Upon opening the door to her office at Columbia University’s Teachers College in Manhattan and seeing two large red swastikas and an anti-Semitic slur scrawled on the wall, Dr. Elizabeth Midlarsky was shocked and horrified, but not altogether surprised. A clinical psychology professor and Holocaust scholar, Midlarsky, an East Brunswick resident, was aware that voicing her support for Jewish issues in class and having served as faculty adviser to a Jewish student group could provoke such a response.
“You can’t be safe when you are stressing world events about Jews,” said Midlarsky, who in the course of her 50-year career has specialized in studying the Shoa, particularly the altruism of Christian rescuers.
She knows the lack of safety better than most, as the Nov. 28 incident was the second time she was a target of anti-Semitic hate. In October 2007, a swastika was painted on her office door and anti-Semitic fliers were left in her office mailbox. That incident came a month after her outspoken opposition to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to campus.
Midlarsky, who has been teaching at Columbia since 1990, is an observant Jew who belongs to the Conservative East Brunswick Jewish Center with her husband, Manus, the Moses and Annuta Back Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University.
With the sharp increase in anti-Semitic activity nationally — the Anti-Defamation League reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017 — and vocal anti-Israel sentiments at the university, last week’s incident felt different, she told NJJN in a phone interview. Her visibility 11 years ago generated death threats toward Midlarsky and her family, both before and after the incident, which hasn’t happened this time around, making the graffiti even more puzzling.
“This time I’m older, have been ill, and am much more low-key,” she said. “I’m still writing, but I’m not giving speeches, so this time it really came as a shock.”
This incident is being investigated by the university’s office of public safety and the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force, and the ADL is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
The professor has been openly critical of the school for its treatment of Columbia’s observant students in the past, noting that they can’t attend many university events because they are usually scheduled on Friday nights or on Saturdays, and kosher food is not provided.
“It makes you feel less a part of the university,” said Midlarsky.
The mezuzah on her office door was affixed after the 2007 incident by Rabbi Yonah Blum, the executive director of the university’s Chabad, a position he shares with his wife Keren, one of Midlarsky’s former students. After the graffiti was found in her office last week, Blum asked Midlarsky to light the campus menorah for the first night of Chanukah on Dec. 2.
“The message of Chanukah is one of the triumph of light over darkness and freedom over intolerance, and we wanted as a community to respond to this hateful act that was an affront to Jews at Columbia and everywhere, as well as non-Jews,” the rabbi told NJJN. “A little light can dispel the darkness.”
Ofir Dayan, the vice president and media spokesperson of the Students Supporting Israel chapter of the Columbia campus, said her complaints about students being bullied on campus and blatantly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic teachings of some professors have gone unheeded.
“I have submitted various complaints to the administration of the university and each and every one of them has been dismissed,” said Dayan, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and the daughter of Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York.
She told NJJN that students have complained that Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand’s book, “The Invention of the Jewish People” (Verso Books), which argues that Jews were descended from various converts and authentic Jewish peoplehood does not exist, is being used in a class by Professor Joseph Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies.
Dayan cited the statements and actions of Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature, who has claimed Israel is an apartheid state “behind every horrible act in the world,” she said. Also at Columbia is Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia, who has been criticized by Jewish groups for his anti-Zionist views and his support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
“When the university allows tenured professors to discuss anti-Semitic material in the classroom and we complain, our complaints are dismissed as freedom of speech,” said Dayan. “We applaud freedom of speech, but not anti-Semitism. We are upset by what happened [to Midlarsky], but not surprised when the university chooses to ignore, time and time again, when students and Jewish professors are singled out for anti-Semitism.
“We would like to think the university would learn a lesson from this horrible incident, but I highly doubt it.”
In a statement provided to NJJN by the university in response to the graffiti in Midlarsky’s office, Teachers College President Thomas Bailey said, “We unequivocally condemn any expression of hatred, which has no place in our society. We are outraged and horrified by this act of aggression and use of this vile anti-Semitic symbol against a valued member of our community.
“Please rest assured that we are working with police to discover the perpetrator of this hateful act. I also want to reaffirm the College’s commitment — and my own — to providing a respectful and welcoming environment for all, and to protecting the safety and dignity of all members of our community.”
A joint statement to undergraduate students from James J. Valentini, dean of Columbia College and vice president for undergraduate education; Lisa Rosen-Metsch, dean of the school of graduate studies, and Mary C. Boyce, dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, called the incident “deplorable,” asserting they are “deeply troubled by the rise of hate speech and crimes against the Jewish community.”
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, executive director of AMCHA, a nonprofit that monitors more than 400 college campuses across the United States for anti-Semitism, said the organization has noticed a recent uptick in anti-Semitism coming from the far right and far left, who she said share a common bond: “hatred of the other.”
“Whether it is rooted in anti-Jewish terms or anti-Israel terms, it is still hatred of the other and it is still anti-Semitism,” she said, adding that anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiments have become almost interchangeable.
Rossman-Benjamin said the swastikas in Midlarsky’s office would indicate the vandals have extreme right-wing neo-Nazi leanings, although she said students are usually the ones who bear the brunt of this hatred through fliers and classic anti-Jewish tropes demonizing Jews.
The situation is particularly bad at Columbia, she said, where the Middle East studies programs, and classes, have become “hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment” whose leaders all support BDS. The “prevailing narrative” in the university’s Middle Eastern departments is “Israel is a colonial apartheid state that should be dismantled.”
“It doesn’t stay in a vacuum and it doesn’t stay in the classroom,” said Rossman-Benjamin. “It motivates students to develop a hatred toward and a propensity of aggression against Jewish students.”