The swastika is an ancient good luck symbol in some Eastern religions. It was also associated with the genocidal anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany during World War II. The latter association led to a Jewish George Washington University student being expelled from his fraternity and becoming a target of a hate crime investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department and University Police Department.
According to university officials, who declined to release his name, the student — a member of the historically Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau — took a spring break trip to India earlier this month and brought back a swastika. He then decided to post that swastika on his fraternity’s bulletin board at International House on March 16.
“His motivation was to reclaim the swastika. He spent some time in India, where the swastika has a totally separate and different connotation and his goal, although misguided — and he would say that — was to go back to its original intent and purpose as more of a peaceful symbol,” said GW Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, who is also an advisor to ZBT. “That’s what he saw in India.”
Tensions were already high for GW’s Jewish community following the discovery on Feb. 21 of three swastikas drawn on the walls of International House, which includes fraternity and sorority members of nine Greek chapters.
The university’s initial response to those swastikas was criticized by members of the local Jewish community, who expressed concern that the incident was not being investigated as a hate crime. According to The GW Hatchet, 19 Jewish and civil rights organizations wrote a letter to University President Steven Knapp calling for a more forceful response. The university subsequently referred the incident to the MPD’s Hate Crimes Unit.
In contrast, the university’s response to the latest swastika incident drew praise from area Jews.
“I was very impressed with President Knapp’s response to the issue,” said GW sophomore Sydney Levin-Epstein, 19. “I was very impressed with how GWPD handled it. They had a meeting with everyone who lives in International House to discuss what had happened. Parents were able to openly express their concerns. So I think that the university’s immediate response to the situation was impressive. And that’s something that I take a lot of pride in when saying I go to GW.”
According to the letter, more than 10 college and university campuses around the country have been defaced with swastikas in the last year. Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi has been a frequent target. Last July, swastikas were scrawled on mailboxes in front of the AEPi house at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and an AEPi house at Emory University in Atlanta was spray-painted with swastikas in October. In late January, swastikas were painted on the AEPi house at the University of California, Davis. Earlier this month, two swastikas were spray-painted on an AEPi house at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“I think that the recent trend of seeing swastikas on college campuses is very disturbing,” said film director Shoshana Palatnik, who spoke Monday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington during a screening of her new documentary, Crossing the Line 2, about the increase in anti-Israel activity on college campuses. “Regardless of who is putting up this sort of imagery and these swastikas, it definitely needs to be investigated and taken very seriously and I’m glad to hear that George Washington University is taking it very seriously.”
Added Palatnik: “All these incidents really do need to be investigated.”