GW needs a cultural shift against antisemitism

The desecration of a Torah scroll at the TKE fraternity house on campus last week has left campus reeling, and has left Jewish students and organizations wondering when the University will take action to make campus safe and welcoming for them.

This vile act is part of a broader problem of antisemitism at GW that needs to be addressed. A cultural shift against antisemitism needs to happen at GW in a way that is intentional, clear and takes place at every level. The University should make good on its pledge to not tolerate antisemitism and it needs to communicate exactly how it is going to discipline perpetrators and educate the community so that these kinds of incidents are stopped before they happen. From administrators on down to individual students, everybody has a role to play in rooting out antisemitism and making campus safe.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. GW has an alarming history of antisemitism, and this is just one of a string of similar events that have taken place over the last couple of years. Two years ago, a student posted a Snapchat using language that abused Jewish people and Israel. University President Thomas LeBlanc condemned the video in a statement, which did not specify the kind of disciplinary action that the guilty parties would undergo.

The vandalism at TKE is not an isolated incident even this semester. Last Tuesday, another student reported that a mezuzah, a small scroll of parchment placed on a doorpost traditionally inscribed with Torah verses, was stolen from her door and returned to her in a damaged state. On the Instagram page of Jewish on Campus, a student-led nonprofit that works to fight antisemitism on college campuses, GW’s name comes up several times, another concerning phenomenon that highlights the culture of antisemitism at GW.

Jewish student organizations like GW Hillel and GW for Israel have spoken out against the incident as well as against the University’s response. The president of GW for Israel, Ezra Meyer, said there is a “substantive follow up that is lacking” in the University’s response, and that incidents like these have become routine to hear about or experience. Meyer added that students need to be educated on antisemitism, a topic that is missing in current diversity and inclusion training videos. According to a 2020 Jewish on Campus data collection, GW students reported 25 incidences of antisemitism to the group in 2020, the second-highest number of incidents on a campus after New York University’s 30.

Meyer’s comments ring true. Though statements and notes of acknowledgement can be reassuring, the administration needs to ensure that these incidents don’t repeat themselves as they have for the past couple of years. Now that LeBlanc is leaving at the end of this semester, the next University president must work to accomplish this. Not only do administrators need to take care of the issue by disciplining perpetrators of antisemitism on campus, but they need to communicate their intentions to do so. The GW community deserves to know whether those who vandalize and spread hatred have been taken to task as a result of their harmful actions.

It’s clear that GW has an antisemitism problem. And GW has an obligation to work toward solving it.

Combating hate requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from the University as an institution and the GW community. In the immediate term, GW needs to make clear what kinds of disciplinary actions will be given out to students who commit hate crimes and perpetuate antisemitism and bigotry. College students are not children – we’re all adults here, and no amount of ignorance or youthful naivete can explain dumping laundry detergent on a Torah. This kind of behavior should be met with disciplinary action, and students should know exactly what kinds of consequences they will incur if they do similar things. LeBlanc said in an email that the GW community will not tolerate hate – GW needs to prove it.

But not all acts of antisemitism are as discrete and clear as desecrating a religious text. The off-color comments, microaggressions and misconceptions that run rampant in student dialogue that can make Jewish students feel unsafe on their own campus. Casual or even inadvertent invocation of tropes about Jews being rich or powerful are subtle but deeply harmful. The University should combat this via education, be it by requiring students to learn about antisemitism and Jewish culture through courses or modules, or by communicating more specific information through community-wide emails. While you might not be able to educate someone out of pouring laundry detergent on a religious text, you can teach people about avoiding stereotyping language and microaggressions.

Students have a role to play, too. Every single person everywhere has a basic responsibility to be an upstander, not a bystander, when any form of injustice is taking place. In this case, that means interceding when someone says or does something antisemitic. It costs nothing and requires very little effort to smack down a slur or trope that somebody invokes. And it should be self-evident that you should step in if you see someone pouring laundry detergent on a religious text.

Fundamentally, combatting antisemitism at GW is going to require a cultural shift. There needs to be an explicit, intentional effort at every level of the GW community to root out antisemitic words and deeds. The path forward is neither easy nor simple, but it’s necessary. Jewish students deserve to feel safe on their campus.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller, copy editor Jaden DiMauro and assistant copy editor Karina Ochoa Berkley.

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