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Jewish Journal

From Hate to Hoax in Claremont

by Tom Tugend

April 1, 2004 | 7:00 pm

To many of the 700 Jewish students on the seven Claremont Colleges campuses, it was their first direct encounter with anti-Semitism, and they reacted with rage, fear, confusion and a new sense of solidarity.

The car of visiting psychology professor Kerri Dunn, who was giving a lecture on racism, had been vandalized. The tires had been slashed, windows broken and the spray-painted letters spelled out "Kike Whore," "Nigger Lover," "Bitch" and "Shut Up." A fainter, half-finished swastika completed the tableau.

Reports were also circulating that Dunn, a 39-year-old Caucasian woman, was converting from Catholicism to Judaism.

Reaction was immediate and forceful. The day after the March 9 incident, all classes were dismissed, and students, staff and faculty staged daylong sit-ins, teach-ins, forums and rallies. Speakers emotionally denounced the hate crime on the campus of Claremont McKenna College, one of seven private colleges and universities in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Education professor Jack Schuster and mathematician Henry Krieger, both faculty leaders on the Hillel Council, attended many of the demonstrations and were puzzled by a noticeable omission. While speaker after speaker blasted the racism and sexism of the vandal's graffiti, there was little or no mention of the anti-Semitic slur.

The reason for this omission was surprising. Most of the non-Jewish students, and many of their Jewish classmates, didn't know what "kike" meant and were unaware that it was a derogatory slang word for Jew.

"The day of the incident, I was working in the computer lab, and I told another guy about the 'Kike Whore' slander, and he asked, 'What do you mean by kike?'" said D'ror Chankin-Gould, 20, student president of the Hillel Council.

To raise campus awareness in a rather drastic way, Hillel students posted fliers with the word "kike," followed by an explanation of its offensive meaning.

After a full day of campus protests, Hillel convened a meeting of Jewish students, staff and faculty. It lasted from 10 p.m. to midnight, with rabbis and community leaders from Claremont and Pomona participating.

"For four years, I've been avoiding Hillel, but when my non-Jewish friends didn't get it how I felt about the anti-Semitic message, I felt marginalized," one student said. "For the first time, I felt a difference between them and me."

"In time of crisis, Jews come together," said Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Hillel Council director and a university chaplain.

Long indifferent Jewish students turned up at Hillel and the near-dormant Jewish Student Union has gotten a new lease on life and is planning various activities, Bergson said.

In smaller ways, Jewish students groped for mutual support.

"Just walking along the campus, a Jewish student would walk up to another, just to ask how he was doing," Chankin-Gould said.

From Los Angeles, the regional chapter of the Anti-Defamation League contacted college officials and the Jewish campus community to offer counsel and assistance.

After the intense emotions of the days following the vandalism, students and their professors left for a weeklong spring break. The campuses were largely deserted when another bombshell exploded.

Claremont police announced that according to two eyewitnesses, Dunn had vandalized her own car and perpetrated a hoax on the campus community. The FBI and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office entered the case, and on Monday, a district attorney's spokeswoman said a decision was likely within a week on whether charges would be filed against Dunn.

Dunn has maintained her innocence, and has refused requests for press interviews. Her lawyer criticized the police report as "irresponsible" and charged that it had "irreparably damaged her reputation and emotional health."

At the same time, reports on Dunn's conversion to Judaism became increasingly vague. Newspaper stories changed from "undergoing conversion" to "considering conversion" to "a possibility of conversion."

"No one seems to have any firsthand knowledge about this matter," Schuster said.

Krieger, the mathematics professor, was at a tennis tournament in Indian Wells when he first heard about the alleged hoax.

"I was very shocked," he said. "How can you believe something like that?"

Pamela Gann, Claremont McKenna College president, said in a phone interview Monday that Dunn had been placed on a paid leave of absence, and that college officials were meeting regularly with students to discuss the implications of both hate crimes and the police report.

"In my five years here, I have never before seen a swastika on campus," Gann said.

As the students return after the spring break, most are reserving judgment until the final verdict is in, but others are worried about the impact if Dunn is found responsible.

Warren Katzenstein, 21, student body president of Harvey Mudd College, a sister institution of Claremont McKenna, told a reporter, "I'm just afraid that all that community spirit is going to be lost and become cynicism and anger."

But Chankin-Gould, the Hillel student president, doesn't really care whether the slur came from Dunn or another perpetrator. "It doesn't matter who did it," he said. "It's anti-Semitism and it's unacceptable."  

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