A few weeks ago, a self-described “neo-fascist” was going to attend my school. Now, he’s not. Here’s how students — and the Jewish community — at George Mason University in northern Virginia organized to stop him.
On June 10, I learned from my school’s student-run Facebook page, GMU Generalposting, that Andrew Brewer, who had attempted to join the white supremacist group Patriot Front and in doing so professed anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi views, would be a part of the GMU Class of 2024. After reading articles about his views and listening to recordings of his disgusting hatred of Jews, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women and other minorities, I realized how he endangered the Mason community at large. I knew that we, the students, had to act swiftly.
The same evening, I drafted a petition demanding the university rescind Brewer’s offer of admission. I contacted the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish defense group, for support. Officials there offered excellent advice as to how we could keep mounting pressure on the university and wrote directly to GMU’s Interim President Anne Holton on our behalf.
The following day, the presidents of Chabad of GMU, Mason Hillel and myself, the president of the Gamma Mu Chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, sent a joint email to the dean of admissions, Amy Takayama-Perez, and vice president of university life, Rose Pascarell. In it we further expressed our frustration and the demand that GMU rescind the offer to Brewer.
With this first letter, GMU’s Jewish community communicated, organized and acted quickly in the face of injustice.
As all of this took place, the petition amassed almost 7,000 signatures. The Mason community rallied against white supremacy — not only signing the petition but calling the admissions office, reaching out to the press and keeping the spotlight on our school’s administration.
On June 12, Takayama-Perez and Pascarell released a poorly worded, non-response statement to student demands. I was particularly furious by how the two GMU officials emphasized that “there may not be a path to legal or disciplinary action” on the matter of admitting Andrew Brewer.
This claim was incredibly misleading, as universities have recently rescinded offers of admission for far less. Take what happened at the University of Florida, for example: A high school student had her admission offer rescinded after writing an Instagram post where she openly confessed to being racist and targeted two black girls with atrociously inflammatory language.
GMU’s attempt to drop the issue and offer no further comment was a slap in the face to students, particularly after Interim President Holton and Incoming President Gregory Washington released a joint statement 11 days prior in light of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. In this statement, Holton and Washington promised no “words without action” and committed to the safety and well-being of GMU’s student population. Yet still, they were silent as we, the students, cried out for our safety.
Despite the university’s seeming indifference, I kept organizing to make sure Brewer wouldn’t come to campus, releasing a follow-up statement through my fraternity. I reached out to other student leaders on campus to prepare a public statement criticizing the university from GMU’s registered student organizations and student government.
Additionally, I sought help and advice from Jewish student leaders at other universities to learn how to best deal with our administration. I’m incredibly thankful for all who offered advice and support because, without them, what happened next would have been impossible. On June 16, we received the following message from GMU’s University Life Twitter Account:
“UPDATE: In the matter of the student admitted to George Mason University referenced in our previous communication, the matter has been resolved. The individual will not be a student at George Mason University.”
Success! Of sorts…
On the surface. It’s important to note that GMU has not confirmed whether he won’t be attending because his admission was rescinded or because he simply chose not to attend GMU.
The lack of transparency and dragging of feet on my university’s end speak volumes about its commitment to the safety and well-being of its students. GMU already has a history of ignoring and deflecting its students’ grievances, from avoiding transparency regarding funding from the Charles Koch Foundation to outright disregarding the trauma of sexual abuse survivors by hiring Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to a teaching post at its law school.
Had the Mason community not organized on the scale that we did, I believe my university would have remained complicit in anti-Semitism and white supremacy. While the unease I feel over the Brewer situation is still palpable, I’ve written this piece with the hopes that it will inspire future energetic Jewish advocacy on campuses around the United States.
To any Jewish college students reading this, I hope you take away a few lessons I’ve learned during my time as a Jewish student leader that have definitely helped me in my own advocacy efforts:
1. Power structures, particularly university administrations, are meant to be challenged. Don’t ever let those in power attempt to convince you your concerns and fears of anti-Semitism are invalid or exaggerated.
2. Administrators respond to strong, public and actionable demands, not honeyed niceties. The only reason the GMU administration responded and took any action was because students petitioned, called the office of admissions en masse and showed they were fully willing to escalate the issue if GMU did nothing.
3. Not every advocacy effort will be successful. For every success I’ve had in my own initiatives, I can count at least 15 failures. Don’t let those failures discourage you; keep fighting, and you will triumph.
4. Seek unconditional allies and be an unconditional ally. The only way we’ll ever truly achieve Jewish and collective liberation is if we adopt this mindset and practice it to the fullest extent.
I’m proud of what we accomplished at George Mason University, and I firmly believe, as Jews, we can accomplish it elsewhere. Our fight isn’t over yet.
And let me leave you with some food for thought from Chapter 2: Mishna 3 of Pirkei Avot. I think it’s particularly relevant.
“Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a [person] in the hour of [their] distress.”
Zachary Wolfson is a rising junior at George Mason University.
Israel, mental health, anti-Semitism — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz @firstname.lastname@example.org.