Wesleyan Shooter’s ‘Columbine’ Plan Spotlights Jewish Identity on Campus — Or Not

By Anthony Weiss

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
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When the alleged murderer of Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich shattered the idyllic calm of this leafy Connecticut campus, it was just the beginning of his plans, police say.

In his journal and other writings, they say, alleged killer Stephen Morgan wrote, “I think it’s okay to kill Jews, and go on a killing spree at this school.” In other writings, he reportedly described his plan to create a “Jewish Columbine.”

This led school authorities to evacuate the 22 students living at the Bayit, Wesleyan’s Jewish programming house, who hadn’t already left.

Yet what could have been a moment of vulnerability and isolation for Wesleyan’s Jewish students turned out to be quite the opposite. In interviews, Jewish, non-Jewish and half-Jewish Wesleyan students suggested repeatedly that nothing the alleged gunman had done moved them to view Jews as separated out in any way from the rest of the student body. For the students — and, it appears from his writings, for Morgan, as well — there was no distinction, because there is essentially no difference.

“I think it was more a dislike of Wesleyan students, and he considers us all ‘Jews,’” said freshman Jon Booth, who said he is not Jewish.

The May 6 shooting death of Justin-Jinich burst what students here describe as “the Wesleyan bubble,” replacing the ordinary stresses of finals period with shock and fear. In addition to being a very personal and fatal attack on Justin-Jinich — whom Morgan had stalked in the past — it also appeared to be, from Morgan’s journals, an attack on Wesleyan’s identity, on a campus where identity is not assumed, but debated, studied and even protested.

For Morgan, who was apprehended May 7, part of that had to do with his sense of Wesleyan’s students as the chosen elite. According to a warrant for his arrest, Morgan wrote resentfully about seeing the beautiful, smart and well-to-do students at Wesleyan. Somehow, it seems, this, combined with his obsession for Justin-Jinich, led him to focus on a different kind of chosenness, one that singled out Jewish students from their peers — or, perhaps, conflated the two.

Wesleyan has had a heavily Jewish presence for decades. Jeremy Zwelling, director of the university’s Israel and Jewish studies program, recalls Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld visiting in the late 1970s and commenting on how Jewish the campus felt compared with the stiff Protestantism of other New England colleges. According to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, 735 of Wesleyan’s 2,700 undergraduates, or 27.2%, are Jewish.

Beyond the numbers, however, recently there have been signs of a higher Jewish profile on campus. The new dining hall has a kosher component for the first time. And President Michael Roth, who was installed in July 2007, is the first Jew to hold that post in the school’s 178-year history.

But right now, at least, school officials appear eager to downplay any focus on the role of Jewishness in the recent murder.

“I don’t think the ravings of someone about to commit murder are particularly relevant to who we are,” Roth told the Forward.

When a Forward reporter sought to interview residents of the Bayit, Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, Wesleyan’s Jewish chaplain, sent an e-mail labeled “URGENT” to the Bayit’s house manager, instructing her to “highly discourage” students from talking to the media lest their comments “be distorted to advance a range of personal agendas.” When asked about the e-mail, Teva said that he was simply trying to protect the students.

In general, Jewish identity at Wesleyan has been less notable for its emphasis on ethnic or religious solidarity than on qualities that have come to be associated with a different kind of Jewish cultural identity in America — activist liberal politics, intellectualism and a freewheeling brand of creativity.

That description could have extended to Justin-Jinich. A New York Times article said that Justin-Jinich was Jewish but that a former roommate said she regarded herself as “agnostic and politically liberal.”

“That’s Jewish!” Zwelling exclaimed. He added that the profile of the “typical” Wesleyan student — intellectual, elite and well heeled — though perhaps not entirely accurate, overlaps to a great extent with the image of the young Jewish suburbanites who do, in fact, attend such universities as Wesleyan.

Wesleyan does have a significant active Jewish community, of course, including the Bayit, which hosts Sabbath dinners at its kosher dining hall and mounts regular programs on Jewish and Israeli subjects. Yet even here, the lines are blurred, as a significant minority of the Bayit’s residents aren’t Jewish.

“I never identified with the Jews in the house more than on that day,” said one non-Jewish sophomore, who asked not to be identified by name. “Now I understand what it feels like to be in this position — being Jewish, feeling part of an oppressed group, with hateful prejudice directed against me because I live here.”

Part of the complication is that at Wesleyan, identity, Jewish or otherwise, is not a simple thing. It is a complex and multifaceted construction that people wear as consciously as an outfit of clothes.

In fact, many of the students interviewed bristled at the notion of reducing Justin-Jinich’s killing to a “Jewish Columbine.”

“The thing that frustrates me is that nobody is talking about it as an act of violence against women,” said Karina, a junior who described herself as “half-Jewish” and asked to be identified by her first name only. “To call it a ‘Jewish Columbine,’ that undermines [Morgan’s] intent.”

For others, the notion of antisemitism at a place like Wesleyan was simply foreign.

“Of course antisemitism exists, but I don’t think of it as a daily threat the way that others are targeted on a daily basis,” Jewish sophomore Laura Bliss said. “There’s definitely a tinge of antiquity that added to the surreal way in which everything happened.”

But for many, the most salient fact of the killing was the most basic, which was that Justin-Jinich was simply another student like themselves.

“I think because of the fact that Wesleyan is such a small school, we don’t necessarily see ourselves as a bunch of groups,” said Alex Gumpel, a sophomore. “We’re a bunch of individuals who happen to be in groups. The targeting of one individual is the targeting of the community as a whole.”

Contact Anthony Weiss at weiss@forward.com.

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