Antisemitic flyers found around UTC unnerve students

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd /  The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus is seen on Oct. 4, 2022. Antisemitic flyers posted around UTC have unnerved the small Jewish community on campus.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus is seen on Oct. 4, 2022. Antisemitic flyers posted around UTC have unnerved the small Jewish community on campus.

When University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Carter Jordan first heard about the flyers, he dismissed it as hearsay.

But then he looked around campus Saturday morning, and there they were: White papers on light poles, outside the UTC Human Resources Building and the Doctor's Building, making antisemitic claims about slave ownership.

Jordan, who is Jewish, took down the posters he found, he said by phone Sunday. But with antisemitism on the rise globally and in the U.S., the flyers found this weekend around UTC have unnerved the small Jewish student body on campus.

"I was shocked more than anything," said Carter, who said many in the community are scared.

Local Jewish leaders described the flyers, which make inaccurate claims about the role of Jewish people in the slave trade, as "disgusting," and have called on leaders outside the Jewish community to speak against creeping forms of antisemitism they fear could lead to something worse.

In a Monday morning statement to students, UTC Chancellor Steven Angle said the UTC administration learned of "several antisemitic flyers posted on our campus. The flyers include blatant falsehoods."

He added that "the university strongly condemns and rejects antisemitism in any form" and said he directed the removal of the flyers and for campus security to investigate the incident.

In large, boldface type, the flyers claimed that "at the height of American slavery, 78% of slave owners were ethnic Jews."

Some Jewish people did own slaves, said Dalton State College historian Seth Weitz. But he said the numbers cited on the flyer are statistically impossible.

On the eve of the U.S. Civil War -- a period when the slave population in the U.S. was greatest, and tens of thousands of Jews were moving to the U.S. from conflict-worn Europe -- there were about 15,000 to 25,000 Jewish people living in the South, Weitz said by phone Monday. In that period there were about 400,000 slaveholders in the South, Weitz said.

Moreover, as he told the Times Free Press in September, the mid-19th century South was home to around 45,000 slave owners who owned 20 or more slaves. Roughly 120 of those slave owners were Jewish, he said.

Weitz, who lives in Chattanooga, said he would never defend the Jewish people who owned slaves. What he and other historians take issue with are distorted and misleading statistics.

The flyer posted around UTC listed "sources." Two are specific web addresses that discuss Jewish population data. One citation is for the "US Government Consensus, 1860." The other citation lists a single name and a page number.

Weitz said he does not know where the producer of the flyer got the information. But he recognized the influence of a 1991 book, "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," produced by the Black nationalist organization Nation of Islam, which argued that Jews played a disproportionately large role in the Atlantic Slave trade.

Several historians have condemned the book for its shoddy scholarship. In a 1992 New York Times essay, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is now the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, called the book "one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled" and said it had become "the Bible of new antisemitism."

Gates added that "the book massively misrepresents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotation of often reputable sources."

In a statement Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, condemned the distribution of the flyers on the UTC campus.

Antisemitism can take many forms.

"Sometimes we get a little caught up in white supremacist antisemitism, blatant antisemitism," said Michael Dzik of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga by phone Monday.

But antisemitism proliferating lately on social media and beyond has a more subtle character, he said, and he worries it is getting normalized and could snowball into worse.

This more subtle strain of antisemitism isn't new, but it's becoming more prevalent, said Mizpah Congregation Rabbi Craig Lewis by email Sunday.

"There is an increasing feeling of isolation as too many people are silent and don't see why it's a big deal," he said.

Lewis said some civic leaders didn't denounce the statements of Marie Mott, an unsuccessful Chattanooga City Council candidate whose comments about Jewish slave owners surfaced during her campaign this past summer.

"Too many people believe this stuff because historically there is an ingrained distrust of Jewish people," Lewis said. "They only need to be given a 'reason' to follow that instinct. These misrepresented pieces of history feed that narrative."

The Chattanooga area is home to around 1,700 Jews, Dzik said, and it has a history of both antisemitic violence and anti-Black violence, sometimes connected. For example, the man who confessed to the 1977 bombing of Chattanooga's Beth Sholom Synagogue also murdered a Black UTC student who was in an interracial relationship.

Dzik said Jews know how to stand up for themselves, but as high-profile antisemitic rhetoric surfaces amid a wave of antisemitism reports nationwide, they ask "non-Jewish friends to do the same thing" -- and he specifically wants clergy to educate their congregations about antisemitism.

"We need their help," he said. "We can't do this alone."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at or 423-757-6431. Follow him on Twitter @aonSchwartz.

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