In just nine days, students reported three swastikas on North Campus — two in dorms and one in the fields near a dining hall.
The anti-Semitic signs were found across the freshmen residential area and provoked a mixture of surprise, concern and disgust amongst the Jewish community, freshmen and other Cornellians aware of the incidents.
A Cornell spokesperson confirmed that the University and Cornell Police are reviewing three bias incidents that took place in Clara Dickson Hall, Court-Kay-Bauer Hall and Appel Commons. It is still unclear whether these three incidents are connected or who is behind them.
While several Cornell employees have declined to clarify details about the incidents, interviews with residents of the affected dorms indicate that the University’s response to the incidents has not been consistent. Some residents said they had a floor meeting to discuss the incidents, while others were not even made aware of the swastika signs.
The most recent incident — a swastika etched in the snow on Monday evening — provoked shock and disbelief amongst Cornellians who were passing-by.
“I’ve lived in Ithaca my whole life and I feel like this is not totally Ithaca culture,” said Olivia Gillespie ’22, moments after she recognized the sign.
Three Swastika Signs in Nine Days
More than 150 people attended Cornell Hillel’s vigil held on Oct. 27 to mourn the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. The high turnout of the event seemed to indicate to Cornell Hillel President Sasha Chanko’19 that the campus supported Jewish students.
“We felt that we had a strong amount of campus support when we had the vigil. A lot of people showed up and together we helped process a national tragedy,” Chanko said.
But then, the swastika signs started appearing some time around Nov. 10, when a friend notified Chanko that someone drew a swastika sign on a whiteboard in Court-Kay-Bauer Hall. While Chanko was concerned by the vandalism in the North Campus dorm, he didn’t move to convey that news to the Cornell community at that point.
But on Wednesday, Nov. 14, Chanko got another tip — there was another swastika in Clara Dickson Hall, directly adjacent to CKB. The second incident stirred Hillel to make a Facebook post on Thursday, offering support to students in light of the two incidents.
“We don’t know who did them, we don’t know what exactly the motivation was, but what’s very clear is that the timing indicates that this is a form of anti-Semitism that has found its way to campus,” Chanko told The Sun in a Friday afternoon phone call, before the third incident.
The Hillel president said that while he was notified about the incidents in CKB and Dickson on Nov. 10 and Nov. 14, he did not know when the incidents took place. He further said that while he remained confident that Cornell’s Jewish community is a “strong community,” he is still concerned about the impact the incidents will have on students’ mental health.
“I am sure there’s a lot of fear, consternation, frustration, disappointment, all those negative feelings associated with being targeted in the place you live, the place you are working and the place you are striving to learn about yourself and become a citizen of the world,” Chanko said.
On Monday afternoon — while reporters were interviewing Dickson residents about the second swastika sign — Avi Simon ’22, a Jewish student, emailed The Sun that he saw a large swastika in the snow outside of Mews Hall near the Appel Commons.
Simon said that after getting lunch, he stopped his friend to ask whether the figured etched could indeed be a swastika. Once passers-by agreed that the mark bore a frightening resemblance, Simon immediately filed a bias report with the University and felt “pretty freaked out.”
“I’m obviously surprised in the context of this campus, which is a community of educated people and has a large Jewish community,” Simon said. “But you know it’s not necessarily a totally welcomed Jewish community,” he added, mentioning that the incident was above all “a really grave sign of the times.”
Simon also expressed that the campus cannot view this event as only anti-Semitic, citing that the swastika is also a rallying call of the alt-right. “These are the symbols they use in my experience, and it means a target toward all people of color, towards Jews, toward members of the LGBTQ community.”
Anti-Semitism is nothing new in Cornell: back in 1980, someone shouted anti-Semitic “jokes” outside of Young Israel living unit, the predecessor organ to what is today Cornell Center for Jewish Living, according to The Sun archives. Furthermore, The Sun also reported in Oct. 2017 that someone put up anti-semitic posters on Ezra Cornell’s statue, as well as multiple campus buildings.
Furthermore, Cornell is not the only higher education institution currently struggling with anti-Semitism. On Sunday, Nov. 18, a vandal painted a large red swastika in Duke University to desecrate a memorial for the Pittsburgh shooting, according to a statement.
University Response: Hushed and Inconsistent
The University’s Media Relations team said that Cornell is investigating the three bias reports, but provided little clarifying details about the incidents of vandalism. Details reported in bias reports are confidential, and students and administrators in the residence hall system are required to maintain the privacy of their residents.
Several student residential advisors also declined to provide detailed information about the incidents to The Sun, citing restrictions imposed by their Residential Hall Directors. The RHDs of the two affected dorms referred all Sun inquiries to the University media relations department and Director of Residential Programs Robert King, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
On Friday, Chanko said the University did not reach out to him about the incidents. As a result, Hillel’s Facebook post caused “confusion” and “just didn’t give as much information as probably would be ideal for a student.”
Chanko said late Monday night that the University still has not directly reached out to him about any of the three incidents. Even Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of Cornell Hillel, confirmed to The Sun that he learned about the incident from the student leadership of Hillel — not the University. However, Weiss did say that he is now currently in contact with the University to “support students.”
Chanko showed understanding for the requirements of R.A.s to maintain confidentiality regarding the incidents, but also suggested a relaxation of their rigorous confidentiality provisions — while maintaining the confidentiality of those involved — in cases like this one where events affect a particular group of people.
“It would be interesting if the R.A. rules were relaxed a little to be able to notify the relevant group on campus once something like this happens,” Chanko said. “Right so like … if the swastika shows up they immediately send [information] to Cornell Hillel.”
The responses by the affected residential halls to the swastika signs do not appear to be consistent. While members of Dickson Hall said that their R.A.s have called or will soon call floor meetings in response to the incidents, none of the several CKB residents interviewed by The Sun were aware that someone drew a swastika in their living space.
Deepak Ilango ’22, a resident of the fifth floor of Dickson Hall, confirmed to The Sun that the R.A. sent out an email about the incident and called a floor meeting to address the issue on Thursday. Zain Mehdi’20, one of the residential advisors in Dickson Hall, also said that he hopes to call a mandatory floor meeting soon to broach the subject to his residents “face-to-face.”
Meanwhile, the four CKB residents interviewed on Monday knew nothing about the incidents, even though the vandal or vandals drew the anti-Semitic sign in that resident hall days before in Dickson Hall.
Cornellians React: ‘It’s the State of Being Jewish in America’
Josh Appel ’22 and Duncan Lumia ’22 said that the swastika in the snow was the first sign of inflammatory and outwardly anti-Semitic behavior that they had witnessed on campus.
“I’m utterly disgusted, like with everything that’s been going on in the country recently it’s just awful to see that here. I didn’t think that I’d be seeing this anytime soon,” Appel said.
Lumia added, “I sort of feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone right now, like is this real?”
When The Sun interviewed members of the Cornell Jewish community at 104 West — Cornell’s Kosher dining hall — they had heard of the incidents at the residence halls, but did not know that there was also a swastika inscribed in the snow on Monday evening.
Daniel Maron ’20, who grew up in Woodmere, N.Y. which he called a predominantly Jewish area, said that such incidents are familiar.
“It’s the state of being Jewish in America,” Maron said. “I don’t think anyone here feels fear, I think it’s concern.”
The University issued a statement on the three incidents after this article was originally published. Read our coverage here.