward the Jewish community. “We saw with the murders that took place in Paris” in the attack on the kosher supermarket. “The murderer was doing that to avenge the death of Palestinians, but they weren’t even Israelis. The fact that they were Jewish was enough.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Dan Mogulof's name. It also stated that UC Berkeley's resolution on anti-Semitism passed last week when it had actually passed on February 25.