Columbia Prof Defiant After Swastika


Over the 17 years she has been teaching at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Elizabeth Midlarsky had often considered hanging a mezuzah on the doorpost of her office. One problem she faced was how to nail it into the metal doorframe.

With the help of the campus Chabad rabbi, Yonah Blum, and some double-sided tape, Midlarsky overcame that problem Monday, five days after officials informed her that someone had entered the college’s Zankel Building on the eve of Halloween and left behind an all-too-real horror: a brown swastika sprayed across most of her office door.

“It probably makes me more of a target than ever,” said Midlarsky, who teaches education and psychology courses, of the mezuzah scroll, which is traditionally seen as protecting a home or workplace’s occupants from harm. “But I hope people will see that my Jewish pride is very real.”

Students and faculty joined together at the Teachers College Monday to denounce the latest manifestation of hate at Columbia in a month that has seen a noose posted outside the office of a black professor and fliers promoting a Holocaust-denial book mailed to Midlarsky and another professor just days before the swastika attack.

“We think they are targeting us because of our long history of diversity and tolerance,” said the Teachers College provost, Tom James, who reported the fliers incident to the police and Anti-Defamation League at the time.

The vandal, or vandals, also sprayed an X through her name on the door, leading Midlarsky, who lives in New Jersey, to accept the administration’s offer of having a security guard escort her to her car after dark.

“I didn’t [need it] in the past,” she says. “But now it has escalated.”

Her husband, Manus, was quoted in the New York Daily News last week as saying, “the next step is physical violence, and that’s what I’m worried about.”

Midlarsky said reaction among Jewish organizations was weak, and she had received little support from them.

“This should be a clarion call to the Jewish community that [anti-Semitism] has not gone away, even in New York City. We need to be alert and take action when necessary. “I’m concerned that when the smoke clears [it will be forgotten],” she said. “I’m wondering why so little response.

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League issued a joint statement with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Thursday denouncing both incidents at the Teachers College, and several Jewish groups participated in a press conference with elected officials that day at City Hall to announce an upcoming day against hate.

Midlarsky said she had only been contacted by the campus Hillel leader and one man who left a message from the “AJC,” without mentioning which of the two organizations with those initials he represented – the American Jewish Committee or the American Jewish Congress.

The Police Department’s Bias Crime Task Force is investigating the swastika incident. The commander of that task force, Michael Osgood, told a City Council committee last Thursday that anti-Semitic crimes in the city had risen 36 percent during a 90-day period, compared to the same time frame last year. At the beginning of last month, coinciding with the festival of Sukkot, vandals spray-painted a series of swastikas at synagogues and homes in downtown Brooklyn.

Three weeks before the Teachers College swastika, Madonna Constantine, an African-American professor at the same college, found a noose outside her office.
Columbia has gained national attention lately as a flashpoint for Middle East politics, with some Jewish students complaining of anti-Israel bias in the classroom. Last week, an assistant professor of anthropology who has been accused by critics of inaccurate scholarship on Israel’s historical origins was granted tenure at Columbia and its Barnard College, despite a spirited alumnae-led campaign against her.

In 2004, the university formed a committee to hear students’ complaints about anti-Israel bias and intimidation in the Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures department. The committee found all of the complaints unfounded except for one.

Midlarsky is not associated with any of those disputes, nor does she teach any course related to Judaism or the Middle East. But she has published research on Holocaust survivors, particularly on their reaction to the events of 9/11.

“The word Jewish is always crossing my lips,” she said. “People are aware that I’m a highly identifiable Jew and the Holocaust is a passion of mine.”

She said the anti-Semitic flier she received had been spotted elsewhere on campus.
“There have been numerous occasions when one or several Jewish students came to me crying, upset,” she said. “It is often people who came here recently from Israel or Russia, showing me copies of a sticker that was put up and saying ‘how can this happen?’”
In a statement this week, Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman said the college “deplores this hateful act and has zero tolerance for such hate crimes, which have no place in our community.”

Midlarsky said she sensed that the visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month, during which he was denounced by Columbia President Lee Bollinger but given a forum to bash Israel, had left something of a bad atmosphere on campus.

“It underscored the openness at Columbia to speakers who are openly anti-Jewish,” she said.

She also denounced the granting of tenure to the anthropology professor, Nadia Abu El-Haj, who wrote a book questioning Jewish historical ties to the land of Israel. “Her scholarship is very far from excellent,” said Midlarsky. “My understanding was always that at Barnard only the best and brightest are tenured, so I’m puzzled.”

But overall, she insisted that the atmosphere at the Teachers College and Columbia has been tolerant and diverse. “There is a feeling of warmth and extensive compassion for one another.”

Since the swastika incident, she said he has received “very supportive comments” from colleagues and students.

On Monday, the Teachers College Jewish Association held a protest against what they called “the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish sentiments in the world today and specifically on our world-leading campus.”

Rebecca Pasternak, president of the Jewish Association, said anti-Jewish speech and activities were “escalating and being swept under the broader banner of unacceptable intolerance,” according to a statement on the college Web site.