Swastikas, other hateful graffiti on Columbia professor’s walls spur her to speak out and fight

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS -- She's spent her professional life as an advocate for acceptance and understanding, but now she's become the target for the absence of both, thanks to a graphic hate crime committed against her.

However, after somebody scrawled anti-semitic graffiti across the outer room of Columbia Teachers College professor Elizabeth Midlarsky's office, she is not only stopping it from causing her to back down, she's using it as inspiration to keep advocating against oppression and hate.

"My feelings are still my feelings, and my attitudes my attitudes," said Dr. Midlarsky, in an interview in her office here at Teachers College.

The professor, 77, said that she's been in declining health in recent years, which has cut back some of her lecturing and public statements in support of Jewish causes, but this latest act of cowardice and hate isn't slowing her down.

"I've been seeing myself as a low key, hardworking person," she said, adding that the graffiti attack "came as an absolute shock to me."

Specifically, as photos captured by the campus publication The Columbia Spectator show, somebody spray-painted two swastikas and an anti-semitic slur on three of the four walls of the anteroom of Midlarsky's two-room office at the sprawling, eight-building campus.

The veteran instructor has spent her career specializing in writing about people who helped to protect and save Holocaust victims. She has also advocated against Holocaust deniers, including former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Her outspokenness against an appearance at Columbia by the Iranian leader in 2007 led to a swastika being painted on her door, and two anti-semitic fliers being left in her mailbox. She reported the incidents, and kept on advocating, teaching, and researching.

This time, her reaction is just as strong, although the circumstances surrounding the attack are different. There's no specfic incident that appears to have sparked this act of hate. Instead, Midlarsky said, there's a general situation of anti-semitism that's growing stronger.

"People are being killed, and threatened," she told PIX11 News, "and I tend to be a very visible Jew, even when I'm quiet."

As an example, she said, that among a Teachers College faculty that has many Jewish members, "I'm the only one who has a mezuzah on my door, which is a Jewish symbol."

The NYPD is investigating the incident, which was most likely recorded on the extensive network of security cameras in the college's hallways, stairwells, entryways and larger classrooms.

Meanwhile, a display erected by students outside of Midlarsky's office invites faculty, staff and students to write messages of support. It has gotten dozens of entries.

Another major development is that the Anti-Defamation League of New York is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.

"Trends are not where we want them to be," said ADL regional director Evan Bernstein, in an interview. "We're disturbed by them."

Looking ahead, Professor Midlarsky said that the incident served to propel her to keep speaking out against oppression, and that it should be a reminder to everyone to do so, especially if they're marginalized in any way.

"When something happens like this, then you have to a choice, essentially," Midlarsky told PIX11 News. "You can either let it get you down and remove you from the picture, or you can say, 'If things can get this bad, I obviously have to fight them.'"

"I really feel that at this point in time," she added, "that anybody in a minority group should be prepared to stand strong."

Teachers College will hold a teach-in on December 12, with experts on the history and activities of hate groups, in an effort to overcome and quell those groups' actions.

Dr. Midlarsky said that she intends to be at the event.