Speakers condemn swastikas found on campus at Friday’s solidarity gathering

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

By Fitzgerald Pucci

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Around 80 people attended a solidarity gathering held in response to recent anti-Semitic vandalism reported at the University of Massachusetts. The gathering was held outside of the Fine Arts Center Friday at 4:30 p.m. and was hosted by the Student Government Association.

Speakers at the event spoke of their commitment to eradicating both implicit and overt racism at UMass, noting that allies who are not the targets of discrimination have an obligation to become active in advocacy.

“If you do not embrace our commitment to the wellbeing and success of our community, you are not welcome here,” UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said.

Subbaswamy’s speech mentioned that members of the UMass community have a responsibility to not engage in hate speech, encouraging attempts to eradicate “implicit and structural racism” as a community.

Stacy Tchouanguem, a policy advocacy coordinator of Student Bridges called for a more active community of advocates, saying that there needed to be more action than the single meeting.

“Just standing here today is not the last step,” Tchouanguem said.  “We still have a lot to do.”

Tchounanguem said it is necessary for UMass students to educate themselves on racial issues, adding that hateful activities such as the drawing of swastikas on University grounds are “always happening.”

She added that awareness of these issues needed to be more prevalent, saying there were students in class at the time of the gathering who were completely unaware of what was going on.

“It shouldn’t just be five black or brown students or five Jewish students organizing this, but everyone,” Tchounanguem said.

One of the speakers, Rabbi Aaron Fine of the Hillel House, described having “physical” reactions to seeing swastikas in public.

Fine said seeing swastikas conjured memories of his synagogue in Indiana being partially burned down by white supremacists and of visiting the site of a death camp in Lithuania.

“They are an expression of someone in our community associating themselves with hatred and evil,” Fine said of the swastikas recently reported.

Another speaker, professor Daniel Gordon of the UMass history department, spoke extensively about the symbolic nature and history of the swastika, referring to it as “a symbol of one’s intent to commit crimes against humanity.”

“The person wielding a swastika says, ‘If I could get away with it…I would kill,’” Gordon said.

Gordon compared the symbolic connotations of the swastika to the Star of David and the Islamic hijab, saying that the latter two symbols invited discussion and dialogue. Conversely, he said the swastika forcefully denied Jews their ability to live comfortably and participate with other cultures as Jews in a non-Jewish society.

“It’s a negation of the possibility that they can do that and be part of our larger community,” said Gordon, calling the swastika a “denial of diversity.”

Jeremy Tibbetts, a junior majoring in public health who helped organize the event, noted that the UMass campus had seen an increase in the number of reported incidents of hate speech.

Tibbets also said members of the UMass Jewish community needed to show ally ship with other underrepresented or minority groups on campus, as well as actively observing the University’s decisions.

“We also need to be looking at where our University is investing our money and pushing our values,” Tibbets said at the end of the gathering.

Tibbets, who also spoke at the beginning of the event, thanked the audience for showing their support by attending the solidarity gathering.

“This event brings a lot of light to me and a lot of other people,” Tibbets said.

After the speeches ended, members of the audience were invited to light candles to mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. People in attendance then walked from the FAC to the Hillel House for a prayer service open to all faiths, followed by a dinner.

There have been three reported sightings of swastikas in the past few weeks. The first was reported on Feb. 2 in the bathroom of the Integrated Learning Center’s fourth floor. This week, another swastika was found drawn in snow on a car at UMass and an additional one was discovered in a bathroom in Hasbrouck Laboratory.

Fitzgerald Pucci can be reached at [email protected] Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.