January 27, 2006

Northwestern student charged last week for hate crime

Last week a Northwestern freshman was charged in connection with anti-Semitic graffiti found in Northwestern’s Sargent Residence Hall. Although such hate crimes do not appear to be on the rise, this incident raises questions about academic institutions’ responses to such hate crimes and ideological problems.

According to Northwestern University Relations, Neil Gajare, 19, was charged with institutional vandalism and felony criminal damage to property. Gajare admitted to scrawling anti-Semitic statements, two swastikas, and sketches of a rabbit with a black permanent marker on a Sargent hallway the evening of January 14.

Gajare was released after posting bail. If convicted of both felonies, he could face up to five years in prison.

Northwestern’s administration has made formal statements about the incident, expressing that they are very disappointed in Gajare’s behavior.

“This type of activity is an affront not just to our Jewish students, but to the entire University community,” said William Banis, Northwestern vice president of student affairs. “Such behavior is reprehensible and completely unacceptable at Northwestern.”

Gajare’s friends have spoken out in support of the honors pre-med student, claiming he is an accepting individual with friends from all different backgrounds. One of his Jewish friends, Gene Schwartz, said Gajare has never shown any indication of anti-Semitic sentiments.

“I hope the administration does not take action as though it was a part of his ideology. It was extremely out of his character,” Schwartz told Northwestern reporters.

Gajare’s ex-girlfriend, Reaha Campbell, a resident of Sargent Hall, said Gajare seemed intoxicated when he visited her dorm room the night before the graffiti was discovered. Campbell said she and Gajare had broken up about a week ago.

“He seemed to be intoxicated when he came over…He was staggering around, and [he] fell and knocked his head. He told me he had been drinking that night,” Campbell told Northwestern reporters. “I’m not trying to make this seem less terrible or excusable, I think he should be punished. But he’s just not someone who would do this,” she added.

Harry S. Bienen, Northwestern’s president, has directly acknowledged the incident, and condemned what he calls “a spate of similar hate crimes and bias incidents,” offering a $2,500 reward for any information related to such hate crimes.

The incident at Northwestern raises issues that many members of the University of Chicago community are concerned about. Both Northwestern and the U of C have faced similar incidents in the past.

When a five-year pattern of poster defacement was continued last quarter, members of the U of C community, as well as the Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) and the Student Committee on the Middle East (SCME) were frustrated by the administration’s lack of direct response to the incident.

Although the administration sent out an e-mail to the University community a week after two SCME posters had the word “shit” written on then, reminding the campus community of the University’s freedom of speech policy, students had hoped it would have directly identified the incident.

“The action that Northwestern University is taking to combat anti-Semitism on campus is encouraging…I applaud President Bienen’s condemnation of these vile acts,” said Jonathan Hirsch, CFI president.

Stephen Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University, also reiterated that such issues remain an important concern to the administration on an educational, legal, and supportive level. He hopes concerned students will visit the University’s website dedicated to student support resources and policy statements at

Still, the U of C administration maintains that it stands firm on its hate crime and bias-incident policy. “The behavior of the Northwestern student is reprehensible and would not be tolerated on our campus either,” said Susan Art, dean of students in the College.

“We have very clear guidelines that prohibit the defacement of University property with symbols that are designed to marginalize or threaten any group. We spend a fair amount of time trying to educate students on our policies, both in house meetings during orientation and with materials that we make available to the whole campus, and we would have no hesitation to call in the police were a hate crime to occur on our campus,” Art added.