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Remembering When Anti-Semitic Violence Had the Power to Shock

When a young Jewish woman was murdered at my university a decade ago, the crime seemed unthinkable. Today, such events can feel almost chillingly unsurprising.
People gather outside the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30th, 2018, following the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent U.S. history.

People gather outside the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30th, 2018, following the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent U.S. history.

On May 6th, 2009, around 1 p.m., Stephen Morgan parked his red Nissan Sentra outside Wesleyan University's bookstore in Middletown, Connecticut, and walked in wearing a wig and carrying a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol. He fatally shot Johanna Justin-Jinich, the student who was working the bookstore café's cash register, then dropped the wig and gun and left on foot, though he didn't go far. When the police arrived, they interviewed Morgan as a witness—he wasn't yet a suspect.

Thirty-six hours elapsed before Morgan turned himself in, his clothes dirty and wet, at a convenience store 10 miles away. As we would later learn, the 29-year-old former Navy petty officer had written threats against Wesleyan students in his journal. He had also written that he wanted to make Wesleyan the "Jewish Columbine."

That day was Spring Fling, an annual concert and celebration on a grassy hill in the middle of campus, and Wesleyan alum Santigold (still going by Santogold back then) was set to perform. I was three weeks from graduating, and my friends and I, along with hundreds of other students, were gathered on Foss Hill listening to the opening band when one of the deans walked onstage to announce that someone had been shot on Broad Street—the details would come later—and that we had to evacuate the hill.

Stephen Morgan and Johanna Justin-Jinich had met two years earlier through a New York University summer course on human sexuality. In the days after the murder, the media described Morgan as a stalker. That summer at NYU, he'd called Johanna repeatedly and sent her close to 40 harassing emails. She reported his behavior to the university and police but declined to press charges.

Along with the wig, the gun, and the car, Morgan left behind a composition notebook and a laptop at the crime scene. The notebook appeared to be his journal. In an entry dated May 6th at 11 a.m.—about two hours before he arrived at the bookstore—Morgan wrote, "Kill Johanna. She must Die." He mentioned "seeing all of the beautiful and smart people at wes," and added, "I think it okay to kill Jews and go on killing spree at this school." I never did find out whether he knew he'd picked a day when hundreds of Wesleyan students had gathered just a few blocks away, utterly vulnerable on Foss Hill. After police read those journal entries, the whole campus was put on lock-down.

Johanna came from a Jewish family, though she considered herself agnostic. Her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.

At the time, the idea of a threat "toward Wesleyan and/or its Jewish students" seemed unreal to me. School shootings were not as common then as they've since become, but the Virginia Tech shooting, in which 33 people died, had happened two years earlier. When police searched Morgan's laptop, they found searches from May 5th and 6th that concerned the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the Virginia Tech shooting, along with video searches for the phrases "hate Jews" and "kill Jews." Police also found a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a hoax describing a Jewish plan for world domination that was used in Nazi propaganda—in the room where Morgan had stayed the night before.

It was the "Jewish" part of the threat that I had the hardest time processing. Though I'd encountered bits of hushed discrimination as a kid growing up in Westchester County—I knew from a young age that my Jewish family would not be welcome at certain country clubs—true anti-Semitism seemed distant, almost of another era. Morgan's evident desire to kill Jews surprised me as much as it horrified me. (That Johanna was killed by a man who'd harassed her wasn't lost on me either, but that part was never surprising.)

When the news broke that 11 people had been killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday, I was away with friends. Back home on Sunday evening, when I found myself thinking about Johanna, it dawned on me that the friends I'd spent the weekend with were the same ones I'd huddled with on my bed on the afternoon of Johanna's murder 10 years earlier.

In May of 2009, President Barack Obama, whom I'd heard speak at Wesleyan's commencement while he was campaigning the year before, had recently taken office. I'd spent election night in 2008 dancing on the same hill that we'd later evacuate on the day of the murder. At that time, I would not have imagined that, in the subsequent decade, white nationalists would march in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, "Jews will not replace us," or that a sitting president would call those protesters "very fine people." But as Jared Keller wrote for Pacific Standard, Donald Trump "has done plenty to legitimize views previously considered too extreme for political discourse—and that, in turn, has opened the door for political violence."

Anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in the United States since the 2016 election. The Anti-Defamation League found that the number of incidents rose by 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase since the ADL began tracking them in 1979. Last year, was also the second year in a row that such incidents nearly doubled in schools. The largest increase was in vandalism, which, the ADL notes, is "particularly concerning, because it indicates that the perpetrators feel emboldened enough to break the law." And for the first time since 2010, there were anti-Semitic incidents in every state.

When I think of Johanna's murder now, when I think of all of us college students gathered on a hill that day and all the what ifs, it's my own shock that I find striking. And that feels like a crucial difference between the U.S. I thought I knew at age 22 and the country I know I live in now: I'm still horrified, but I'm not shocked anymore.