By Donald H. Harrison, San Diego Jewish World, a member of the San Diego Online News Association
Photo: Graffiti drawn on a residence hall at San Diego State University, March 2021
March 14, 2021 (San Diego) - Earlier this week, an unidentified resident advisor at South Campus Plaza North, a large dormitory serving hundreds of students at San Diego State University, found scrawled on the exterior of the building three swastikas and coded messages often associated with white supremacist philosophy. She immediately got some poster board to cover the offensive messaging, and drew hearts upon the poster board along with the message “Spread Love.” After campus police were called to the scene and photographs taken of the offending material as part of an ongoing investigation, the antisemitic message was eliminated.
Rabbi Chalom Boudjnah, director of the Chabad House at San Diego State, posted a picture of the graffiti on his Facebook account along with a message in which he was joined by representatives of campus Hillel, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and Interfraternity President and Hillel Board Member Lee Abed. “Acts of hate like this are disgraceful and cowardly,” the message said. “That swastikas vandalized a home of Jewish students is especially reprehensible. This demonstration of hate, bigotry, and intolerance will not be tolerated. We stand in solidarity with our Jewish students and the entire Jewish community and will continue to strive for a more inclusive and positive climate for all SDSU students.”
The campus has not been immune to other expressions of antisemitism. There was a previous incident this year of a swastike drawn in a parking lot. Tammy Gillies, executive director of the San Diego region of the Anti Defamation League, the parking lot swastika may have been perpetrated by someone not associated with whoever was behind this more recent graffiti which bore the initials SWP, meaning Supreme White Power. Gillies said in the last few months there have been several other instances around San Diego County with similarities to the most recent graffiti at San Diego State. “We’re working with University Police and San Diego Police to try to connect the dots,” she said.
In February of 2020, SDSU President Adela de la Torre criticized antisemitic comments by members of Uhuru, a group that sought to bring its founder, Omali Yeshitela, to campus. Uhuru members felt thwarted by the opposition from Jewish groups who said Yeshitela had espoused antisemitism in other speeches. Members of Uhuru later expressed themselves at the campus Free Speech area saying that SDSU was “controlled by Zionist masters.” Risa Levitt, director of SDSU’s Jewish Studies program, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the demonstration by eight members of the group included “some pretty horrific anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish tropes.”
In March 2017, a branch of a 13-foot-high menorah that permanently stands in front of the Chabad House was pulled down by a pair of students who used the symbol of Judaism to do pull-ups. The students later apologized to Boudjnah, agreed to pay for the damages, and in return the Chabad rabbi agreed not to press charges.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere on the SDSU campus generally has been quiet. Although students are living in dormitories, most classes are being conducted via Internet, giving the campus a comparatively deserted feel. Abed, who will graduate in December with a major in information systems, started his SDSU career after the Chabad menorah incident. He told San Diego Jewish World that in his time as an SDSU student, he has not personally experienced any campus antisemitism. The son of Israeli parents and an active member of student government and Jewish organizations, Abed said SDSU has even experienced quiet in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which has seen student councils on other campuses call for boycotts of companies that do business with the Jewish state.
A spokesperson at South Campus Plaza North said SDSU rules forbid the resident advisor who discovered the graffiti and covered it over to talk to the media. Like that unnamed person, however, SDSU officials did their best to replace the message of hate with a message of care and concern.
A joint statement was issued by J. Luke Wood, the vice president of student affairs and campus diversity; Jessica Nare, assistant vice president for community and belonging, and Christian J. Holt, the Associated Students president. The statement said: “In response to reports of antisemitic incidents, SDSU affirms its support of Jewish students, faculty, and staff. Speech and use of symbols that are antisemitic or encourage hatred of a particular group are reprehensible and counter to the environment we support at SDSU. Such base acts are full of cowardice and antisemitism and other hate-motivate actions that have no place at or near our home at SDSU, or anywhere. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community as we work to build a more, inclusive environment for all.
“To further educate our community, we will be implementing a series of trainings focused on campus and in the classroom,” the SDSU message continued. “Should any member of the SDSU community need support or want to report a situation, visit Inclusive SDSU
Amplifying, SDSU spokesperson Lainie Fraser messaged San Diego Jewish World: “SDSU does not accept such symbols of hate and condemns any action meant to discriminate or harass anyone based on their social identity or religious affiliation. Hate motivated actions, such as this, and those reported earlier, have no place in our world, and offend us all. We stand in solidarity with members of the Jewish community. The university has since extended direct support to members of our Jewish community, including SDSU Hillel, and is working to develop and launch additional training focused on addressing antisemitism on campus and in the classroom. We urge all members of our community to rely on the many support services our university provides if they need help.”
The Associated Students also issued a follow-up statement: “Given the recent anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish community and the anti-Semitic vandalism on our campus, Associate Students of SDSU condemn these abhorrent actions of hate and stands in solidarity with our Jewish community. These actions are inexcusable and there is no place in our community for any form of anti-Semitism, prejudice or hatred. Diversity is one of our core values here at Associated Students. We are committed to fostering and maintaining a safe and inclusive environment for all students, staff, and faculty. We recognize the importance of facilitating discussions and providing community members with a space to share their unique experiences and will continue to do so moving forward. Such antisemitic actions will not be tolerated by Associated Students and San Diego State University as a whole.”
Rabbi Boudjnah suggested that any programming about antisemitism should start with helping people to become “aware that this kind of hatred exists. I’m afraid people might think it is just a joke. Being French, I grew up with antisemitism, and I know it is very real. After creating awareness, SDSU should identify what antisemitism is.” He added that Chabad’s understanding of antisemitism is that it stems from the perpetrator’s own deep issues of unhappiness with himself or herself. He suggested that the university create programs in which students could find their self-worth through helping other people, whether that be via tutoring, raising money for charity, or engaging in other projects to make the world better.
Meanwhile, he said, Chabad is doing whatever it can to reinforce Jewish pride. It regularly places mezuzot on doorposts in the dormitory rooms of Jewish students who request them, and prepares take-home Shabbat meals for Jewish students. “We want to focus on pride rather than hate,” the rabbi said.
Gillies of the Anti-Defamation League said “we’re trying to work with the university to do more long-term education about antisemitism, with programming to be developed for faculty and administration on one hand, and for students on the other. “We hope to do some solid work for the Fall (Semester), Gillies said.
Abed said he is working on plans to bring a Holocaust survivor to campus for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, according to the Hebrew Calendar. That date coincides this year with Thursday, April 8.
An article by Brendan Tuccinardi and Katelynn Robinson in The Daily Aztec, SDSU’s student newspaper, quoted Hannah Berman-Schneider, a senior who serves on the board of the Associated Students as being “grateful for the quick response” to the graffiti. The newspaper quoted her as saying: “It is imperative that individuals understand that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past, but a current, serious and widespread issue that plagues the lives of millions of people. I stand by my community and will continue to support those affected in any way I can.”