Did Northwestern University student efforts to fight for Black student’s safety on campus take an ugly turn to antisemitism? That’s the contention raised in an open letter from the university’s president Morton Schapiro — though students who took part in the protests dispute it.
In a letter to the campus community, Schapiro said some students protesting to abolish the Northwestern police department chanted, “piggy Morty,” outside his house in the early morning of Oct. 17. Schapiro, an observant Jew, wrote that the slur “comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself. Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of antisemitism.”
But Jewish students who have been active in the abolish the Northwestern Police Department protests took issue with Schapiro’s characterization.
“I think that him claiming that the movement is antisemitic pits the Black community against the Jewish community, an ongoing strife that is decades-long and doesn’t need any more unnecessary fuel,” said a Northwestern senior who is active in campus Jewish life and a fellow with Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago. She spoke on the condition she not be named out of concern for reprisal by university authorities.
President Schapiro did not respond to requests for comment.
Organizers of NUCommunityNotCops (NUCNC), a student-run organization aimed at abolishing the Northwestern Police Department, handed out police de-escalation tactic cards and protester-rights reminders to students on Saturday night as they arrived at the Foster Walker Residential Complex to begin the protest.
Students showed up wearing all black to hide their identities along with masks to protect against COVID-19 transmission. This was the sixth daily protest the group led, starting the previous Monday, as part of a commitment to continue until Northwestern abolishes its police department.
Protesters marched all night in downtown Evanston, ending at approximately 12:30 a.m. at Schapiro’s private residence in Evanston.
Earlier in the evening, students tore down and burned the ‘We’re N This Together’ purple mask-shaped banner that hung from Northwestern’s landmark Arnold Weber Arch and spray-painted local businesses, including a Whole Foods. Police cars followed students on their approximately three-mile march.
At Schapiro’s house, some police officials stepped out of their cars dressed in riot gear. Afterward, the crowd of 300 students dispersed peacefully.
Two days later, Schapiro wrote an email to the Northwestern community condemning the protest’s defacing of public property. He said he has “absolutely no intention” of disbanding the university police force. In response, many students popularized the hashtag #ResignMorty on Northwestern students’ Twitter accounts.
In the letter, Schapiro raised the specter of antisemitism.
“Many gathered outside my home this weekend into the early hours of the morning, chanting “f—- you Morty” and “piggy Morty,” he wrote.
The protest organizers used the term “piggy Morty” in a caption on their group’s Instagram account.
One protester, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid potential repercussions with the university for participating, said the word “pig” was used to refer to police officers and those who support them.
She said that in the context of the protest, the phrase was not intended to be antisemitic or related to Schapiro’s Jewishness.
A fifth-year student who attended protests earlier in the week but not Saturday’s said that their Jewish peers had also said the pig analogy was not antisemitic. They criticized President Schapiro’s decision to call the destruction of property violent and said he threatened the student body with police violence in the letter.
Julia Ortiz, a Northwestern sophomore, pointed out that while Schapiro asked students to imagine themselves as the community members affected by the Saturday protest, he never asked students to empathize with Black families after George Floyd’s death.
The president’s accusation of antisemitism, she said, was an attempt to gain empathy.
On Twitter, a Northwestern alumna applauded Schapiro for calling out the protestors. “Their actions merit condemnation,” she wrote. “Violence isn’t free speech.”
In a statement NUCNC released following Schapiro’s letter, the group wrote, “We find it absurd for Morton Schapiro to suggest that protestors were invoking an antisemitic trope derived from the European Middle Ages and not the word “pig” as it refers to the racist United States police. Regardless of our intent, we apologize to our Jewish community, to individuals both inside and outside of the campaign who may have been harmed by language utilized at the protest.”
The letter went on to attack “false claims of antisemitism” for silencing Palestinian activists “and to divide coalitions by falsely claiming that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”
This move by the NUCNC caught some Jewish students who support it by surprise.
“I think there’s a strong double standard around antisemitism,” said Daniel Goldberg, a sophomore. “Yes, [Schapiro] did shift the conversation away from BLM and police brutality, but so did NUCNC,” by attacking Zionism, he added.
Goldberg said he and other Jewish students now faced a tough decision between their Jewish identity and liberal perspective in which they fight for human rights.
“It’s a double standard that non-Jews think they can decide what is and isn’t antisemitism,” Goldberg said, “And also that as long as their intentions aren’t to be antisemitic, it’s OK, when the same doesn’t — and shouldn’t — apply to racism.”