In the wake of the unsolved firebombing of a Brown/RISD Hillel employee’s apartment Saturday, members of the Brown community gathered last night in Alumnae Hall’s Crystal Room to discuss the attack and its aftermath.
“This gathering is an opportunity for members of the Brown community to receive information, ask questions and share concerns and ideas about the incident this past weekend and the issues it has raised on our campus and the surrounding community,” Interim Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 told the audience in his opening remarks.
He began with the facts. At 1:15 a.m. Saturday morning, two Molotov cocktails – glass bottles filled with gasoline, stuffed with rags and set on fire – were thrown at the off-campus apartment of Yossi Knafo, an emissary from the Jewish Agency for Israel employed at Hillel.
One explosive struck the side of Knafo’s apartment and fell to the ground, leaving scorch marks on the house’s siding. Another flew through a window and landed in Knafo’s bedroom but failed to ignite.
In the intervening days, an investigation launched by the Providence Police Department has grown to involve the Department of Public Safety, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Rhode Island and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Israeli reaction to the attack has been swift and severe. The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday that Israeli officials are investigating the incident and believe that it was “most likely spontaneously perpetrated by a local group,” and that hundreds of Jewish Agency employees in the U.S. and Canada have been “briefed on the event and its security implications.”
A $10,000 reward has been offered by Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island for information leading to the conviction of anyone responsible. Knafo has been moved to an undisclosed location.
“There will likely be more questions than answers at this time about what happened and why,” Carey said. “What we do know is that this was a serious and reprehensible act of violence that affected a member of our community. It is important that we acknowledge that and in doing so stand together as a community and repudiate any acts of violence in any place at any time, on our campus or off.”
“We all have a responsibility to stand up for what is right and stand against what is wrong,” Carey concluded. “I encourage all of you to engage in discussion tonight and beyond with that spirit in mind.”
Carey then opened the floor to questions.
Many students asked Maj. Monty Monteiro, commanding officer of the PPD’s Homeland Security Division, about the ongoing investigation of the attack and whether the incident might fit into a pattern of similar violence.
He replied that Molotov cocktail attacks are very rare in Providence but declined to comment on the investigation itself. “It’s not like we’ve got thousands of leads out there,” he said. “We have a few leads, a few directions and those are being kept very close to the vest, so to speak, so that it doesn’t compromise any investigation.”
After the period for questions, Undergraduate Council of Students President Michael Glassman ’09 and UCS Vice President Lauren Kolodny ’08 stood to read a statement that they had prepared in conjunction with the Graduate Student Council and the Medical Student Senate.
“When a deplorable event like this happens, we must demonstrate our strength by standing in solidarity,” they read. Glassman and Kolodny distributed copies and exhorted audience members to collect signatures from their friends and return the pages to UCS.
Next, attendees divided into four groups, each facilitated by a pair of volunteers, while Carey and President Ruth Simmons spoke quietly in a corner of the room. LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator Kelly Garrett led one of the sections.
“Students need a safe place to talk about their feelings and know that there’s support, so I think (this) event lends itself to discussing difficult topics,” Garrett said.
In that group, several students voiced surprise at the level of response the attack generated, given that police are still unsure whether those responsible were motivated by Knafo’s religion or nationality.
“Why, when there are other acts of violence that occur on the campus, why does that just merit an e-mail that someone was mugged or someone was sexually assaulted?” one student asked. “Deep down, are we all thinking because he’s Israeli he was targeted? And if we really believe that we don’t know the motive of this, I’m just wondering, what is it about this attack that’s so different?”
Jon Mitchell ’09, a member of Hillel’s student executive board, responded: “I’m trying really hard not to jump to other conclusions,” he said. “But I can’t get away from the idea that the Molotov cocktail is a weapon of movements and statements … Either there was a statement being made or somebody just needed to set a building on fire for no reason at all, and that’s even harder to deal with in a lot of ways. So the nature of the weapon itself has kept me asking questions.”
Others expressed frustration that the University delayed informing students for more than a day after it first learned of the attack. One student said she first heard about the incident when her mother e-mailed her an article from Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper. “I thought it was surprising that it would get to Israeli news significantly before I found out about it, as someone who’s connected to communities here that would care,” she said.
“We in the administration did not do as well as we should have in communicating information to the campus community,” Carey acknowledged in his speech. “We recognize that issue and are taking steps to review our protocols and procedures to do better going forward.”
Simmons first informed the community about the attack in an e-mail Sunday night, followed by an e-mail from Carey the next evening publicizing Tuesday’s gathering.
Security remained tight in the attack’s aftermath. Two armed Department of Public Safety officers flanked the Crystal Room’s doorway during the meeting, and a second pair guarded the Glenn and Darcy Wiener Center, which houses Hillel.
In an interview after the event, Carey and Margaret Klawunn, associate vice president of campus life and dean for student life, said the gathering had been planned on Monday at a meeting of students, faculty and administrators, who concluded that the campus as a whole should have an opportunity for discussion similar to a gathering held for the Hillel community Sunday night.
Both administrators expressed satisfaction with the event and said they would continue to monitor the investigation and, through outreach efforts like Tuesday’s event, keep their fingers on the pulse of the Brown community.