Jewish Journal

The More Things Change

Is Georgetown at the tip of the iceberg?

by Paula Amann

Posted on Jan. 6, 2000 at 7:00 pm

Steve Glickman, Jewish Student Association (JSA) president at Georgetown University, is battling "muffled intolerance on campus." He gives a small but chilling example.

"Yesterday, when we were passing out blue ribbons... against intolerance and for diversity, two students approached and said specifically they don't support Jews here," he said, his voice thick with fatigue. "The sentiment exists among a larger number of students than it's currently being given credit for... This shouldn't be glossed over by students or the administration."

The hatred hasn't stopped at talk.

In twin acts of vandalism apparently driven by bigotry, a seven-foot silver Chanukah menorah set up by the JSA was first damaged and then broken.

The incidents drew a striking display of student solidarity. In a break with the past, they also evoked strong, public condemnation from the administration.

At about 3:15 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11, a dozen students were keeping vigil by the seven-foot silver menorah set up by the JSA in Red Square on the main campus. A young man approached, shoved the menorah to the ground and yelled an anti-Semitic slur.

When the vandal took off running, the vigil-keepers followed in pursuit. Two students tackled him and held him down until campus and district police arrived shortly afterward.

Media reports have identified the suspect as business school sophomore Michael Byrne of Garden City, N.Y. He was taken into custody first by the campus police, then the Metropolitan Police Department. Charged with destruction of property and released, Byrne was taken back to campus, put on a plane home and, in the words of Georgetown spokesperson Dan Wackerman, "suspended until further notice."

Prejudice had reared its venomous head on Dec. 4 when vandals toppled the menorah in Red Square. The structure's central pole was twisted, the nine light bulbs broken. A similar attack had occurred last year.

Then, early on Dec. 7, another chanukiah at the university's law center near Union Station was also knocked to the ground. A police and FBI investigation has concluded this incident was due to high winds.

The two attacks on the Red Square menorah are still under investigation.

"Part of the environment that allowed it to happen... [was because] the university was careful not to give last year's vandalism of the menorah too much exposure," said Glickman. "Only a handful of individuals on campus know what happened."

Not so this year. An 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. vigil at the Red Square menorah began the night of Tuesday, Dec. 7. The vigil, which ran through Saturday night, showed the strength of the bonds forged between Jews and other religious and ethnic groups on campus.

Scores of other students joined JSA members throughout the week. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic student organization, stood vigil the first night. Students from the Protestant Leadership Team took their place the following evening. Black Student Alliance (BSA) members kept vigil all through the last day of Chanukah. Other organizations furnishing volunteers included the Muslim Student Association, College Republicans, College Democrats and the Catholic Daughters of America.

"Here at Georgetown, we're a diverse community," said BSA President Erica Cannon. "If something happens to one group or person, we all need to be there in support."

Glickman singled out African-American students on campus for special praise.

"The black students on campus have been extremely supportive and want to see some things change," he said.

The menorah desecrations are not the only hate-inspired incidents troubling these student leaders. During the past few years, resident assistants have testified in campus meetings on diversity about swastikas in the stairwells of freshman dormitories, Glickman reports.

Early Sunday morning, in Kopley Hall, a Red Square dormitory, two swastikas were placed on flyers announcing a Friday vigil and Shabbat service at the menorah.

This time, the administration's response was swift. A mandatory meeting for students in the dorm was held 9:30 p.m. that Sunday.

More dramatically, Georgetown President Father Leo J. O'Donovan attended a Saturday evening Havdalah service hosted by the JSA. He underscored his condemnation of the vandalism.

The college president listened to Jewish student concerns and helped dispel earlier skepticism about the administration's seriousness in tackling anti-Semitism.

"After meeting with Father O'Donovan, I and other Jewish students have faith that [the administration] is committed to working with us to make whatever changes are necessary to create a more tolerant and accepting community," said Glickman afterwards. "This incident affected him almost as much as it affected the Jews."

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