Sylvia M. Burwell, the school’s president, said in a message to the campus this week that officials do not know who is responsible or why the perpetrator drew the symbols. There had not been any previous reports of graffiti in the area, located on the lower level of Anderson Hall, a dorm for first-year students.
“It is possible that the graffiti may have been in the bathroom stall for some time, as there was no evidence of fresh carving or shavings where it was found. Interviews yielded no further information about the source of the graffiti or when it occurred,” Burwell said. “While the investigation may be inconclusive, the pain caused by the graffiti is real and unacceptable.”
Students reacted to the incident in the days after Churchfield shared his picture on Instagram. The situation was made even more troubling because it happened during the “solemn period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” — two of the holiest Jewish holidays — Burwell said.
American University Hillel, a student-run organization, took to Facebook in the wake of the incident to reemphasize its mission to support Jewish students.
“We were saddened and angered to learn of the ugly antisemitic vandalism that appeared on campus before Shabbat,” the group said. “While we will always respond strongly to acts of hatred, we also will not let them distract us from the critical work of fostering vibrant Jewish life at AU.”
School officials notified students of the incident in an email on Sept. 13, almost a week after Churchfield’s discovery. He said he did not notify the university about the graffiti, but tagged the school’s social media account in his post on Sept. 7.
Sandra Rodriguez, a campus spokesperson, said the university received a report about the incident Sept. 8 and immediately started an investigation.
Michal Cohen, a senior studying public relations, political science and Israel studies, said the delay in communication was disheartening.
“The whole thing was very weird because, from the time the student found it to when the university put out a statement, there was so much time that passed,” Cohen said. “There’s someone who drew swastikas just roaming around campus. I have Jewish students come up to me daily and are fearful.”
Cohen and other students also criticized the school’s initial characterization of the incident. Officials in the Sept. 13 email said they had received reports of “possible” antisemitic drawings.
“You have the symbols of the ‘SS,’ the lightning bolts. You have two swastikas and a Star of David crossed out. Truthfully, I don’t think that you have to be too aware about antisemitism or the history of those symbols to know it’s antisemitism,” Churchfield said. “The real question that I have is, if that’s ‘possible’ antisemitism what does blatant antisemitism look like?”
Burwell this week apologized for the initial characterization.
“We sought to be cautious in our communication as the investigation was in its early stages and information was still being collected and reviewed,” Burwell wrote. “However, regardless of the intent of those responsible for the graffiti, its existence caused pain and trauma for members of our community. We first and foremost should have acknowledged that, and our message created additional hurt in an already difficult time.”
The incident was especially concerning, students said, because it followed a wave of antisemitism over the summer. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in May linked the outbreak of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip to an increase in online and in-person attacks against Jews.
“We are tracking acts of harassment, vandalism and violence as well as a torrent of online abuse,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s chief executive, in May. “It’s happening around the world — from London to Los Angeles, from France to Florida, in big cities like New York and in small towns, and across every social media platform.”
The sentiment also exists on college campuses. The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law surveyed more than 1,000 members of predominantly Jewish Greek organizations and found that more than 65 percent of students have felt unsafe on campuses due to physical or verbal attacks. Half have felt the need to hide their Jewish identity.
“We are in a time when college students are leading the way in equity and inclusion, Jewish students must be included in that activism,” Sharon Raphael, national president of Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, said in a statement.
Cohen, the AU student, is also part of a national, student-run group called Jewish on Campus that tracks incidents of Jewish hate throughout the country. The organization’s Instagram feed features anonymous accounts from dozens of campuses, including George Washington University, the University of Virginia, York University and the University of Vermont.
“We’ve definitely seen a rise in [antisemitism] and especially this semester it just seems like every day something else is happening,” Cohen said.
Burwell acknowledged officials “must do better in these difficult situations, from educating about the terrible history and ongoing impacts of antisemitism to how we communicate about these matters.” She said she is convening a group of experts and others from the community — as well as experts from the ADL — to find ways to confront antisemitism. Burwell said the university over the last year has introduced two new classes on the history of antisemitism.
Ari Silver, a junior studying public relations at AU, said the university should use the incident to address systemic issues surrounding Jewish hate.
“We need to use it as a learning point to improve how the university acts on situations like this,” Silver said. “It’s more than just one university. I think it’s a whole systemic problem that, obviously, we need to do a lot of rethinking about how we change our responses and how we promote conversation about it.”
In the weeks since the initial outrage that followed the incident, many students on campus are no longer discussing the issue, Cohen said.
“We’re not even 100 years after the Holocaust and we just brush off swastikas like it’s nothing,” Cohen said. “I can’t go back four generations because of Nazis. They took everything from my family. I’m more angry than shocked.”