Overcome hate with spirit, thought and love

What are we to make of hateful, bigoted acts that occur in a loving, diverse community? How should we respond?

The swastika and SS insignia found on Old Campus present the most recent of far too many opportunities at Yale to address this question. Amid this familiar turmoil, we have a choice to make. We can perfunctorily condemn the act and move on; some will cynically belittle those whose emotions, at this time, swell beyond the perfunctory. Or we can do something different. To those who would drive Yalies apart from each other with prejudice and vitriol, we can forge a spirited, thoughtful response that brings us closer together. We can seize that idea that is so often tossed about tritely and realize the radical, specific changes that it demands of us every day, if we take it seriously — we can overcome hate with love.

What exactly would overcoming hate with love entail? First, consider how the quandary arises. Bigoted symbols targeting a certain group are always alarming. But in the tight embrace of Mother Yale, bigotry takes on another feature as well: It seems to come out of nowhere. When hate speech happens in a community that clearly is not hateful, why is the act still troubling?

Yale is my home. With a student body that is one-third Jewish, and with a campus that is more intellectually alive and culturally open-minded than the average, this school is a paradise for young Jewish American students. Being Jewish puts me in no physical danger here. That does not change even if a few individuals (provided that they are unarmed) would trivialize — or worse, celebrate — the slaughter of my people. So while it is disconcerting that Yale’s carefully-chosen community includes even one such bigot, is a swastika on Old Campus any more troubling than that?

Yes, it is. When I see a swastika, it is not just the Holocaust’s long-defunct physical dangers that I feel in my bones, but also every subtle, living pain of being in an ethnic, religious or cultural minority. Bearing the legacy of the Holocaust — whose six million victims were my own kin, and not in ancient history but in our grandparents’ time — is one such pain.

There are countless others, from being alone on Christmas, to spending Passover with family and reveling in Yom Kippur’s spiritual high while the rest of the world rushes by on its ordinary tracks. Friday night school dances forced me to choose between observing Shabbat with my family and belonging to the world of my friends. (My father would always tell me, “Go to the dance; enjoy it; but keep Shabbat in your heart.”)

Then, there are the wounds that come not just from minority status, but from the majority’s active acrimoniousness. Yale has virtually none of this phenomenon — thank God. But to Jewish Yalies who have felt it before, a reminder is searing.

I loved many parts of high school, but being an ethno-cultural minority was not one of them. I remember when, in one class, we watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. After class, I knew, the other students would return to circles of friends with no Jews, before returning home to kitchen tables where few Jews had ever sat. It is one thing for a school to enroll Jews and discuss diversity; it is another for the non-Jewish students to include Jewish kids in their circles of friends. (My friends were mostly Asian, gay, black or Jewish.) So as Scorsese’s tale unfolded, with huddled rabbis threatening Jesus with death, it occurred to me: This is how these kids are learning what Jews are like.

When my teacher paused the movie, I said that in ancient Israel, courts actually rarely used execution. A court was deemed a “bloody court” if it executed even one person in 70 years. “The death penalty was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” I said.

“Sure it was, if they killed somebody!” one kid said. Everyone laughed. The teacher moved on.

I wonder how much of my experience parallels that of other marginalized groups. I imagine that whatever group one belongs to, it is exhausting always to be the attorney for it — knowing that the way you describe your culture, or how you act in general, is what others will recall when they think, “What is a Jew [or a member of another group] like?”

At Yale, I am relieved of this burden. I am Noah. In high school, I could not be. I was, to so many students, “the Jew.”

When I see a swastika, I feel this painful anxiety, as well as the Holocaust, afresh. The Holocaust stands as a far more horrific evil — unspeakably so. But the small, daily anxieties of a minority, though absurdly tiny by comparison to genocide, create a wound that I have known in my own life, and that after leaving Yale I may meet again. With it, as with all personal memories, to be reminded of it is to feel as though it is still happening.

How should we respond?

The Torah would suggest: “Love the stranger, for strangers you were in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). This philosophy is one of Judaism’s great contributions to world culture. The idea is that when you have suffered, not only do you have the right to ensure that you never suffer the same wrongdoing again, but also — once you know how it feels — you bear a special obligation to ensure that nobody ever suffers it again.

That is the essence of overcoming hate with love. Since Yale’s swastika incident put no one in physical danger, it would be natural to forget, or even belittle, the earnest distress of those whom the incident genuinely troubled. But we have another option. Every time we hear the message, “You do not belong here” — whether in bigoted graffiti, which is evil in an obvious way, or in a cold, dismissive gesture, which is subtler, and which is therefore more common and appears more socially acceptable — we can take that as a calling to scrutinize our own actions.

Not scrawling bigoted graffiti is the easy part. The hard part is fixing how we treat people: not only people of different backgrounds, but anyone we might otherwise ignore.

We must do this challenging work. Every day we must make this a community where, even more than yesterday, people feel that they belong. Then will we have let something despicable spur us to do something worthy.

Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His columns usually run on alternate Mondays.

Comments

  • Yawn

    Noah,

    Boring and soft as usual.

    I stopped respecting you the moment you said you gave up Shabbat to go to a dance.

    And I'm NOT Jewish!

  • milton rosenberg

    I was an assistant professor at Yale in the 1950's and encountered anti-semitism--or at least condescension toward Jews--from a number of "official" sources. One was the chairman of my department (psychology) who was prone to using Jew as a verb ("they tried to jew the price down"). Another was an officer in the admiussions office who wrote comments on the record of one of my freshman advisees suggesting that "despite his mediterranian appearance" and the "alien quality of his tradesman father" he "may be worth taking a chance on."

    The point, I suppose, is that 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.'

    Milton Rosenberg
    Professor Emeritus of Social Psychology
    University of Chicago

  • Samuel

    That's a pretty weak defense of loving your enemies. Being kind to the innocent stranger instead of oppressing him for being different is entirely unrelated to how one ought to think and act towards those who have chosen to be your enemies and behaved with hostility or violence towards you and your people.

    The fact that courts in ancient Israel rarely executed is not worth much either, especially since this was based in their extremely narrow laws of evidence and other pre-existing strict requirements intended to ensure that the innocent or ignorant were not convicted. These have little bearing on Judaism's attitude for the unrepentantly or implacably guilty.

    Here is a good article on the subject of Judaism and justice, originally published in First Things. It overstates the case a little to make a point, but is nonetheless excellent.

    http://chabadstanford.org/pages/wisdom_center/Article/129.html

    (I of course take my name in this context from the prophet Samuel, who informed King Saul that he had forfeited the divine right to rule by sparing the life of Agag, King of the Amelekites. Jewish tradition states that between the time that Saul spared him and the time that Samuel killed him, Agag conceived a son, the ancestor of Haman, who is referred to as an Agagite, thus showing the consequences of responding to the truly evil with love. As the Talmud says, "Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind")

  • Nicholas

    Dear Mr. Noah Lawrence,

    Hello, I'm Nicholas, but my friends call me Nick. I want you to know I think this is a very passionate, truth-filled article you've written here.

    If I might, I'd like to share with you a speech I wrote myself a little while back.

    "My friends,

    I myself have struggled with hatred in the past; not at any particular group, but against it nonetheless. Really, I don't suppose there are any in their right mind who actually take pleasure in creating fear and anger from incidents such as these.

    No, I believe instead those who do such things are not inherently bad to begin with: Rather it is their upbringing that makes them such a way.

    Granted, I know there are always going to be things we cannot control, but you are absolutely right, my friend when I say we can control our response to such things.

    I for one believe that the best way we might build a better foundation, a better community, indeed, a better world is first to gain true control over our more primitive emotions. The reality of the situation is, the Nazis took an idea, to blame a COMPLETELY innocent ethnic group for problems which were in fact, caused by hatred.

    I also believe, we as people are entitled to that which we stand for as civilized beings, to work together and to ensure that such terrors as the holocaust NEVER again occur.

    I am not saying however that we should respond to violence with violence, for that would defeat the purpose we are proponents for.

    Rather, I believe we must first show the benefits, the truth of our cause in making a better world first by showing this in our communities, in ourselves.

    My friends, ethnic groups, religions, our fellow PEOPLE, are NOT our enemies: NO, it is hatred itself.

    If we hope to make this world a better place, we must first improve ourselves."

    And really, I believe, after reading your article, you have done just that. It is you, Noah, and people like you who are not blinded by such petty things who make this world a better place.

    Good luck, and may God in his wisdom, bless you with ever greater wisdom, happiness, and faith.

    Thank you.