Just a few weeks after swastika graffiti was spray-painted in separate incidents in Havertown and Lakewood, N.J., Swarthmore College is grappling with a similar circumstance.
On Aug. 19, Havertown’s Esther Cohen-Eskin noticed a swastika spray-painted on her trash bin. A few days later, several swastikas (along with other anti-Semitic graffiti) were found spray-painted at a playground in Lakewood, N.J.
Then, on Aug. 30 around 10:30 p.m., a student in Swarthmore’s McCabe Library found two swastikas spray-painted on the wall of a bathroom stall, and alerted the public safety department.
The next morning, Swarthmore’s Bias Response Team, led by Dean of Students Liz Braun, met “to determine next steps,” as Swarthmore’s president Valerie Smith said in a statement.
Smith wrote: “This incident is serious and unacceptable, and the perpetrator(s) will face serious disciplinary consequences.”
She then went on to contextualize the swastika historically, noting that it “has become for Jews a symbol of intimidation, suppression and the threat of extermination.” She also pointed out that the symbol “has been associated with white supremacist and homophobic movements.”
Smith said that the Bias Response Team would follow appropriate protocol for dealing with such an incident, while emphasizing that such imagery — “indeed any imagery or speech that seeks to threaten individuals or communities based on their religion, sexual orientation, race, disability status, gender, nationality, political views or any other characteristic”— has no place on the Swarthmore campus.
“Incidents such as these are an assault on our entire community,” she wrote. “In the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘We are tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’”
Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Philadelphia, said her organization is pleased by the way in which Smith is handling the matter.
“Certainly we commend President Smith and the university for their quick response — both in terms of their investigation of the incident and their outreach to the entire Swarthmore community,” Baron-Baer said. “We appreciated President Smith’s discussion of what the swastika can mean and that the police are investigating to find the source.”
As it happens, the ADL recently arranged, in partnership with Chabad, for a campus training of Swarthmore’s students as part of the organization’s Words to Action program.
“Words to Action is a program that empowers students to address anti-Semitism on campus,” Baron-Baer explained. “It’s interactive and was put together specifically for college- and pre-college-age students. It deals with everything from anti-Israel incidents to hate speech vs. free speech to anti-Semitic vandalism — which is what this is — to Holocaust denial. [The training] was already set up, so that’s a good thing.”
The students certainly won’t lack for things to talk about.
Liz Spikol is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.