'We are being watched,' Knoxville Jewish leaders report uptick in hate

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - An uptick in acts of hate against Knoxville's Jewish community has leaders concerned about safety. The latest in a series of episodes involved a swastika painted on the iconic Rock on the University of Tennessee campus, according to Chip Rayman, President of the Knoxville Jewish Alliance at the Arnstein Jewish Community Center.

On Friday night, a student reportedly witnessed suspicious activity near The Rock. Rayman said that upon closer inspection, the student realized several people were painting the words "Stronger through hate" over the original message, "Stronger than hate." A swastika had also been painted over the Star of David, according to Rayman. He said the student quickly called on friends to cover up the message with a new one that read, "Vols mean all."

"[The student] should be celebrated for seeing something and saying something," said Rayman.

Tara Bain, the Director of Hillel at UTK, said two students, not one, witnessed the suspicious activity Friday night. She said, "The Jewish community and the university are coming together this week, as well as representatives from other organizations, to create a plan for unity."

Tyra Haag, Director of Media Relations for the University of Tennessee, said, "We are saddened that individuals would use this public forum to express their hateful views. The Rock has always been a standing area of free speech and free expression. Even though the First Amendment protects hate speech, our campus community takes it upon themselves to paint over messages that are not reflective of the university’s values. UT is made up of people with a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Hate is not welcome on our campus.”

The incident at The Rock was the latest in a series of troubling events. Rayman said a swastika was etched onto the front door of the Jewish Community Center, a flyer with a swastika was placed on the rabbi's car at Temple Beth El on Kingston Pike, and flyers containing messages about "kosher tax" were placed on 26 cars at the Jewish community's Noshville food event. Rayman said an anti-Israel program was also recently hosted in Knoxville.

"We are being watched, the Jewish community is being watched. The perpetrators seem to know where we are and when we're going to have an event and they've showed up at a couple of them, even with a police presence. So they're bolder, much bolder, coming onto the property," Rayman said.

Each incident was reported either to the Knoxville Police Department of the local field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Rayman.

On Tuesday night, Rayman spoke at the Knoxville City Council meeting and shared details of the recent events with council members. He listed five acts of antisemitism within the community, "A swastika was etched into our glass front at the Arnstein Jewish Community Center. At Temple Beth El, a Hitler flyer with swastikas was placed on a rabbi’s vehicle and on our front doors.”

Rayman continued, "It’s not just us. It’s the black churches, its' the mosque, it’s our own Unitarian church that was attacked in 2008. We’re all at risk though I feel like the Jewish community in particular is being watched."

He asked for additional security for the city's Jewish locations. He urged Mayor Madeline Rogero to consider a campaign against hate to provide, "messages about love, about getting along, about tolerance, and plaster and broadcast them all over our county."

Rayman proposed asking police officers to increase patrols, and spend their breaks and eat lunch at Jewish community buildings. He even offered to feed officers for free.

He said the officers with Knoxville's Office of the Department of Homeland Security had already offered to ask state police to help in those ways.

Rayman said the Jewish community asked for active shooter training, and scheduled a meeting Thursday with UT's vice chancellor of student affairs to discuss the painting on The Rock.