Duke decries swastika on campus as ‘a craven and cowardly act of vandalism’

The image appeared overnight Sunday but has since been covered.
The image appeared overnight Sunday but has since been covered. Olivia Levine

A swastika appeared overnight Sunday on the Duke University campus, spray painted in red over students’ tribute to the victims of the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

The Nazi symbol was found on a free expression bridge tunnel near Duke’s East Campus, where students often paint messages. It partially covered a Star of David that students had painted as a remembrance of the 11 people who died at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last month.

Duke officials condemned the graffiti, and said the incident is under investigation.

That such a craven and cowardly act of vandalism – a desecration of a memorial to individuals who were killed because they were Jewish and practicing their faith – should happen anywhere is extremely distressing,” Duke President Vincent Price said in a statement that was shared with the campus community. “That it should occur in such a visible, public location at Duke should be a matter of grave concern to us all.”

Price pledged to increase security and convene a meeting of leaders from Duke, Durham city officials and the local Jewish community to consider actions “to confront the scourge of anti-Semitism through education and activism.”

He said cameras would be installed near the bridge, which has become a magnet for those spreading messages of hate. The university had already increased security at Duke’s Freeman Center for Jewish Life after the Pittsburgh shooting.

Three students who had been involved in the tribute mural gathered at the bridge Monday to see it for themselves. The swastika had been covered by white paint by then.

Olivia Levine, who identified herself as a Duke student, posted a photo of the swastika graffiti on Facebook. “It feels like there is no safe space from anti-Semitism,” she wrote, and and asked fellow students to demand more action by the university’s administration.

It was not the first incident of anti-Semitism at Duke this month. A pumpkin with a swastika was found on campus, as well as fliers that said, “it’s okay to be white,” according to an earlier story in The News & Observer.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations at Duke, said the university has beefed up security on campus this year, especially at the Freeman Center. The campus is 9,000 acres and has 1,300 surveillance cameras, he said, adding that cameras can’t capture everything that happens at Duke.

He said there is no way of knowing whether a student or someone else is responsible.

“What we all woke up to this morning was a disgusting and cowardly act of vandalism that was designed to intimidate, and that we believe and hope will have the opposite effect,” Schoenfeld told reporters. “This is unfortunate, it is depressing, it is dismaying, and we can only hope that actions like this, which take place with depressing frequency in our country, will serve to create an opportunity for conversation, an opportunity for compassion and an opportunity for understanding that these kinds of actions are just awful and demeaning and intimidating. We will not stand for it.”

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League issued a report that anti-Semitic incidents had nearly doubled on U.S. college campuses from 108 in 2016 to 204 in 2017.

“It’s not something that Duke alone is going to solve. Others have indicated this is a national epidemic,” Schoenfeld said, adding, “The people who perpetrate these kinds of acts know that if they do something on a college campus, it’s going to provoke a big reaction.”

Rabbi Nossen Fellig, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at Duke, issued a statement saying the repeated anti-Semitic incidents are meant to make Jewish students feel unwelcome, “and we hope, and expect, that the response will be resolute and robust.”

Fellig said programming will be expanded for Jewish students. A Menorah lighting will be held at Duke’s Bryan Center Plaza on Dec. 3 at 6 p.m., “as a sign of Jewish pride, solidarity, and as a statement of defiance in the face of hatred and bigotry,” he said.

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