By Erasmus Baxter
During winter quarter, a note with anti-Semitic threats was found attached to a headless doll in Ridgeway Beta. In the same period, swastikas were drawn on two students’ doors in the Fairhaven Complex.
One student, who identified as Jewish and was living in a Fairhaven residence hall told their resident adviser they felt threatened. The students said several swastikas, as well as a racial slur, was drawn on their door in the first weeks of the quarter. Details of the incidents were collected from Western’s Equal Opportunity Office reports and recently obtained through a public records request.
Sue Guenter-Schlesinger is the head of the Equal Opportunity Office and sits on the task force created by President Shepard to respond to the incidents.
“It is unusual in my office that we would get four consecutive situations so close together,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “[The task force] was meant to respond to this rash of investigations.”
Before these incidents, the Equal Opportunity Office had not investigated any anti-Semitic acts in the time that Guenter-Schlesinger had been there, over a decade. That does not mean that instances of anti-Semitism haven’t occurred before, Guenter-Schlesinger said.
“We know that most people don’t report when they feel discriminated against,” Guenter-Schlesinger said.
Perry Blankinship is the president of Hillel of WWU, one of the two Jewish clubs on campus. Blankinship worked with one of the students in Fairhaven to address the incident. Many students see anti-Semitism as a joke and don’t understand the swastika’s significance, Blankinship said.
“It’s definitely a legitimate threat, and once anybody says or uses it with any sincerity, it’s scary,” Blankinship said. “It’s the same concept [as threats of lynching]. It’s reminiscent of a time when there was a great power trying to kill all the Jews.”
The first incident of anti-Semitism came to the university's attention on January 31, 2016, after a Jewish student (Student A) living in Fairhaven Complex reported to their resident adviser that a swastika had been drawn on a whiteboard attached to their door.
Student A saw someone drawing swastikas and racial slurs on their whiteboard and confronted them. The perpetrator stopped and apologized, so Student A said they hadn’t reported the earlier incidents to their resident adviser, according to the Equal Opportunity Office Reports.
In response, the Fairhaven residence director sent out an email to the Fairhaven community and, at Student A’s request, a meeting was held in Student A’s residence hall on February 11 to discuss the incident. At the meeting, some students said Student A was being overly sensitive. Another stated the swastika was “a peace symbol in some cultures,” Student A told the Equal Opportunity Office.
In a later conversation with the Equal Opportunity Office, Student A indicated they felt their resident adviser wasn’t equipped to handle the discussion.
Three days after the meeting in Student A’s residence hall, another Fairhaven resident (Student B) told the Fairhaven resident director a swastika had been drawn next to their name on a sign-up sheet posted on their door.
The resident director and the assistant dean of students investigated a student who had admitted to drawing the swastika. However, the student claimed they had been joking at the time, and Student B said they didn’t want to affect the community by having someone kicked out of campus housing. As a result, the matter was dropped, according to the Equal Opportunity Office Reports.
On the night of February 2, resident advisers making rounds in Ridgeway Beta found a headless porcelain doll with a note that said “Death to all Jews” attached.
Upon being interviewed by the Ridgeway resident director, one of the residents of a nearby room (Student C) admitted to placing the doll and note on his suitemate’s door. The student’s roommate confirmed seeing Student C place the note on the doll, according to the Equal Opportunity Office’s report.
In an interview with the Equal Opportunity Office, Student C said the note had been written by a high school friend and he “thought this would be a prank.”
All three students involved in the incident were initially required to undertake one and a half hours of an ethics workshop provided by the residence halls and complete a reflective paper. Student C was also placed on disciplinary probation through June 11. The other two students appealed their punishment, and were instead required to complete community service, according to the Equal Opportunity Office Reports.
Student C is no longer enrolled at Western, according to the assistant dean of students.
In addition to the confirmed incidences of anti-Semitism, the Equal Opportunity Office initiated an investigation of the Fairhaven College World Issues Forum after a student in the class filed a complaint with the office on February 23.
In their complaint, the student alleged that Fairhaven College Senior Instructor Shirley Osterhaus was promoting a criticism of Israel that compared Jewish individuals with the State of Israel and refused to provide a pro-Israel viewpoint for the class to consider.
“I make clear distinctions whenever I talk about this issue, between what the Israeli military and government is doing, and Jewish people,” Osterhaus said.
The student alleged that a guest speaker made anti-Semitic remarks during his presentation to the class. The speaker, a former Black Panther, gave a presentation called “The Stark Similarities between the Black and Palestinian Struggle for Human Rights,” according to the Equal Opportunity Office reports.
To investigate these accusations the Equal Opportunity Office interviewed Osterhaus and reviewed videos of all pro-Palestinian speakers to the class within the last five years.
After reviewing the evidence provided, the Equal Opportunity Office concluded “the speakers did not place blame nor make discriminatory remarks against Jewish people,” and students may expect to be exposed to expressions they find personally offensive as part of the experience of higher education.
Osterhaus said she was confident she would be cleared if the system worked justly, but was concerned about the impact on academic freedom.
“It’s disturbing to be brought with those allegations,” Osterhaus said. “It creates an environment on campus that doesn't let faculty be as free, and talk truth to powers that are oppressive.”
The three incidents of confirmed anti-Semitism have prompted administration to create a task force aimed at addressing anti-Semitism at Western. President Bruce Shepard announced the creation of the task force in an email to campus on April 12.
In the email, Shepard informed the campus that administration has redoubled their efforts to address campus climate issues, and that they have made some progress.
“That progress is a critically important and shared responsibility,” Shepard said in the email. “Progress also requires that we be open and candid about challenges as they are encountered.”
Western has released few details about the incidents and no information about the task force can be found on Western’s website, other than a link to a Seattle Times article stating the task force was created.
The 14-member task force is composed of faculty, staff and three students, including the Associated Students vice president for Student Life, Guenter-Schlesinger said, who sits on the task force herself.
The task force’s goals are to review the impact of anti-Semitism and the best practices to prevent and respond to concerns of anti-Semitism, Director of Communications Paul Cocke said in an email.
To accomplish its goals, the task force has established three subcommittees. One will study the impacts of anti-Semitism, another will study the best practices for addressing anti-Semitism and the third will gather input from campus and community groups, Guenter-Schlesinger said.
“This is an issue that really deserves some attention in terms of research and understanding and definition,” Guenter-Schlesinger said.
The task force is planning to hold at least one town hall or community forum in fall 2016.
The task force has met three times since its formation, the first time on April 21. They will continue to meet during the summer without the student members and hope to present their findings and recommendations to administration during fall quarter 2016 at the earliest.
After the task force completes its report, it will work with the President’s Task Force on Equity, Inclusion and Diversity to implement its recommendations.
The Equal Opportunity Office will conduct trainings for resident advisers and directors on dealing with anti-Semitism and other issues, this quarter and in the fall, Guenter-Schlesinger said.
Before the Equal Opportunity Office investigations were completed, Shepard met with Rabbi Joshua Samuels of Congregation Beth Israel, one of Bellingham’s oldest Jewish congregations, to discuss the incidents.
Samuels emphasized the importance of taking disciplinary action against those involved, comparing the instance to the threats against Associated Students President Belina Seare in the fall.
“The only difference is that the victims of the anti-Semitic attacks weren’t necessarily out and going to the authorities saying, ‘Look, you gotta do something,’” Samuels said. “They were much quieter about it. It’s easier for a Jewish student to kind of blend back into the community because you can’t necessarily tell who’s Jewish and who’s not.”
Incidents In Bellingham
On May 8, 2016, hikers on Clayton Beach, part of Larrabee State Park, found a graffiti message calling for “OUR REVOLUTION,” accompanied by a swastika, a Nazi symbol and another symbol depicting the letters “NWF.”
Hilary Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, identified the graffiti as anti-Semitic. The “NWF” graffiti could be a reference to the Northwest Front, a fringe white supremacist group led by a long-time, pacific northwest neo-Nazi Harold Covington, Bernstein said in an email.
“Covington has for many years been on the outs with most of the white supremacist movement, who view him as a traitor, so he tends to rely on new recruits/young people (many of whom later abandon him when they realize what the movement thinks about him),” Bernstein said in an email. “It is mostly through the Internet. This graffiti seems like the juvenile sort of thing some youngish adherent of Mr. Covington might try to do.”
In the 1920s and 1930s Bellingham had one of the largest and most active Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state, according to the University of Washington. In 1929, at the state Ku Klux Klan convention in Bellingham, Mayor John Kellogg presented a Klan official with a key to the city.
In consultations with the local offices of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, Samuels was told the small white supremacist group in the area had largely moved out, and were no longer a threat to the Jewish community, he said.
In 2010, Congregation Beth Israel, as well as 57 other synagogues in Washington, upgraded their security systems as part of a coalition of Jewish organizations. The coalition formed in response to the 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
Most instances of anti-Semitism come as a result of casual ignorance, or jokes, Blankinship said.
Samuels saw this attitude when he asked a class of high schoolers he teaches about their experiences with anti-Semitism.
“Some of them, their friends, had said what I would consider anti-Semitic comments, like ‘Jew me down,’” Samuels said. “It’s like they don’t necessarily know what it means, or the origins of it, or why it's even offensive.”
Samuels said he believes the solution starts with education. Blankinship said Shepard agrees.
“[Shepard] was so surprised that these well-educated, nice college students are being anti-Semitic,” Blankinship said. “He was like, ‘They’re not doing it on purpose. They’re not mean, racist kids.’ But he really thought we needed to take some steps to educate the school about hate speech.”