Sacramento State hosts town hall on campus antisemitism: Students are scared

Jewish community leaders, the campus community and the public were invited to discuss the history and impact of antisemitism and other forms of white supremacy.

 Students walk on Sacramento State campus. (photo credit: FLICKR.COM)
Students walk on Sacramento State campus.
(photo credit: FLICKR.COM)

Images of Nazi swastikas and other antisemitic vandalism have left the Sacramento State campus community worried whether the hateful acts are a precursor to something worse.

“I definitely think that students are scared and feeling very unsafe,” said Morgan Beatty, a graduate student at Sacramento State. “For many students, this institution is a safe space. So when things like this happen, they start to question if they are safe here.”

Beatty spoke Wednesday evening during a panel discussion at a community town hall hosted by Sacramento State. The event was organized in response to the discovery on and near campus in September of images of antisemitic symbols and hate language.

Jewish community leaders, the campus community and the public were invited to discuss the history and impact of antisemitism and other forms of white supremacy. Three panel discussions focused discussion on communal awareness, collective healing and collaborative action.

Beatty, who is studying higher educational leadership, said many students are well aware of the harmful impacts of racism but not enough are familiar with antisemitic acts. She said everyone is likely to be victimized by some type of oppression, even though those experiences might be different, but no one’s “pain should go unseen.”

 Concerns of antisemitism have grown in recent months at Sacramento State. (credit: FLICKR) Concerns of antisemitism have grown in recent months at Sacramento State. (credit: FLICKR)

Swastikas found at Sacramento State

In early September, a swastika was found on a classroom wall at California State University, Sacramento. Another swastika image was found the following morning along J Street near the campus’ entrance.

On Sept. 29, Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen announced that a school employee found another swastika defacing a sign in the campus Arboretum. At Wednesday’s event, Nelsen said their hope is to rid the campus of acts of “white supremacy” with a message of “love, unity and peace.”

The swastika found in the Arboretum was accompanied by the hateful language “White Pride Nationwide,” said Harvey Stark, a humanities and religious studies professor.

“We are at a critical juncture, a crucial moment when the voices of antisemitism and racism are ubiquitous and becoming more and more vocal,” Stark told the town hall audience of several dozen people. “Those are the voices that appear through the Nazi swastikas drawn in and around campus and beyond.”

Rabbi Nancy Wechsler of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael told the audience that her place of worship has been patrolled by armed guard and fortified with shatterproof glass and a large fence that encircles the property. It was one of three Sacramento-area synagogues struck by firebombing attacks in June 1999. She said that’s the type of violent threats they face while practicing their religious faith.

“We’re all crawling out from the rock of COVID trying to get our community to come back together,” Wechsler said at the town hall. “At the same time, my community fears coming together.”

These threats keep coming, Wechsler said as she spoke about a hate incident at Congregation Beth Israel in Chico. Last week, a welcome sign to visitors was burned at the synagogue and swastikas drawings were found.

“This is something that’s meant to inspire fear,” Wechsler said. “And yet we are a resilient group.”

Other antisemitic acts in the Sacramento area

There have been other schools, neighborhoods and public places in the Sacramento region targeted with antisemitic images and slurs.

Homes, an elementary school and a place of worship in Carmichael were littered with similar “Aryan Nation” flyers last fall. A man was arrested, convicted and sentenced in March for committing those hate crimes. Then, similar anti-Jewish leaflets were found again in July at homes in the Fair Oaks area.

In late August, the UC Davis Police Department launched an investigation after antisemitic banners were displayed on a campus overpass.

Another disturbing act of vandalism occurred in mid-September when maintenance crews found a large swastika and an antisemitic slur carved into a putting green at the Cherry Island Golf Course, now operated by Sacramento County.

In mid-October, antisemitic vandalism was reported at UC Davis, where swastika drawings were found in Alder Hall, which is a residence hall for first-year students.

Law enforcement officials have not announced any arrests or named any suspects in connection with the antisemitic incidents reported this fall.

Rita Cameron-Wedding, a women’s and gender studies and ethnic studies professor at Sacramento State, said she was changed forever after watching video of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd in 2020. She said she and many others were hopeful as many rose up to protest against brutality and opened a meaningful dialogue about the impact of systemic racism.

“But that moment has passed. It’s all forgotten,” Cameron-Wedding told the audience. “Let’s tell the truth about structural racism. Let’s have these conversations with each other so I can learn more about the cultures of other people.”

Rabbi recalls synagogue firebombings

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento said the swastika is a hateful symbol representing a secular Nazi government. She said those Nazi symbols are intended to target Jewish people just because of who they are; not their religious faith.

“It wasn’t because of what we taught, it wasn’t because of what we believe. It was because we existed,” Alfi said about the 1999 firebombing attacks, which were carried out by two men who later torched an abortion clinic and murdered a gay couple in Shasta County.

Hate crimes reported last year in California were the sixth-highest ever recorded, the state Department of Justice announced in June. The number of hate crimes was the highest California has seen since the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks more than 20 years ago.

Law enforcement officials reported 78 hate crimes in Sacramento County during 2021, triple the number that occurred in 2020 and more than any other year since 2003, according to data from the California Department of Justice. The most common type of hate crime reported last year was vandalism or destruction of property, which accounted for 27 incidents.

Antisemitic acts reached an all-time high last year with 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported the Anti-Defamation League. The anti-hate organization began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

Acts of antisemitic vandalism increased 14 percent last year; from 751 reported in 2020 to 853 in 2021. The Defamation League said swastikas, which are generally interpreted as symbols of antisemitic hatred, were present in 578 of these reported incidents.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg spoke via Zoom at the town hall. He said there’s a resurgence of insidious hatred and antisemitism throughout the country.

“We have to support each other on what binds us, which is that the hater hates all of us,” Steinberg said. “And the hater will come after any of us if they see that opportunity.”