NEW YORK (JTA) – The tiny Jewish student body at the University of North Dakota is accusing the school of inaction in the face of anti-Semitism.
The accusation follows a decision by Scott Lebovitz, a freshman at the university’s highly regarded aviation school, to move out of his dorm earlier this month after allegedly enduring months of anti-Semitic abuse.
Lebovitz says he complained several times to campus police and the university housing department, and even named the students involved, but no disciplinary action was taken.
He cited abuses including a swastika drawn in the stairwell near his room, “Scott is a Jew” scrawled in ice cream in an elevator and anti-Jewish taunts from fellow students.
“The anti-Semitic hate crimes perpetrated against the Jewish students of UND are unconscionable, and the university’s response to them is an embarrassment,” Jack Russell Weinstein, the faculty adviser to the Jewish Student Organization, said in a statement last week.
On Tuesday, the Grand Forks County state attorney’s office brought charges against a university student in connection with the “Scott is a Jew” graffiti.
Spencer Garness was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. North Dakota law carries no special designation for hate crimes.
Only about 20 Jewish students are enrolled in the university out of a student body of approximately 12,500. Generally they have encountered few problems – until now. In recent weeks, a number of anti-Semitic incidents have been reported at the school, which previously had been at the center of racism-related charges.
About two weeks ago, another student had a swastika drawn near her dorm room, according to Martin Rottler, a former president of the Jewish Student Organization. Last week, the Grand Forks Herald reported that on April 24 a Happy New Year sign was altered to read “Happy Jew Year.” Campus police reportedly are investigating.
“The teapot has been boiling for quite a while,” Rottler said, “and finally enough heat was added that it started whistling.”
According to campus Police Chief Duane Czapiewski, Lebovitz filed a report March 27 alleging incidents of verbal abuse and anti-Semitic graffiti in the dorms. Lebovitz says he was told by the university housing department that a police report would be filed after the swastika was discovered in February, but no such report was ever filed.
Last week, local media reported the story and the university began to act. President Charles Kupchella released a statement referring to the “hate incidents” reported at the school and described such expressions as “both mindless and abhorrent.” On April 24, Kupchella met with Weinstein and two Jewish students.
Weinstein told JTA that the meeting “was one of the most insulting experiences of my professional career.”
“The president refused to acknowledge that it was a swastika, and refused to acknowledge that it was a hate crime, and refused to even utter the word swastika,” he said.
Peter Johnson, a university spokesman, told JTA that Kupchella did not want to “get out ahead of the investigation” by describing the image or branding it a hate crime.
“It’s a bit of an oblique image,” Johnson told JTA.
The day after the meeting, Kupchella released another statement saying that once the campus police completes its investigation, the university “will take all appropriate actions through the criminal justice system and our own internal judicial process.”
According to Czapiewski, the police completed its investigation last week and turned the case over to the state attorney’s office in Grand Forks.
“I want to be very clear: We do NOT tolerate this kind of behavior,” the April 25 statement said. “There is no place on this campus or elsewhere in society for actions that are disrespectful, demeaning or threatening.”
Situated in Grand Forks, a community of some 53,000 about an hour north of Fargo, the university has previously found itself embroiled in controversy. The campus hockey arena was funded and named for Ralph Engelstad, a millionaire casino owner who has been accused of Nazi sympathies and reportedly twice held birthday parties for Adolf Hitler.
Critics also have said the university’s Fighting Sioux athletic logo perpetuates a racist stereotype. Amid efforts to have the logo changed, Engelstad wrote to Kupchella in 2001 threatening to withdraw funding from the arena if the logo was not preserved. Engelstad died of cancer in 2002.
The university has said it will compensate Lebovitz $460, the remainder of his dorm fees. But Lebovitz says the issue is greater than money and ultimately greater than anti-Jewish bigotry.
“I’ve given people courage, and that’s what’s really driving me to do it,” he told JTA. “If we can change it to where everybody else is normal, where everyone who is not a Caucasian heterosexual Christian is viewed as second rate, if we can change that, like Dr. King’s speech, then that’s what we need.”