ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) — Threatening statements about Jews on an internet discussion board have unnerved students at Cornell University and prompted officials to send police to guard a Jewish center and kosher dining hall.
The menacing, anonymous messages, posted over the weekend in an online forum about fraternities and sororities, came amid a torrent of antisemitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has flowed on social media during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged during a visit to Cornell’s Center for Jewish Living on Monday that state police would work to identify anyone making online threats and hold them accountable.
“No one should be afraid to walk from their dorm or their dining hall to a classroom,” she said. “When speech crosses over into hate speech and into hate crimes, that’s when we have to make sure that students know that we’ll step up and protect them.”
The Cornell University Police Department is also investigating and has notified the FBI.
The now-deleted threats, posted on Saturday and Sunday, didn’t close the dining hall and school officials didn’t initiate any lockdown procedures, but Cornell Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, advised students and staff to avoid the building “in an abundance of caution.”
A state police cruiser was in the street in front of the Center for Jewish Living on a rainy Monday. An SUV with campus security was in the driveway.
“We don’t feel safe right now,” said Ori Baer, a sophomore from Long Island who was born in Jerusalem, and is the center’s vice president. He said some students who live in the center stayed elsewhere Sunday night. Other Jewish students are staying in their rooms. Some parents have called their children and urged them to come home, he said.
Sam Bueker, a junior from Massachusetts, said he suspects the threat came from an online troll who is trying to exploit tensions on campus, although he’s talked to several classmates who are much more unnerved.
He said he believes the university is handling it well by not canceling classes, which he is taking as an indication that authorities don’t find it very credible.
“If the response indicates that students should be afraid, I think they will be afraid,” Bueker said.
Demonstrations both in support of Israel and in support of Palestinians have roiled U.S. campuses since the war began, and both Jewish and Muslim students have complained of feeling isolated and unsupported by their universities.
Reports of hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims have increased. A 6-year-old Muslim boy was fatally stabbed and his mother was wounded in Illinois earlier this month, and the suspect was charged with a hate crime after police said he singled out the victims because of their faith.
The fear of violence at Cornell was stoked by comments left on a Greek life website that is not affiliated with the school in Ithaca, New York, about 227 miles (365 kilometers) northwest of New York City. But even if the threats themselves were empty, they still had the power to frighten.
“The virulence and destructiveness of antisemitism is real and deeply impacting our Jewish students, faculty and staff, as well as the entire Cornell community,” Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said in a statement.
President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday condemned what it says is an alarming increase in antisemitic incidents at U.S. schools and colleges. A statement from the White House says the departments of Justice and Homeland Security have been hosting calls with campus law enforcement officials to offer support and address threats.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Domestic Policy Adviser Neera Tanden plan to visit a university campus this week to hold a roundtable discussion with Jewish students, the White House said. Education Department officials have been visiting campuses across the country to address antisemitism in recent weeks, with more planned this week in New York City and Baltimore.
The agency is also updating a process to report federal discrimination complaints, making it clear that antisemitism and Islamophobia are prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.