September marks an important time in the Jewish community because of how many Jewish holidays happen during this month. Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkoth, for example. On Sept. 13, the St. Olaf students received an email from President David Anderson ’74, regarding a recent incident of anti-Semitism on campus. The email gave a brief overview of September’s Jewish holidays and mentioned threats of violence on a St. Louis Park, Minn., synagogue. The only description of the bias incident on campus was a singular sentence: “On our campus, we witnessed the vandalism of paper Israeli flags that were part of a hallway display featuring flags from a number of nations.” The email concluded with a request from Anderson to “do better because we know better.”
In the St. Louis Park synagogue, the preschool and Friday night Sabbath service were moved online after a threat of violence against the temple, as reported by the Star Tribune. The threat comes amidst a general rise in antisemitic hatecrimes in the U.S. — the FBI’s 2020 hate crime report saw a general rise in religiously motivated hate crimes, with American Jews being the victim of 57.5 percent of all religious hate crimes in the U.S. that year.
On the St. Olaf campus, the perpetrator’s targeting of Israeli flags in the Boe-Buntrock breezeway leaves the motive — but not the harm — of the incident ambiguous. “It’s tricky, because we don’t know what the intent is,” Elizabeth Strauss ’22, co-president of St. Olaf’s Jewish Student Organization (JSO), said in an interview. But the timing of the incident amongst Jewish high holidays of September adds to its harms. Strauss added, “this is the time when you’re getting written into the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the next year [. . .] so to have all these incidents happen around this time just shows me that it’s not accidental.”
Fellow JSO Co-President Hannah Goldner-Niederman ’23 expressed a different personal interpretation of the events: “The fact that this action happened against specifically flags of the state of Israel . . . it could have been a political thing, instead of a religious targeting,” Goldner-Niederman said. “And while that may have been the intention that wasn’t the impact for a lot of Jewish people on this campus. But I do not personally feel as scared or upset as I know other people do, which just is what it is.” JSO as a student organization takes no stance on Zionism and instead focuses on Jewish life on the St. Olaf campus.
The Messenger reached out to María C Pabón Gautier, Vice President of Equity and Inclusion, for any information on the motives underlying the vandalism. Bias incident response at St. Olaf includes “a conversation with those . . . who committed the act, to understand context, to understand what’s going on, et cetera,” Pabón said during an interview over the phone. “For the most part, people never intend to hurt others, but that doesn’t deny the impact that action has.” But if the perpetrator of this act had no intention to harm, they also had no reservations about making many Jewish Oles feel unsafe on campus.
When interviewed, a first-year Jewish Ole who wishes to remain anonymous expressed concern over the incident and newfound reservations about St. Olaf. “I was very hesitant to come here because I knew there would be a very small Jewish presence, and I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t understand,” they said. “I don’t think I fully grasped how big [that] discrepancy would be.” Regarding their sense of safety on campus, the student said, “I feel safe, but I feel vulnerable at the same time.”
The incident also reveals issues with St. Olaf’s bias incident response process. Strauss said she felt “fine” about Anderson’s email overall, but added, “the one thing that did upset me is . . . the JSO leadership was not informed of the incident before the entire student body was . . . that was something that was more relevant to us than everyone else.” St. Olaf does not make an attempt to reach out to representative student organizations during their incident response process, Pabón confirmed. That leaves leadership and members of such groups blindsided not just by the occurrence of an event, but also by administration’s response and the conclusions they draw about an incident.
In addition to an exclusion of student organization, Goldner-Niederman described a pattern of isolation from administration. “[Anderson] or the President’s Leadership Team has never once reached out to our organization, and yet he wants to claim to support our community, and I just can’t see how that can be in good faith,” Goldern-Niederman said. That lack of communication leaves student organizations and the campus minority groups they represent isolated from a voice in St. Olaf’s leadership. Even after a bias incident, administration does not make the effort to acknowledge student organization’s role adds insult to injury.
“If you want to actually support a group of people, you should take the time to reach out to them in a genuine way.” Goldner-Niederman said.