Hundreds of community members gathered outside the Graduate Life Center on the Virginia Tech campus to support the Jewish community on Monday. Anti-Semitic messages were found on the lawn of the Chabad Librescu Jewish Student Center on March 18. “Don’t look the other way,” Tech President Tim Sands urged attendees.
By Stephanie Kapllani, Variety Editor Contact the writer
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On Saturday, Rabbi Zvi Zwiebel stepped out of the Chabad Librescu Jewish Student Center during a Sabbath celebration to find 100 leaflets with swastikas on them strewn across the center’s lawn. Not only is the Chabad House a place of gathering for community members, but it is also where the rabbi and his family reside. The hate messages were left at the beginning of Jewish cultural month at Virginia Tech.
The event shocked Zwiebel, along with members of the Jewish community and others in Blacksburg. On Monday evening, he opened a rally organized in response by expressing his gratitude for those who came to stand in solidarity, no matter their religion. Zwiebel shared stories about his family who survived the Holocaust and those who didn’t—the love, loss, and pain it has caused him, his loved ones, and the Jewish community.
“The way to combat darkness is with light,” Zwiebel said. “We don’t fight darkness with darkness, we fight darkness with light.”
Zwiebel urged supporters to learn more about the Jewish faith. He encouraged everyone to attend the Dr. Liviu Librescu Memorial Lecture on April 24 at the Moss Art Center to listen to Holocaust survivor Rabbi Nissen Mangel. The lecture commemorates the life of Librescu, who died protecting Tech students in his Norris Hall classroom during the April 16 shootings.
While the hate speech stunned many in Blacksburg, some were not surprised that it occurred. David Branson, a junior HNFE major and member of the Jewish Student Union, said there was reason to be unsurprised in light of nationwide events.
“A lot of us are surprised. This is not what I think of when I think of Blacksburg or Virginia Tech,” Branson said. “On the other hand, I’m not going to say I was surprised. This is happening all over the country. It’s all over the news. There have been dozens of bomb threats on JCC’s and Hebrew schools. Things like this are becoming more common.”
According to NBC news, hate crimes have increased over 20 percent in nine major U.S. cities over the last year. Among those major cities, New York had the highest number of incidents at 320, and Washington D.C. had the largest rate of increase at 62 percent. While the Trump administration has made an effort to condemn racially motivated hate crimes, anti-Semitic crimes have increased 189 percent from Jan. 1 to March 5 in New York alone. In addition to an overall increase in hate crimes, NPR reported that bomb threats have been made against Jewish community centers in 11 states across the United States just within the last month. The threats have resulted in many forced evacuations.
Speakers following Zwiebel, including Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Virginia Tech Police Department Chief Kevin Foust, discussed the first amendment right of free speech, but warned against the spread of hate speech. Foust passionately defended the Constitutional right for every individual to express their beliefs, while making a point that a threat made against the Blacksburg community is a threat made against Tech as well.
“When speech is used to threaten, when speech is used to intimidate, I believe the people who do that have forfeited their right under my Constitution for that type of protection,” Foust said.
Sands stressed that the university will do everything it can to protect its community, to prevent such acts, and to condemn them when they occur. He urged the audience to call out individuals promoting intolerance and hate. Sands shared his own experience and how he had learned from the past.
“It is really easy to look the other way,” Sands said. “Growing up I still have vivid memories of when I looked the other way, when I was in my teens and twenties, and I have deep regret for that. And I can’t ask everyone. Many of you are in positions where you do not have the privilege to step out, where you’re not in positions of strength. But those of us who are, please don’t look the other way.”
Andrew Peck, President of the Jewish Student Union, ended the rally with a request of the audience.
“I ask one thing,” Peck said. “We all don’t go home after this and just forget about how we’re feeling right now. I really hope that we all take this passion and determination that I’m seeing right here and use it for our fight to make us move forward and to make us feel stronger.”