Late on Saturday night this past weekend, the brothers of the Alpha-Pi Chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) at George Washington University found their fraternity house vandalized and a model Torah desecrated, doused with bright-blue detergent and neon-red hot sauce. The incident is now being investigated as a hate crime, as law enforcement seeks the perpetrators.
The attack hit painfully close to me, as a proud graduate of the university’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a current candidate for a master’s degree in public administration at its Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Administration. I also work at American Jewish Committee, where, for the past six years, I have focused on combating anti-Semitism and promoting Jewish life internationally and across the United States.
Over the past several weeks, I was immersed in AJC’s State of Antisemitism in America 2021 report, spending hours disaggregating Census data and preparing hundreds of colleagues to convey the report’s troubling findings. Some 30 percent of Jewish Americans ages 18 to 29 know someone or have personally experienced anti-Semitism on campus in the last five years.
I now can say I am among them.
If I had taken AJC’s survey of Jewish Americans when it was in the field in September, I would have answered “no” to that question. But now I would respond “yes,” and that fact is deeply disturbing to me. It is my very first personal experience with anti-Semitism.
I study anti-Semitism professionally. I can find it on the Internet with ease. But it’s awful to witness it firsthand. I’m not a TKE brother, but I am a proud sister of the DC Alpha Chapter of Pi Beta Phi who knew TKEs while in school. I have passed the TKE house several times per week on campus this semester.
It’s not all bad. The solidarity march organized by Rabbi Yudi Steiner, director of the Rohr Chabad at GW, did wonders to bring me hope and joy on a day when I was personally devastated. But it’s not even the first time this semester that an anti-Semitic incident has made Jewish students on campus feel vulnerable and unsafe.
A freshman penned a heartfelt op-ed in The Hatchet, GW’s campus newspaper, last month describing an incident in which a Jewish student who supports Israel’s right to exist in this world among nations was told they would “go to hell.”
As a student on campus, as an alumna of the university and as someone who works on anti-Semitism policy in her day job, I am comforted by the strong statements of condemnation by GW president Thomas LeBlanc and dean of the school’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Paul Wahlbeck, as well as the statement by the university’s Panhellenic Association condemning the incident.
But strong statements are not enough. At a minimum, GW Panhellenic should engage in educational training opportunities for student leaders and faculty to understand, identify and respond to anti-Semitism.
If campus administrators are serious about taking action to combat anti-Semitism, they should initiate compulsory education about the subject for students, beginning with incoming freshmen. It could be added to existing training addressing unconscious bias or the importance of celebrating diversity. It could be part of the skits shown in the Lisner Auditorium during orientation weekend to address a difficult and complex topic in a light and impactful way.
It was deeply painful to see a Torah scroll desecrated. The procession that Rabbi Steiner led reminded me of when my childhood congregation in South Florida joined with another congregation and moved into a larger building. We had a joyous ceremony walking several Torah scrolls from one building to another. Singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the Nation of Israel lives”) earlier this week with hundreds of peers and classmates at GW was extremely cathartic.
The Jewish community needs more than words right now. We need strong action from our leaders at all levels: university leadership, student organizations, elected officials, and especially, our non-Jewish allies.
Alyssa Weiner is the American Jewish Committee’s associate director for combating anti-Semitism.