Bates College responds to antisemitic graffiti on campus amid Israel-Gaza war

Bates College president Garry Jenkins said Friday afternoon that “antisemitic and hateful graffiti” was discovered inside a residence hall on the Lewiston, Maine, campus on Thursday, five days after Hamas militants launched a brutal surprise attack on Israeli citizens.

Jenkins said in an email to students, faculty, and staff that the graffiti, which is being investigated by the campus’s safety department, included a swastika drawn in a bathroom stall.

“Let me say now, unequivocally, that this act and symbol of antisemitism is abhorrent and unacceptable,” Jenkins wrote. “I am especially disheartened that this would occur directly on the heels of this weekend’s atrocious attacks on Israel.”

A spokesperson for Jenkins declined an interview request on his behalf.

The antisemitic incident at Bates is the latest sign of growing tensions on college campuses across the country, as student groups clash over polarized political views about the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza. Protests have erupted on campuses nationwide this week, and at least two schools — Harvard University and Columbia University — have temporarily closed their gates.

In Cambridge, only those with university identification will be able to access Harvard Yard after 8 p.m. through Monday “out of an abundance of caution and in response to feedback from students,” a Harvard spokesperson said.

Palestinian students, and some who support Palestine’s quest for freedom, at Harvard have reported receiving threats and hateful messages after publishing a letter Saturday that appeared to blame Israel for the violence. Earlier this week, billboard trucks sponsored by a group called Accuracy in Media drove through Harvard Square emblazoned with the names and photos of students who supported the controversial statement under the title, “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

“I think it’s exceptionally important to expose antisemitism wherever it exists,” said Adam Guillette, president of Accuracy in Media. “And I think it’s important for the Harvard student body to know who among them are hateful antisemites.”

Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee said in an Instagram post Friday that it had decided to postpone a rally in support of civilians stuck in Gaza that was scheduled for Friday evening because of safety concerns. Days earlier, the group said it had been inundated with “racist hate speech and death threats.”

Meredith Weenick, the university’s executive vice president, said in an email to Harvard community members Wednesday night that the “university takes seriously the safety and wellbeing of every member of our community.”

“We do not condone or ignore intimidation,” she said. We do not condone or ignore threats or acts of harassment or violence.”

Separately, more than a half-dozen campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, a national student activism organization, have published statements celebrating Saturday’s attack on Israel carried out by Hamas militants, which included the slaughter of children and the elderly. Jewish and Israeli students have reported feeling unsafe and anxious about the atmosphere on campuses as the war continues.

On Thursday, Israel said an estimated 1,300 people had been killed in the terrorist attack carried out by Hamas. Another approximately 150 people were kidnapped. Israel responded with airstrikes that have leveled neighborhoods in Gaza, so far killing more than 1,900 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

“The appearance of this symbol of hate, especially at this time, is disturbing,” said Jonah Steinberg, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office.

Jenkins, Bates’s president, said in a separate message to the campus community Wednesday that the ongoing war in the Middle East, and related rhetoric and tensions in the US, requires everyone to act with “empathy, compassion, and understanding.”

“This act reflects none of those things,” Jenkins said of the antisemitic graffiti. “Words and actions meant to hurt others based on identity have no place at Bates. I am angered and frustrated by the cowardice exhibited, but the person(s) responsible for this act will not deter or distract us from our important work of building and strengthening our community and of using our talents and skills to contribute to a more just world.”

Jenkins pointed students who are feeling targeted or are in need of support to university resources.

“The war in Israel and Gaza and the rhetoric that surrounds it are not within our sphere of control, but how we treat one another on this campus is,” Jenkins said Friday. “The Bates community is steadfast in rejecting antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, whether in intent or effect. I hope all of you will join me in denouncing this act of vandalism and its attempts to intimidate, silence, or marginalize.”

Hilary Burns can be reached at Follow her @Hilarysburns.

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