The photographs and names of nearly a dozen current and former Brandeis students, faculty and staff were disseminated on a white supremacist forum, according to a statement Public Safety sent to the Brandeis Community via email on Aug. 19. Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan wrote that the posts posed “no direct threat to these individuals or to Brandeis.”

In an email to the Justice last Thursday, Callahan said that the “photos appear to have been copied from articles and other public-facing web pages connected to the individuals’ scholarship or work.” Callahan had been in contact with multiple law enforcement agencies, including local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and determined that the posts were no threat to the Brandeis community.

The photos were posted to the white nationalist and anti-Semitic message board “Vanguard News Network” in a thread, which Callahan provided to the Justice, that mocked the appearance of thousands of Jews of varying ages and backgrounds. In the thread, participants called Jews “Greasy,” “Corrupt,” “Filthy,” “Ratlike” and “Pure Evil.” One user commented, “Europeans are the children of God, while [Jews] are the children of Satan!” Another called the international Hillel organization “a group of Jewish supremacist thugs.”

A Justice investigation of the 21 pages of photographs and names in the thread found photos of nearly a dozen current and former staff members, faculty, students and recent alumni, as of the publication of this article. The thread also featured photos of students from other universities, including several pages devoted solely to students of Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox Jewish university. The investigation into the posts is ongoing and Public Safety is monitoring the forum.

University President Ron Liebowitz also responded to the forum in a statement to the Justice on Tuesday. “The content of the online forum targeting the Jewish members of our community is appalling and offensive. Targeting individuals on the basis of their religion, their ethnicity, their race, or other features of their identities is simply wrong," he said. The President's office echoed the Department of Public Safety, saying the University would "continue to monitor this situation ... [and] do all we can to support our community members.”

Deciding how to respond

The University became aware of the thread through a graduate student who had been alerted by someone outside of the University that their photo was published on the forum, Prof. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS) told the Justice. Sarna, the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, is also pictured on the forum.

After finding photos of Brandeis community members, including Sarna, on the site, the graduate student alerted Sarna and Prof. Leonard Saxe (HRNS). Saxe then notified Public Safety and the administration, Sarna said. Public Safety alerted the Brandeis community about the situation on Aug. 19.

Although he believes that only a “small number of people” were involved in the forum and that the forum does not pose an “imminent danger” to anyone, Sarna stressed that alerting the community was necessary. Before the internet, he said, the common philosophy was to ignore fringe groups, denying them the attention they craved because their numbers were small.

“Today, a small number of people … can really create a great deal of trouble and can spread hatred in ways that were simply not possible before the Web,” Sarna said, highlighting the “availability of weapons of mass destruction” to such individuals.

“I think it was self-evident to [Public Safety] and the administration that this was not something that could be ignored, and that there was responsibility to make the information known, without wanting in any way to alarm the community,” Sarna explained.

University officials did not comment specifically on whether they would take steps to prevent a similar use of community member photos in the future. 

A lack of notification 

The Justice found photos of at least 11 members of the Brandeis community on the discussion thread. 

In an Aug. 22 email to the Justice, Callahan confirmed that Public Safety had notified those Brandeis community members whose photos were posted on the forum. However, on Aug. 23, the Justice learned that three of the staff members whose photos the Justice found on the website had not been notified by Public Safety. The three employees did not know that they were featured in the forum until the Justice contacted them.

When asked about this situation, Callahan responded that Public Safety is “in the process of following up with Community members when we review additional information.”

A thread ‘like another time and country’

The discussion thread containing Brandeis community member photos began in May 2018. A user shared a segment of an August 2012 article in The Jewish Chronicle in which a Jewish journalist expressed her horror at being told by a plastic surgeon that he could make her nose “more beautiful, less Jewish.” From there, other forum members started posting photos of other Jewish people — overwhelmingly women — and writing anti-Semitic and racist remarks.

Shayna Weiss, the associate director of the Schusterman Center and one of the people whose photos were included in the thread, explained in an interview with the Justice that this thread was “trying to rely on this idea of ‘racial science.’”

Weiss explained “racial science” as “the sort of racist, eugenicist ideas coming out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that the different races have different physical features that you can measure.” She added that this belief was used in Nazi and other racist ideologies. This understanding of race has been “totally debunked,” she explained.

“The current thinking on race is that it is a social construct. We know that there’s far greater genetic variation within a race than between them,” she said. 

Upon learning his photo was posted on the forum, Sarna took time to study the website as a whole, describing what he found throughout other discussion threads as “really quite horrific.”

“They fantasize about exterminating the Jews,” Sarna said of other discussion threads he found. He said some of the comments he read “sounded like another time and another country.”

From his studying the website, Sarna found it to be filled with anti-Semitic discussion threads. Topics range from “bizarre” conspiracy theories — “Jews assassinated JFK” — to “medieval” ones — “Jews ritually murder non-Jewish children,” Sarna explained.

Still, Sarna stressed that the forum’s membership is probably small and that people whose photos were posted online are not in danger. He also urged people not to visit the site in order to deny white supremacists the online traffic they want.

A modern resurgence of old anti-Semitism

Both Sarna and Weiss situated the discussion thread within a modern resurgence of historical anti-Semitic beliefs.

Sarna described recent anti-Semitic events — such as the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA and the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA — as a “very rude awakening” for Brandeis students who believed anti-Semitism was a thing of the past.

When Sarna was asked about President Donald Trump’s impact on this resurgence, he highlighted two key factors in Trump’s rhetoric that connect to white supremacist ideology: a willingness to “encourage hatred and certainly to countenance extremists” and a willingness to “treat Jews as a group, as if all Jews are alike.” Both of these ideas, “the hatred and the group identity,” that Sarna finds in Trump’s approach to the presidency, “you can certainly find in white supremacist materials and in that of other extremists,” he said.

Weiss highlighted the cyclical nature of such racist beliefs. “When societies become more unstable, anti-Semitism, xenophobia in general [and] rhetoric against immigrants, those are the first things that bubble up,” she said. “So with this instability we see in America, we see a resurgence of these ideas, but they’re not new ones.”

—Editor’s Note: Natalia Wiater contributed reporting.

—Editor’s Note: Chaiel Schaffel works for the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He did not write or edit any part of the article related to Schusterman Center employees.