Facing anti-Semitism on campus

Jewish students outline a shift in attitude, explicit acts of anti-Semitism upon arriving at Queen’s

Many students said anti-Semitism was not a concern until arriving at Queen's.
Credit: 
Tessa Warburton

This article was updated on Jan.30

“This can’t be real.”

Walking up to his front door in November of his third year, it was the first thing that came to Josh Granovsky’s mind. He looked down at the doorstep and saw a pumpkin with a swastika carved into it.

“His initial reaction was that he must be crazy,” said Jonny Karr, ArtSci ’20, who was Granovsky’s roommate at the time. “He sent me a picture [of the pumpkin] and asked if he was hallucinating things [...] I looked at it and said, ‘no, that is 100% a swastika.’”

Granovsky, ArtSci ’20, and Karr are both Jewish and were the only two residents of their apartment.

The swastika originated as a symbol of well-being used in many ancient Eurasian cultures. It was appropriated in 1920 by Adolf Hitler where it came into modern usage as a symbol of the authoritarian Nazi regime and Aaryan identity. Today, it’s associated with the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II—particularly against Jews during the Holocaust—during which six million Jews were killed. This represented two in every three European Jews.

The swastika is now used as a general symbol of anti-Semitism, which is defined by Merriam Webster as “hostility to, or discrimination against, Jews as a religious, ethnic or racial group.” It is widely seen as a hate symbol that promotes white supremacy and genocide, and displaying a swastika is considered a criminal offence in some legal jurisdictions.

Karr and Granovsky immediately contacted their landlords for help. “They didn’t know what to do,” Karr said. “I don’t 100% know they knew what a swastika was.” However, the landlords sent an email to the residents of the complex and advised Karr and Granovsky to call the police.

After contacting the police, they were told there was nothing law enforcement could do because there were no cameras, witnesses, or suspects in the crime.

A few days later, a Kingston Police Department detective followed up with Karr, telling him the incident would not constitute a hate crime. Even if the perpetrator was found, they would only be charged with trespassing.

“He said a hate crime only counts if it involves a destruction of property,” Karr told The Journal. However, Section 318 of the Criminal Code refers specifically to hate propaganda advocating for genocide, and Section 319(2) makes it an offence to willfully promote hatred against any identifiable group by making statements, other than in private conversation.

When Karr questioned the detective’s reasoning for labelling the incident as trespassing, the officer attempted to provide him with an illustration.

“Think about it this way,” Karr said the detective told him. “If you turn on the TV, and put on The History Channel, and they are showing swastikas there, because that’s history, it’s the same thing.”

This was Karr’s last interaction with the police.

“I thought it was very odd he compared those two things. It was such a bizarre comparison to me […] I don’t think me turning on the TV to the History Channel and seeing a swastika on my television is the same as someone leaving it outside where I live with my Jewish housemate."

This was not Karr’s only experience with anti-Semitism as a Queen’s student.

In his first lecture at Queen’s, his film professor opened the class with a sign of the gate at Auschwitz concentration camp, where 960,000 Jewish people perished from 1940 to 1945.

The professor asked the students to raise their hand if they had ever been to Auschwitz.

Karr was sitting with a group of Jewish high school friends. “We all just kind of looked at each other and we were like, ‘Oh no, are we supposed to say yes? What’s happening here?’”

It turns out the professor was speaking about Auschwitz to discuss that PokemonGO characters had been placed in the camp.

Karr explained the reason he felt this was inappropriate was twofold. First, despite the fact that Auschwitz is open to the general public, it is often visited by Jews on educational trips and is associated with the Jewish community. To Karr, asking in a public space if anyone had visited the camp felt similar to asking students to identify as Jewish. This aroused feelings of fear, discomfort, and othering, especially due to the history of Jews being forced to publicly identify themselves in situations of violence, like in Nazi Germany.

 Second, because Auschwitz was being brought up without context to discuss a video game, it could be seen as making light of the atrocities that took place there. There was no attempt to educate students about the Holocaust before discussing the camp, and the way questions were phrased painted it as a tourist destination rather than a death camp.

“I don’t know why that was where we needed to start. It wasn’t relevant to the course and never came up again,” Karr said. Despite the fact that some of his friends had visited Auschwitz, many did not raise their hands for fear of publicly identifying themselves as Jewish. 

Emily, * whose name has been protected, also experienced discomfort in class due to her Jewish identity.

After expressing feelings related to experiencing anti-Semitism, her classmate denounced her feelings, saying that, in her opinion, they didn’t align with racism and hate. She has also faced instances where classmates questioned aspects of the Holocaust.

“These are conversations that happen in class when we talk about Jewish artists, plays and books,” she said. “People won’t necessarily deny [the Holocaust], but they question what happened […] it’s nothing really massive, but it’s micro-aggressions. A little bit of gaslighting, a little bit of othering.”

From the academic space, instances of anti-Semitism and Jewish discomfort bleed into student life. In a Queen’s production of the musical Cabaret, Emily left feeling “very scared.”

Cabaret takes place in early 1940s Germany, and Emily said that while she knew there would be Nazi presence, she didn’t expect anything about Jewish people directly. However, during a song she described as “very anti-Semitic,” a Jew is dragged off the stage by Nazis. She said the Jewish character mispronounced numerous common Hebrew phrases.

“You don’t have to cast someone Jewish if you can’t find them, but if you’re going to do that, educate them on how they’re supposed to speak. Their intention was not malicious, but it was a blatant disrespect of the [Jewish] culture.”

For the first time at Queen’s, Emily found herself fearful due to her Jewish identity. “I found myself counting the number of Jews in the room,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable sending any Jewish person into the show because I wasn’t comfortable there.”

The show opened the next day on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and despite Emily’s efforts to discuss her concerns with people involved in the show, she found their response lacklustre. “They put up a little Holocaust exhibit on the way out, and that was good, but there needed to be a warning that this dealt with anti-Semitism explicitly. This was a very passive way of dealing with it.”

Behind the scenes, the show's producers also experienced difficulty creating an inclusive setting. According to Melanie Katz, former president of the Queen's Musical Theatre, a cast member made an anti-Semitic comment during rehearsals one day, prompting one of the two Jewish actors to reach out to Katz for support. 

Shortly after, Katz connected with Queen's Hillel, and together decided to create a presentation to teach students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitic stereotypes. Katz said the students involved felt remorseful about the situation and "watned to do more to educate the Queen's student body about anti-Semitism," resulting in the front-of-house exhibit.

"I feel that our club set an excellent example for how to address and educate others about anti-Semitism," Katz said.

Emily also experienced anti-Semitism the following year on an early morning walk around campus.

“The first thing I see was a Jewish star spray-painted on the ground with an X over it,” she said.

This was followed by another piece of graffiti that said, “The Goyim Know,” a hate slogan that references anti-Semitic conspiracy theories depicting Jews as malign figures who manipulate institutions like banks, the media, and the government for their own benefit. These types of theories date back hundreds of years and have inspired violence against Jews; the phrase has recently been associated with alt-right online message boards.

Emily called Campus Security, who told her they would wash it off. She said this response fell short, as she felt worried for her safety as a Jewish student.

According to Emily, Campus Security then asked her to walk around campus to see if there was further vandalism. “I would have thought they’d have staff members to do this,” she said. “To have a third-year student walk around campus and look for hate crimes […] that was f—ed and anti-Semitic. The issue is not so much that it happened, but it was how [Campus Security] dealt with it when I called.”

Hila Schnitzer, PheKin ’22, was also affected by the graffiti. “I didn’t immediately know the saying had anti-Semitic ties,” she said. After a Google search on its origins, however, she said she felt “uncomfortable and targeted.”

She watched throughout the day and saw that no one was paying attention to the graffiti, nor had it been cleaned up. She felt compelled to post on Facebook to emphasize there was no need for this type of hateful messaging on the Queen’s campus.

Her post attracted considerable attention, and multiple groups reached out to her, including Hillel Queen’s and the Chabad Student Centre in Kingston. 

“This was comforting, and a reminder that no matter what happens there are always going to be resources there,” Schnitzer said.

However, as a first-year student, she remained confused about whether there was someone to get in touch with at Queen’s in situations like this. 

Karr felt similarly lost when trying to find institutional options and supports. “[My roommate and I] felt that there was no one we could reach out to who would care,” he said. “We didn’t think anyone would take it as seriously as it was.”

***

Many of the students interviewed expressed surprise at the change in dynamics when they arrived at Queen’s. For most of the students interviewed, their first time facing anti-Semitism was as a university student.

For Karr, growing up in what is commonly known as the ‘Jewish bubble,’ he said he “existed in a space where [he] was always hearing about anti-Semitism, and told it would come up, but it never felt like that imposing of a threat.”

Similarly, Lauren Gnat, ArtSci ’22, said high school was a safe space, which she felt change upon arriving at Queen’s. 

“It was scary to know that anyone could be [at Queen’s] with this hate for me because of my religion. It was so anonymous. It could’ve been someone next to me in lecture, or someone on my floor.”

Like Schnitzer, Gnat faced anti-Semitism early in her time at Queen’s. She was shocked when, two months after she came to Queen’s, students on her residence floor drew a swastika on a pillow and put it on their Snapchat story.

 “Instantly, this was something that offended me,” she said, and she scheduled a meeting with Residence staff.

Her experience with Residence was mixed. “They wanted to hear my input on the punishment, which made me feel supported,” Gnat said. But when she asked for a follow-up later, Residence called the situation a “private matter”. 

“I felt like [the perpetrators] were being protected in that situation,” she said. “With that response, they were brushing the incident under the rug.”

Gnat felt this lukewarm response was typical of Queen’s. “Queen’s is very reactive to [anti-Semitism]. I don’t find them ever actually taking a preventative approach,” she said. “They only focus on anti-Semitism when there’s a problem.”

Karr felt similarly during an incident in Residence where swastikas and white supremacy symbols were drawn on a poster on his floor.

After he and a friend brought it to Residence Life’s attention, an email was sent out to their floor regarding the incident. However, what exactly the incident contained was not directly addressed. “They very vaguely mentioned the incident, and they wouldn’t even name it,” Karr said.

Hunter Soll, ArtSci ’20, said her experiences were also glossed over when brought to the administration. “They basically said ‘here’s a band aid, and get over it,” she said.

For Gnat, part of the problem with a reactionary approach is it misses educating students on anti-Semitism, which she thinks would decrease the number of anti-Semitic incidents.

“These weren’t anti-Semitic people, they were just ignorant,” Gnat said. 

Gnat said ignorance can also lead to smaller aggressions, such as an instance in her second year when an acquaintance identified her as Jewish and made a Holocaust joke.

“I felt so awkward and powerless,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I froze.”

***

 Although anti-Semitism happens everywhere, university settings can be breeding grounds for it, where opinionated discussion about the complicated Israel-Palestine conflict can often arise.

In December 2019, McGill student Jordyn Wright was asked to step down from her position at the university’s Student Society for accepting an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Wright’s fellow board members accused the trip of being a “propaganda mission by the pro-Israel organization,” and called for Wright to either cancel the trip or resign from her position. Wright’s peers assumed her involvement with this program was designed to influence her work and the student government agenda in a pro-Israel fashion upon her return. 

It’s important to mention that anti-Israel sentiments, as opposed to anti-Jewish sentiments, are not always classified as anti-Semitic.

 Zionism is the movement to create and protect the Jewish state of Israel in the Middle East. Anti-Zionism takes many forms, but ultimately disagrees with Israel’s right to exist. Whether this amounts to anti-Semitism is a hotly debated topic. However, criticizing the actions of the state of Israel and its government are not necessarily anti-Zionist, as they do not question Israel’s right to exist, and amount to the same discourse as criticizing the Canadian government.

However, with increased attacks on Jewish people and the Jewish state, anti-Zionism can often act as a stepping stone to anti-Semitism. Many students said they fear the lack of attention to what may appear to be small acts of anti-Semitism, or are anti-Semitism cloaked in anti-Zionism, may grow into tragedies like the Jan.13 vandalization of the Shaar Hashomayim congregation in Westmount, Que.

“Anti-Semitism grows and changes, but then it picks up more speed,” Emily said.

It’s important to recognize that discussions about Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict are not inherently anti-Semitic. However, many people use the term anti-Zionism to describe acts that are actually anti-Semitic—thus, many Jews are wary of anti-Israeli sentiment, as it can be anti-Semitic at its core.

At Queen’s, the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Right (SPHR) group on campus frequently holds events like Israeli Apartheid Week, and webinars addressing ‘Israel as a Racist Endeavour: Unpacking the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).’

Discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are complicated, and the students interviewed expressed diverse opinions on the way this debate takes shape at Queen’s. 

Many students felt events such as Israeli Apartheid Week make them uncomfortable, since these causes can be closely associated with anti-Semitism. 

Schnitzer said that, upon seeing a booth in the ARC showing images of Israelis killing Palestinian children, “a voice inside me wanted to go to the booth and say my views, but I didn’t have the courage to say anything.”

 Emily feels differently.

“Israeli Apartheid Week is people expressing their opinions,” Emily said. “I wish there was more discourse between Hillel and [SPHR]. They have the power to open up some sort of conversation.”

But conversation only happens when people are willing to talk, and the students interviewed were in agreement that anti-Semitism is often left out of activism.

“Advocating for anti-Semitism is not on anyone’s radar,” Emily said.

Schnitzer agreed: “All causes and all advocacy is valid, and it all deserves voice and attention. But I find that when something anti-Semitic happens around the world, it’s only my Jewish friends sharing it.”

According to Soll, activism must include anti-Semitism as one of many causes. “If you’re going to stand up for the marginalized and racialized and discriminated against, anti-Semitism is a big part of that.”

Aside from social media posts, Jewish students also feel they carry the burden of advocating for the Jewish community at the time and place of an incident. “If something anti-Semitic happened in class and there was no Jew around, I don’t think anyone would say anything,” Emily said.

***

One thing that was clear is the students interviewed felt that what Queen’s lacked in support, friends of all kinds made up for.

“I’ve been really fortunate that my non-Jewish friends have been very supportive of me throughout my experiences,” Soll said.

When sharing her experience at Chabad’s interfaith Shabbat event, Soll said she was happy to see different communities at Queen’s share their cultures and experiences with each other. “A lot of non-Jews wanted to learn,” she said.

A sentiment shared by every student was the evident strength of the community of Jewish students at Queen’s.

“There’s a very small but tight Jewish community at Queen’s,” Karr said. He expressed a continuous comfort in discussing anti-Semitic experiences at Queen’s with his Jewish friends.

Gnat felt a similar comfort. “There’s a mutual understanding of wanting to help each other [within the Jewish community] that extends beyond just who you know,” she said. “Older students will support younger ones.” She highlighted Soll, who she said helped her during her experience with anti-Semitism in Residence.

Shnitzer had similar takeaways from her experience with the anti-Semitic graffiti. Despite the fact that facing prejudice in one’s backyard can be traumatic, the way Jews and Jewish organizations responded to her Facebook post reassured her within her Jewish identity.

“The way people reached out to me was a testament to how strong our community is.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.