Nazi salute

Emerson College is investigating a professor’s poor attempt at humor.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

A Boston professor is taking a leave of absence amid an uproar over a Nazi salute he made in a classroom.

Brian McNeil, a visual and media arts professor at Emerson College made the gesture during a class on the history of photography.

According to the Berkeley Beacon, the campus newspaper, the incident took place last semester. It came to light when Jewish on Campus, a national student-run organization, publicized the incident on Instagram.

The Beacon reported that the incident took place as students were going over their answers to a quiz on mid-20th century German photographers.

The text of the Dec. 16, 2021 post said, “While going over the answers to a quiz, my professor randomly asked me to say something in German. This caught me off guard so I said no. He proceeded to say something in German to me for whatever reason, and then did the Hitler salute at me and the other Jews in my class. This isn’t the first time he had done or said something ignorant in class.”

The quote was attributed to “Anonymous, Emerson College.”

The post and the furor it raised on campus prompted the administration to investigate.

McNeil, who has taught at Emerson since 1997, told the Beacon the salute was meant to make fun of the Nazis and that he doesn’t recall singling out any Jewish students. He said it happened as he was about to discuss August Sander, a German portrait photographer whose work was constrained by the Nazis.

But McNeil admitted his salute could have been perceived the wrong way.

“This isn’t the first time that he’s done something that’s questionable,” Sadie Swayze, a first-year student who was in the classroom, told the Beacon. “But this was the first time that it was kind of shocking.”

She characterized the incident as stemming from ignorance, not hatred.

“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.”

Another first-year Jewish student in the class, Aaron Baseman told the Beacon he thought the social media reaction was unfairly demonizing McNeil.

“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. [McNeil] was talking about a photographer who was sort of persecuted by the Nazis.”

McNeil will take a hiatus from teaching for at least the rest of the spring semester as the administration investigates.