Professor faces outcry over antisemitism allegations

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Photo: Cho Yin Rachel Lo

Students cross the intersection of Boylston St. and Tremont St.

By Bailey Allen and Abigail Lee

Mired in controversy, an Emerson professor is facing accusations of antisemitic behavior in the classroom last semester—while acknowledging that his actions could have been “perceived the wrong way.”

Brian McNeil, a visual and media arts professor who has worked at Emerson since 1997, allegedly performed the Nazi salute in his History of Photography class. The incident, publicized on the Instagram account @JewishOnCampus, drew widespread outcry from Emerson students and prompted the college to open an investigation. McNeil stated in an interview with The Beacon that the behavior was meant to parody antisemitism, not espouse it. 

“It was perceived as me making fun of Jews, but I wasn’t,” McNeil said. “I was making fun of Nazis. It was an anti-Nazi, sarcastic moment that I had done.”

The alleged antisemitic behavior stemmed from a quiz review in class, dealing with several mid-20th century German photographers. Firstly, McNeil said he asked the students whether they knew the German translation of a photography term—a question that, according to the social media post, was targeted at a Jewish student.

“Because it’s all about perception, perhaps [a Jewish student] thought that I was singling them out,” he said. “But I don’t remember doing that.”

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The next quiz question, McNeil explained, regarded August Sander’s photo series “Face of Our Time”—a series documenting the German people of the Weimar Republic era. 

“This is when I raised my hand and sarcastically imitated a Nazi,” McNeil said.

McNeil said his salute was meant to parody the verboten—“forbidden”—nature of the photo essay during the Nazi regime. 

“And then I said, ‘Oh my God, I raised my hand like that,’” he said.

Sadie Swayze, a first-year visual and media arts major, was a student in McNeil’s class when the incident occurred. Swayze, who is Jewish, expressed their discomfort after McNeil’s actions.

This isn’t the first time that he’s done something that’s questionable,” Swayze said. “But this was the first time that it was kind of shocking.”

After he did it, the class was audibly like, ‘Oh, that just happened,’” they continued. “It was very uncomfortable.”

McNeil, for his part, maintained that no one in the class “raised any issue” at the time. He said he was disappointed by the reaction on social media, where the incident quickly garnered attention among Emerson community members.

Jordana Meltzer, a junior theatre education and performance major, who is the president of Hillel—the Jewish organization on campus—expressed her distress over the incident, which was publicized just weeks after a Hillel poster was defaced with antisemitic graffiti.

“I was pretty disgusted and shocked,” Meltzer said. “I hope that [the administration] can actually figure out what happened and go through the whole case without dropping it because putting it in the priority and taking whatever steps further to see what needs to be done [is important].”

Meltzer said the administration’s next step should be to educate students, faculty, and staff through a more comprehensive bias training that highlights antisemitism in great detail.

McNeil stressed that the accusations of antisemitism did not reflect him as a person.

“My father was a bomber pilot in World War II,” he said. “I mean, he was bombing the hell out of the Nazis. So, you know, there’s no antisemitic behavior on my part, I don’t think. I mean, my wife is Jewish.”

Aaron Baseman, another Jewish first-year visual and media arts major in McNeil’s class, said although the event indeed took place, it was taken out of context.

“What really unnerved me about the situation was the way it was contextualized online,” Baseman said. “It was contextualized in a very different way—one that seems largely discriminatory online, when it was surrounded by a hefty amount of very anti-fascist, anti-Hitler context. He was talking about a photographer who was sort of persecuted by the Nazis.”

Baseman took issue with the instinctive reactions by commenters on Instagram that immediately villanized McNeil. 

“There are certain elements of him being out of touch and maybe making some lightly impolite remarks, but I would never call them intentionally hateful or discriminatory,” Baseman continued.

The professor also garnered support from two professors in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts, who wrote a Letter to the Editor arguing that the college’s reaction to the incident was premature, and rooted in an “appetite for moral outrage” rather than “a higher sense of reasoned deliberation.”

“It created an atmosphere of prejudgment, and I don’t think that that was [Interim President Bill Gilligan’s] intention,” said Sam Binkley, one of the authors of the letter, in an interview with The Beacon.

Binkley commended Gilligan for responding promptly to the report of harm and pursuing a full investigation, clarifying that his issue was not with the anonymous student’s use of social media, but the hasty acceptance of the context set forth by the Instagram post. 

“This is someone who made a mistake, someone who owes an apology, but he gets it,” Binkley added. “He’s willing to offer that apology.” 

McNeil will take a hiatus from teaching for at least the spring 2022 semester, a decision he said was made “with the college” to allow time for the investigation to be conducted.

When asked what he would have done differently, McNeil said he would “avoid that type of humor.”

Peggy Shukur, the deputy regional director of Anti-Defamation League New England, said incidents like this one raised questions of intent versus impact.

“I appreciate that this professor didn’t intend anything offensive to people, but the impact of using a Nazi symbol on Jewish students and probably many more who have been victims, or who have had family members that were victims of the Nazis—that’s really what we should center here,” Shukur said.

“With all due respect to the role of humor in the classroom, this particular area of Nazis, swastikas, and those sorts of symbols are so deeply serious and impactful to so many communities that we really ask that people be thoughtful before making light of them,” she continued. 

College spokesperson Michelle Gaseau declined to comment to The Beacon, citing an ongoing investigation into the matter. 

Although Swayze said McNeil’s behavior was offensive at times—noting that the professor once used the “r-slur,” referring to people with intellectual disabilities, to jokingly describe his computer—they added that they did not feel McNeil meant harm.

“I don’t think that Brian is a completely malicious, awful person,” Swayze said. “He definitely showed his age and the level of ignorance that comes along with being in the older generation—thinking that you can say things and then get away with it.”