Over 25 years ago, when I was a student reporter at the Daily Targum at Rutgers University, I wrote a story on how students and campus officials reacted to a spate of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti that cropped up all over campus in the winter of 1990. The article rests in a dusty portfolio somewhere in my basement.
It’s still all out there. The cowardice too. The kind of cowardice that makes a person go into the dorm suite at the University of Minnesota and draw a swastika and a concentration scene on the white board outside a Jewish student’s bedroom. The student – a 3G Holocaust survivor.
With the current person running the White House, I fear it will only get worse.
Here is my current story in this week’s Detroit Jewish News.
Following last week’s rash of antiSemitic incidents on two Michigan college campuses, including emails rigged to look like they originated from a University of Michigan computer science professor and a Valentine’s Day card delivered at a Central Michigan University event featuring the image of Adolf Hitler, administrators, students and several Jewish organizations are standing up against the hatred.
Campus Hillels continue to offer support to those disturbed by the incidents as well as programs that engage Jewish students and encourage dialogue with the wider student body.
At U-M, the FBI, along with campus police, continue to work to uncover the distributor of the emails. Though their origin is not clear, they read as if they came from Professor Dr. Alex Halderman.
The messages, sent to Computer Science and Engineering students on Feb. 7, read:
“Hi (N-word), I just wanted to say that I plan to kill all of you. White power! The KKK has returned!!!”
An email addressed to Jewish people read:
“I just wanted to say the SS will rise again and kill all your filthy souls. Die in a pit of eternal fire! … Heil Trump!”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the emails were sent from a “spoofed” account attributed to Halderman. Unlike a hacked email where someone gains control of an email account, a spoofed email is a forgery designed to look like it came from out of the country.
“These messages were spoofed,” Halderman wrote in a statement on the U-M website.
“I did not send them, and I don’t know who did. As I teach in my computer security classes, it takes very little technical sophistication to forge the sender’s address in an email.”
In fact, computer science and engineering student Daniel Chandross, 20, of West Bloomfield, who received the spoofed email, said he and fellow students figured out in 15 minutes that the email was a fake.
In a Feb. 8 statement to U-M Hillel students, parents, alumni and donors, Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames said Hillel is working with the FBI and U-M authorities regarding the next steps to take and are being kept informed of any developments in the investigation. “The messages sent to our students were deeply disturbing and upsetting to our Jewish community,” Shames’ statement said. “It is important we come together in this moment to show this kind of hate will not be tolerated. Hate has no place on our campus. We will not be defined by these hateful messages but rather by the way we come together in response to them, showing our support for one another. We stand with all students and faculty impacted by these emails, and will continue to seek ways to offer support and unite as a campus community.”
The leaders of the U-M Central Student Government in a written statement also expressed disturbance at the “overtly racist, anti-Black and antiSemitic” emails and stressed “they have no place on this campus.” “An offense against any member of this university is an offense against all,” the CSG statement read. “Even if you are not a member of a targeted group, it is still your place, today and every day, to stand against injustice and fight discrimination. To our Black and Jewish friends, classmates and peers: You matter, and you belong here.”
On Sunday, the Detroit FBI field office stated, in part: “If, in the course of investigation, information is developed suggesting a federal violation of law, the FBI will coordinate with the United States Attorney’s Office to identify the best course of action toward prosecution.”
At Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, another hate incident took place, this time involving a Valentine’s Day card distributed at a Feb. 9 College Republicans event with a message containing a photo of Adolf Hitler that read:
“My love 4 u burns like 6,000 Jews.”
A statement on CMU Hillel’s Facebook page and website as well as the Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan site said they are “deeply concerned and disappointed students would use anti-Semitic rhetoric and references to the Holocaust in a joking manner. We find these references to trivialize an incredibly dark period in history when more than 6 million Jews perished.”
The College Republicans apologized for the incident, saying they were not aware someone had slipped such a note into one the Valentine’s Day candy bags they were giving out. According to the Associated Press, school leaders Feb. 10 said the woman responsible for distributing the card was not a CMU student and admitted her “misguided action.” CMU said members of the student group “were unaware of the card when distributing the party gift bag containing it.” ADL Detroit Regional Director Heidi Budaj said, “The message conveyed in this Valentine’s Day bag is outrageous and deeply offensive. This anti-Semitic distribution not only affects the campus community, but also trivializes the horror that Holocaust victims and their families have experienced.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon
According to the Associated Press, school leaders Feb. 10 said the woman responsible for distributing the card was not a CMU student and admitted her “misguided action.” CMU said members of the student group “were unaware of the card when distributing the party gift bag containing it.”
ADL Detroit Regional Director Heidi Budaj said, “The message conveyed in this Valentine’s Day bag is outrageous and deeply offensive. This anti-Semitic distribution not only affects the campus community, but also trivializes the horror that Holocaust victims and their families have experienced.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wisenthal Center (SWC) in Los Angeles harshly criticized the CMU incident and said universities do not go far enough in their reactions when such incidents arise on campus.
In an interview, Cooper said he was not satisfied the woman responsible for creating the card at CMU was not named by the university and still wanted to know who within the student organization invited her to the event.
“It is very nice the club apologized, but they still owe the community full disclosure as to how this vile incident happened,” Cooper said. “At the minimum, it is time to begin to name and shame such cowards.”
Cooper said harsher consequences for perpetrators of anti-Semitism and better protections for Jewish students cannot be implemented at colleges and universities because there is no legal definition of antiSemitism. According to Cooper, the SWC is working with other groups to pass legislation in Congress to sharpen discrimination and hate acts aimed at Jews. Late last November, the bipartisan Anti-Semitism Awareness Act was introduced to Congress and, in December, passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate. In response to the rising hate acts against Jewish students, the SWC in 2014 developed a mobile app called “combathateU” to help Jewish students and other supporters of Israel deal with hate, bias, anti-Semitism and extreme anti-Israel harassment on campus. Submissions to the app are answered within 24 hours so the SWC can elicit additional information and suggest possible solutions.
On both campuses, Jewish students reacted to the events with shock and confusion, but also continued to engage Jewish students as well as non-Jewish students in inclusive programming to pave the way to dialogue and understanding.
Chandross, a U-M sophomore, said he was “surprised and confused” when the email landed in his inbox. But he and fellow computer science majors who received the same email learned quickly from the email’s metadata it was a fake.
“We’re all pretty much reacting in the same way,” Chandross said. “Some people are bigots and you just can’t let it phase you. It’s just not a way to move forward.”
U-M junior Mara Cranis, 20, of West Bloomfield, who has a leadership position at U-M Hillel, said that since September, there has been an increase in antiSemitism on campus.
The day after the email, she and other students and professional Hillel leaders were on hand at the Hillel building to serve as a support source for students. The organization also went ahead with its already-scheduled Jewish Engineering Students Associated Shabbat and extended the invitation to the National Society of Black Engineers.
Hillel at CMU President Hadley Platek, 21, of Woodhaven was preparing a Tu b’Shevat “unplugged” Shabbat event when she received a text from a friend containing the photograph of the offensive card. In response, she and other concerned students quickly assembled an anti-hate rally attracting approximately 60 students, where she shared her dismay about the card as well as her experience of visiting Yad Vashem on her recent Birthright trip to Israel.
“Many of my friends were shocked that something like this could happen at our campus,” Platek said. “I know that in stressful times people use humor to cope, but I don’t know how people can think this is funny. There was a clear lack of judgment from the person who created this.”
Platek, a senior, said this was the first time she could recall something of this nature happening at CMU and that, in general, she said there has been a “great coming together” against hatred and racism toward minorities, especially since the Trump administration’s temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. “Our campus [student body] is very good about inclusion, coming together to make things better.” •