Antisemitic graffiti smears an ASU photo exhibit. Was it a hate crime or something else?

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the ASU Downtown Phoenix Campus.

At first, the graffiti reported at Arizona State University’s downtown campus on the morning of Sept. 27 looked very much like a hate crime.

Someone had spraypainted white supremacist and antisemitic symbols on windows and signs promoting a photography exhibit called “Relentless Courage: Ukraine and the World at War.” 

Today, it looks more like that vandalism was actually a protest against one of the photographers whose work was featured in the exhibit and who took the cover shot used to promote it.

That photographer has a history of posting antisemitic and white supremacist messages online.

Clues suggest this was not bigotry, but protest

“Relentless Courage” opened at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Sept. 26 and will run through Dec. 22. It is co-sponsored by the Cronkite school and the McCain Institute.

Some of the graffiti included a swastika and the white supremacist code “1488.”

ASU President Michael Crow appropriately condemned the symbols and the vandalism in a written statement: 

“Let there be no confusion that while ASU vigorously protects freedom of expression for all members of our community, we recognize the difference between that constitutional right and activities orchestrated to provoke, incite or agitate with the intention of creating an environment of intimidation and fear.”

By Sept. 28, ASU Police had identified a suspect after reviewing surveillance footage and card access readers to downtown campus buildings, reported The Republic’s Perry Vandell.

Officers confronted ASU student Denis Zyalik, 27, in a class at the university’s law building in Phoenix and brought him back to a police station for questioning, according to court documents.

Zyalik acknowledged he was behind the vandalism, The Republic reported.

Signs that vandalism targeted controversial photographer

But other messages that were part of the vandalism at ASU suggest this was something different than a hate crime.

Among them was the phrase “Canadian war hero inside” and the name “Dmytro Kozatskyi,” reported the grassroots watchdog organization StopAntisemitism. 

“Canadian war hero inside” was likely a reference to the scandal that had just erupted in Canada’s Parliament after the nation’s representatives invited a 98-year-old World War II veteran to stand and be applauded on Sept. 22.

Soon after the celebration, Canadians learned that the veteran, Yaroslav Hunka, a Polish-born Ukrainian, had served in one of Adolph Hitler’s Waffen SS units.

Parliament had saluted a man who fought for the Nazis.

The revelation deeply embarrassed the Canadian government. Its speaker of the House resigned and the prime minister apologized.

If the ASU vandal was drawing a parallel, it was likely to condemn the platforming of a Nazi sympathizer.

Which brings us to the other spraypainted words at ASU, “Dmytro Kozatskyi” — a variation on the spelling of the name of a Ukrainian soldier and photographer whose work is featured on the cover of the book “Relentless Courage” and on the exhibit’s promotional materials at ASU.

A history of antisemitic postings on social media

In a similar college event back on Nov. 13, 2022, Kozatsky’s photographs were on display at Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) in Spain in a series called “The Light Will Win”.

That day, the pro-Russian Ukrainian journalist Anatoly Shariy posted on social-media site Telegram a number of screenshots of Kozatsky displaying white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate symbols, reported Hyperallergic, an online arts magazine based in Brooklyn. 

The images depicted a swastika tattoo on Kozatsky’s leg, another swastika drawn in ketchup on a homemade pizza, and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the numbers 14/88, Hyperallergenic reported.

Hours later, Polytechnic University of Catalonia shut down the exhibit featuring Kozatsky’s art.

Also, that same day in New York at the premiere of the film “Freedom on Fire” at the School of Visual Arts New York City, audience members protested that Kozatsky was a guest speaker. Those who protested were removed from the theater, reported Hyperallergenic.

Among the protesters was Kayla Popuchet, who posted a video and said she was accused of being a Russian, she told the arts magazine. “Which is funny because I am an Afro-Latin American with zero relation to Russia.” 

“[The show’s organizers] should be ashamed of themselves,” she said. “And it goes to show that Black, Brown, Jewish and other oppressed groups cannot count on these institutions to defend us from white supremacists.”

The fog of war descends on academia 

This is a story shrouded in the fog of war. Off the battlefield, Russia and Ukraine are engaged in a relentless propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the international community. 

In defending his actions, Kozatsky, the Ukrainian photographer, apologized and denied he is antisemitic. In a thread posted on X, he explained that his social-media postings were not hate speech, but rather meant to poke the Russian bear.

He explained he was making fun of the way Russian President Vladimir Putin and his propaganda machine paint the Ukrainians as neo-Nazis.

That sounds hard to believe, but perhaps it is a quark of Ukrainian culture we Americans can’t tap into.

Nonetheless, all of this begs some questions.

Questions for ASU that may help provide (some) clarity

For instance, did the Cronkite School and the McCain Institute know about Kozatsky’s background before they put on the exhibit? Did they vet the production before they brought it to the downtown Phoenix campus?

I’ve got a call into the Cronkite School to ask those questions.

But I’ve thought about this a lot.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and none of this would have been obvious when ASU was contemplating the exhibit. Kozatsky was just one of more than a dozen photographers, writers and editors featured in “Relentless Courage.” 

Would anyone have thought to vet each artist in the exhibit? Not likely. That sounds impractical to me. 

Kozatsky had already won important photographic prizes and was interviewed and praised by Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. 

Further, ASU would have never knowingly promoted antisemitism. ASU President Michael Crow is a good friend of Arizona’s Jewish community and an unabashed supporter of Israel. Years ago, when pressed by anti-Israeli activists to disinvest from the Jewish state, he told them no — not only would he not disinvest, he would be strengthening ASU’s relationship with Israel. 

It looks to me like ASU meant well, but got entangled in the Russia-Ukraine propaganda war.

As has long been said, war has many casualties. The first among them is the truth.

And the truth of this incident may not be sorted out for many years. If ever.

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at

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