Jewish students react to hate on Mizzou campus

Francis Quadrangle and Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. Photo: Yassie via Wikimedia Commons.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

On Tuesday mornings, the Hillel at University of Missouri-Columbia provides students, Jewish and non-Jewish, with free bagels. In late October, Jewish students at the giveaway dressed in dark clothing and took a group picture to show solidarity with black students who have been upset over the school administration’s lack of response to racism on campus. 

Conversely, a black student, Jonathan Butler, started a hunger strike last week after a swastika made from feces was drawn in the bathroom of a student dorm. He said he would not eat until the president of the University of Missouri system, Timothy Wolfe, resigned.

“There’s definitely a strong minority connection between the black and Jewish students here,” said Paul Kodner, a sophomore from St. Louis who is president of the school’s Chabad chapter.

Wolfe and the MU chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, both resigned Monday after the hunger strike, along with student and faculty protests and an announcement from 30 Missouri football players saying they would not play if Wolfe remained in office.

The protests started because students felt that Wolfe did not provide sufficient response after racist incidents that included young people in a pickup truck shouting slurs at the Missouri Student Association president, who is black, while he was walking around campus, and a white student disrupting a Legion of Black Collegians’ rehearsal for homecoming. He had used a racial slur when he was asked to leave. 

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The swastika was not the only anti-Semitic incident recently. In April, a Mizzou freshman drew a swastika and other hate speech in the stairwell of a dormitory. The student pleaded guilty in October to a reduced charge of second-degree property damage and told the Mizzou police that he was inspired by YouTube videos and “acted in the spur of the moment,” according to the Columbia Tribune

In June, the school also cancelled a proposed class, “Perspectives on Zionism,” taught by a professor of biological sciences, George Smith, because of a lack of enrollment. But when the class was announced, Jewish groups started a campaign urging the school to cancel the class because they said Smith had an anti-Israel bias and sought to have the Jewish State destroyed. 

Despite the recent anti-Semitic incidents coinciding with the racism against black students, there is not widespread agreement about whether the school is any less safe for Jewish students than other universities. Whatever their concern level is, many Jewish students are describing themselves as part of a larger coalition of minority groups that are trying to build understanding on campus.

The recent incidents have “strengthened relations among the minority student leaders,” said Thalia Sass, president of the Jewish Student Organization, who is from St. Louis.

For Jewish students, the swastikas grab the most attention and are the scariest acts, according to students and staff who lead Jewish organizations.

“When things like that happen, it’s terrifying for Jewish students who feel threatened and alienated on this campus,” said Sass, a senior majoring in biology and religious studies.

But Sass, 21, said such attacks are rare. She described the majority of the anti-Semitism she and other Jewish students face as “microaggressions,” subtle phrases that associate Jews with being cheap.

Still, she said, “Jewish students on this campus are really concerned with the rising anti-Semitism on this campus but we’re not being silent about it.”

A coalition of Jewish and pro-Israel groups ranging from the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi to the right-leaning Zionist Organization of America sent Loftin several letters last week criticizing him for not issuing a statement condemning the swastika drawn in the bathroom. They also complained about some academic department’s “sponsorship and implicit ideological endorsement of virulently anti-Israel events,” such as a panel discussion featuring Smith and other speakers who the letter described as “anti-Zionist.”

Jewish students at MU have not faced the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel or the same level of anti-Israel activity as some of the state universities in California, said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and southern Illinois. And anti-Semitic incidents over the last 15 years at MU have been “minimal, and when they have happened, I think there have been allies who have stepped up to help the Jewish community,” she added.

Aroesty also cautioned that a swastika on its own is not necessarily anti-Semitism. 

“That’s something the ADL has been saying for the last five years. There are certainly African-American students who feel that the swastika was targeting them,” she said. “But until the Mizzou police determine the suspects, you don’t know what it is.” 

The letters to Loftin compared his lack of response to the swastika to the public statement and YouTube video he issued after a racist incident against black students.

“We urge you to treat blatant acts of anti-Jewish bigotry, such as a swastika smeared in feces on a dormitory wall, no less promptly, vigorously and comprehensively,” one of the letters states.

Loftin responded, stating that “the university did not immediately react to this latest incident in order to give law enforcement time to investigate and possibly identify the perpetrator(s).”

Despite the recent solidarity among black and Jewish student groups, Aroesty cautioned against linking the racism against black students with anti-Semitism. 

“Where I think we have to be very careful as a community is in creating some sort of common parallel between our anxieties as Jews and those of African-American students and what they are feeling right now,” she said.

Jewish students and staff say there is a vibrant Jewish life on campus featuring Hillel, Chabad and AEPI, despite the small number of students. And in the last five years, students have started new chapters of the Jewish sorority Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi and Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau.

Notably, the Jewish Student Union and the Mizzou Hillel did not sign the letter to Loftin.

“We just felt like in this particular instance, we had already been talking to the administration and they were already well aware of how we felt, so it wasn’t necessary to have our voice heard by them in the letter,” said Jeanne Snodgrass, the director of the Mizzou Hillel

Snodgrass said that a majority of students “say they are not feeling a pervasive atmosphere of anti-Semitism, but some of them have a slight feeling of unease.”

Most of the anti-Semitic comments, she and students said, come from ignorance or lack of knowledge, not because they specifically hate Jews. Snodgrass said she hopes that the recent protests and resignations will lead to better education and understanding of minority student groups, including Jews. 

In addition to the bagels, the Hillel is always open to non-Jewish students and holds a social justice seder each year. Rabbi Jonah Zinn of Congregation Shaare Emeth also held a discussion with students on Monday about how the imperative for social justice is part of Judaism.

Snodgrass said students understand or are working to understand “the concerns from the students who were protesting and want to support the idea of change that results in more diversity and more open communication and dialogue.”

Speaking after Wolfe and the chancellor resigned, Kodner, who was one of the founders of the ZBT chapter, said he didn’t think the resignations would have a significant impact.

 “I don’t see how just having two people step down necessarily changes things,” Kodner said. “It might lead to change, but what we need more is education on these the racial issues.”