Manhattanville College senior Mellyssa Stiel sat across from me in my dorm room, wearing a cozy sweater and a big smile. Having just own in from an AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) convention in Washington D. C., she did not show any fatigue if she felt any. I was fortunate to borrow some of her time as her balancing of school work, Hillel presidency, and preparations for her upcoming graduation requires her attention and energy. But a recent incident has been consuming even more of her energy, leaving her yearning for justice.
A student was arrested at Manhattanville College on March 1 for a hate crime involving the repeated drawing of a swastika on another student’s dormitory- room door. Stiel lives one door down from the targeted door in Founder’s Hall.
On February 15, Stiel and her next-door neighbor—with whom she shares a bathroom and refers to as her “bath- mate”—came to find the symbol drawn with finger- tip strokes across a chalk drawing of Shrek—a popular DreamWorks animated character- on the chalkboard that decoratively hung on the door. She recognized and felt the history and pain associated with the marking, and speculated “when I saw it I thought, ‘did they think that was my door?’” After erasing and redrawing the animated figure, the swastika was marked again, and a third time, within the following week. Stiel and her bath-mate sought the help of Residence Life and Student Affairs after the first and second incident. It was both after the second and third incident that Stiel herself phoned the Harrison Police Department as well as the college around the same time.
A week after the arrest, Tuesday, March 7, a “Let’s Talk About it!” newsletter piece was emailed to faculty and students addressing the situation. This specific event is amongst many others, all of which were deemed “fundamentally immoral” by the writers and signers. Although “these actions do not represent who we are”— as stated in the newsletter— and the college is taking measures to counteract the issue, hate crime can still infiltrate a community, no matter how inclusive.
Stiel considers herself an “agnostic Jew,” practicing Jewish customs in her own way. As the president of Hillel—an association that promotes Israel and Jewish life on campus— and an attendee of annual AIPAC meetings, she is knowledgeable of the history and current events of her heritage. Even with her status, she is unsure how many peers are aware of her personal faith.
Stiel expressed anger over the lack of education regarding symbolism such as the swastika. Requiring Jewish education material would invoke mostly resistance, but to o er a teaching lesson that is not required isn’t likely to generate an audience either. As my conversation with Stiel progressed, we came to the unanswered questions: how do we educate people on acts of hate? Do people commit harmful acts out of ignorance, unknowing of the pain they afflict? But regardless of whether the hate is ignorant or intentional, repeated offenses can give cause to the assumption that “malice [is] a ached to it” as Stiel came to conclude about the swastika drawings.
“When you have the choice to educate yourself in today’s society, people are like ‘I’m fine; I don’t need that; I’m not racist; I’m not anti- Semitic.’ But they’ll make those little jokes; they’ll continue the stereotype; they’ll draw the swastika because they forget what it really means,” Stiel states.
The complexities of human nature play a major role in large-scale social misunderstandings, and Stiel understands this. She is not quick to label a person as a “racist.” Rather, she wonders why and how “racist” opinions were formed; she may not understand them, but there is a reason why they exist. “I’m one person that doesn’t see people as evil because of their political opinions.”
While the email newsletter, with its assertive tone, conveyed hate crime intolerance and a zeal to squash the issue with haste, Stiel did not experience such urgency. From her stance, the college did not take action fast enough. According to Vice President of Student A airs Donna Eddleman, within a nine-day period, three swastika markings were discovered and a student was identified and arrested. Manhattanville’s protocol for such incidents starts with a led report by the reporting party and/or Campus safety, followed by an investigation. Campus safety had met with all parties involved after each of the first two reports and completed an incident report. An increased monitoring of Founder’s Hall resulted.
The result of the investigation by the Harrison Police Department ended in an arrest and a restraining order, which was a “bittersweet victory” according to Stiel; condemnation had been executed, but it took multiple swastika drawings before it did.
When asked what the school could have done better, Stiel graciously admitted, “Honestly, I don’t know. For me, it sounds so easy to say ‘condemn it on the first incident.’” To her, the immediate release of a public statement—at least— would have been ideal. Unsure of how the school handles such situations behind the scenes, she did not pretend to know all of the answers in the situation. Although she’d hoped for a condemnation on the first incident, she refrained from judgment.
Instead, she offered a sincere expression that something was missing in how the school supports targets of hate crimes on campus.
As an advocate for in-depth learning of Jewish heritage in education, Stiel hopes to reduce hate crimes by cultivating empathy and an understanding of the history and pain associated with the swastika. She credits her peers from the Muslim Student Association and Student Government Association as her unwavering source of support as she witnessed repeated reminders of the pains of her heritage. For now, her influence remains within Manhattanville College as Hillel president and in the AIPAC community, but Stiel’s intelligence and sense of empathy fuels her ambition to spread religious and political awareness, to be a force of change in the public’s perspective and understanding of Judaism and Israel.