Nazi quote in Baker under investigation by MIT Police

MIT Campus Police and the Title IX Office are investigating an incident in which a phrase invoking the Holocaust was found written on a whiteboard in Baker House.

The message “Work will set you free (1941),” found in Baker’s 2W hall Tuesday morning, is a translation of a phrase that was inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. The year, 1941, is the date when mass exterminations at the camps began.

MIT Campus Police logs from Tuesday night indicated that a Baker resident had reported the incident, and noted that the remarks had been erased prior to the call. The police did not comment on the current state of the investigation.

In an e-mail to Baker residents, Heads of House John Fernandez ’85 and Malvina Lampietti characterized the message as “hurtful and alienating speech, which cannot be tolerated in any way at Baker and MIT.”

“Only through a thorough examination of the events surrounding this phrase can one fully appreciate how inappropriate it is to find it scrawled here in Baker,” they said.

“MIT takes such acts seriously, and we will be investigating this incident thoroughly,” said an e-mail signed by Suzy Nelson, vice president for student life, Rabbi Michelle Fisher, executive director of MIT Hillel, and Edmund Bertschinger, Institute community and equity officer, to all dormitory house teams.

Bertschinger told The Tech that the message was “clearly inconsistent with MIT’s values and harassment policy.” The policy covers any conduct that “creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment.”

In some cases, harassment may also be in violation of Massachusetts civil law (which the MIT Police investigation could determine) or MIT policies on nondiscrimination (which the Title IX Office may decide).

While an e-mail to Simmons residents from the dorm’s head of house said that MIT is considering the message to be hate speech, Nelson’s e-mail did not refer to it as such. Institute Title IX coordinator Sarah Rankin did not comment on whether MIT has an institutional definition of hate speech, which is not defined in U.S. law.

However, as a private institution, MIT can take whatever steps it deems appropriate in dealing with the incident, as long as those are consistent with what’s laid out in MIT policy. According to MIT Policies and Procedures, this could include suspension or expulsion.   

Bertschinger told The Tech Wednesday morning that while the intent of the writer is not currently known, “the effect was to cause hurt, anger, and fear.”

Addressing the possibility that the statement was intended to draw comparison between concentration camps and the heavy workload at MIT, the East Campus house team leaders condemned such an analogy as “disingenuous and crass at best and dangerous at worst” in an e-mail to EC residents.

“We don’t need to misappropriate history and the oppression of certain groups in order to describe whatever struggles we experience as members of this community,” they wrote.

While some students have framed the issue as a question of freedom of expression, Andy Sellars, director of the BU Technology and Cyberlaw Clinic, noted that, “while freedom of expression encourages debate and challenge of ideas and values,” the message was not presented with a broader context, nor did it invite discussion about people’s point of view. It was “an overt reference to the Holocaust, and not offered in any sober, scientific discussion of the Holocaust.”

For this reason, he told The Tech, it seemed that the message’s only intention was to cause harm.

Evelyn Florentine ’18, whose grandparents were prisoners in Auschwitz, expressed that the Holocaust has affected many members of the MIT Jewish community closely. She said that the message, being a symbol of the Holocaust, “inherently is hate speech” and anti-Semitic in nature.

“I don’t agree with the argument that maybe they were drunk, maybe they were doing something stupid... there’s no use in making excuses for this type of incident,” Suri Bandler ’17 added.

Bandler asserted that this is not the first instance of anti-Semitism at MIT in recent years. She brought up last year’s case of a swastika being spray-painted in the basement of Senior House, for which, she said, no official correspondence was issued, even to members of the Jewish community.

She warned of the danger of falling into assumption that every new incident is rare and isolated, adding that “there has been an uptick in anti-Semitism on college campuses across the country.”

Both Bandler and Florentine expressed their disappointment that no central e-mail has been sent to all MIT students, with administrators instead relying on individual living groups to notify students of the situation. As a result, Bandler said, Alpha Epsilon Pi, a predominantly Jewish MIT fraternity, only heard of the incident through word of mouth, while students living off campus are also left unaware.

Allan Sadun ’17, who is also Jewish, said in an interview with The Tech that he believes MIT’s response, by placing the focus on seeking the perpetrators, instills fear rather than creating “a more welcoming environment on campus.”  

Sadun asserted that the incident should have been handled within Baker, instead of being investigated by the Title IX office. “At some point,” he said, “we can’t be responsible for policing every interpretation of every action.”

“We should be cracking down on things that do real harm… this does not do real harm,” Sadun added.

Baker’s house team has organized an event to follow up on the incident, intended to bring together Baker residents, the house’s mental health liaison, and members of the Title IX office together to “process and learn.”

Anshula Gandhi and Patrick Wahl contributed reporting. 

Update 12/10/2016: This article was updated after the Title IX Office responded to a request for comment. 

Update 12/13/2016: This article was edited to better contextualize a statement from Allan Sadun.