After rise in anti-Semitism, UMN officials look to foster dialogue, healing

The University is hoping increased campus panels and workshops will help address concerns over bias.

Rabbi Yitzi Steiner poses for a portrait on campus on Friday, March 21, 2017.

Carter Jones

Rabbi Yitzi Steiner poses for a portrait on campus on Friday, March 21, 2017. "Be proud of who you are and respect who you are. That's how you take care of Jewish students," Steiner said.

Mike Hendrickson

Outside Dylan Singer’s door hangs a small, Hebrew-inscribed scroll.

After a spate of anti-Semitic incidents raddled the University of Minnesota Jewish community, Singer thought about the consequences of leaving the parchment scroll, called a mezuzah, on his door.

“It was difficult to be outwardly Jewish,” Singer said, a University senior and Minnesota Hillel’s — the school’s campus Jewish organization — president. “I considered the ramifications [the mezuzah] had when it was up. That wasn’t something I ever thought I would be doing.”

In a string of anti-Semitic incidents on the University’s campus that swelled in November and slowed in mid-February, drawings of swastikas were found in bathrooms and treaded in the snow on a football field. One student found a drawing of a concentration camp in his Pioneer Hall dorm room, and near McNamara Alumni Center, white-supremacist posters with swastikas were hung from telephone poles.

Now, through panel discussions and workshops the University is working to address increased reports of bias-related incidents.

The University’s Bias Response and Referral Network reported seven cases of swastikas, neo-Nazi propaganda and other anti-Semitic graffiti on campus from early December to Feb. 8, and said the incidents were part of a larger, national trend.

Rabbi Yitzi Steiner, co-director at Chabad at University of Minnesota, said his organization gave support to concerned Jewish students and encouraged them to be proud of their heritage.

Steiner, who has been at the University since 2010, said the anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the short period this year were the most he has seen on campus.

While the incidents were happening, Steiner also reached out to the 18-year-old University student who was arrested for allegedly vandalizing a desk in the 17th Avenue Residence Hall with a swastika.

Steiner said understanding why someone would feel compelled to draw the symbol is crucial. He said the 18-year-old student didn’t fully understand what the swastika meant to people of Jewish heritage.

“My outlook is, ‘let’s bring those students together,’” Steiner said. “Let’s build a bridge and do something positive where positive things can come from it.”

When the anti-Semitic incidents slowed, assistant Vice Provost for Student Advocacy and Support Laura Knudson and other University officials met with Singer and other student and community leaders to listen to their concerns.

Singer said the meetings came later than he would’ve liked, as he had experienced anti-Semitism on campus well before a Feb. 19 statement by President Eric Kaler, Provost Karen Hanson and Vice President of Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert condemned the hate acts.

But Singer said the meeting in late February was beneficial, and is waiting to see what the next response will be by the University if other anti-Semitic incidents occur.

On campus, officials working to address bias

As part of an increased effort to discuss bias-related incidents, University of Minnesota police, local FBI and other University officials who deal with hate speech and discrimination held a panel last week.

The panel aimed to inform the campus community what happens when incidents of bias do happen, and which University organizations — like the Bias Response and Referral Network — handle the situation.

“This is what we do now and this is what we need to continue doing,” said Karen Miksch, a CEHD associate professor and panelist. “This needs to be part of our culture. [There] needs to be ongoing places and spaces where we have dialogue and ongoing conversations.”

The panel included a representative from the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, Knudson, Miksch and a BRNN representative.

“This probably isn’t the last discussion we’re going to have,” said UMPD Chief Matt Clark. “There may be future incidents … what’s important is opening it up to folks that are in the campus community and having these discussions.”

In addition to Friday’s panel, the University’s Campus Climate Engagement Team will put on a workshop to help deal with incidents that cause them personal harm on April 12.

“Universities really try to make this a priority,” Knudson said. “We’ve had more events … we want this to be what the University is known for and stands for.”

Still, Steiner and Singer said there is more the University can do to make Jewish students feel safer on campus, whether including Hanukkah colors during the Holidays or featuring kosher food in dining halls.

Katrice Albert, who helped author the University’s statement condemning the anti-Semitic acts, said students will be the ones leading campus discussion in coming months.

“We work very closely with [the Office for Student Affairs] so that students are in the driver’s seat for these sort of initiatives,” Albert said.

Albert said the University has been in contact with Minnesota Hillel to gauge what Jewish students need and what resources the University can provide.

As of now, the panel and discussions are the main responses by the University to the rise in anti-Semitic and other bias-related incidents.

“Of course we’re going to advocate for more resources but that’s difficult sometimes given budget constraints so we try to do what we can,” Knudson said. “We have been moving the University forward in addressing this.”