It just keeps coming, doesn’t it?
In the fall, racist and homophobic messages were scrawled on prominent campus buildings for every passerby to see. Last month, a fraternity flaunted a misogynistic message as part of its initiation ritual. And now, a swastika and an SS symbol have been artfully crafted in snow on two Old Campus trees. At least the bigots are getting creative. I do so hope for a Confederate Flag made out of daisy chains to appear on Cross Campus during the first sweet days of spring, just to keep this trend of intolerance from getting redundant.
Much of the outcry over the swastika incident has focused on the fact that the symbol was found on Old Campus, one of the most insulated and iconic spaces on campus. The News reported yesterday that in an e-mail to Pierson students, Master Goldblatt wrote, “It is shocking for these kinds of hateful images to appear anywhere, but it is even more disturbing when it is within the locked gates of Old Campus at Yale University.” Most students with whom I’ve spoken have echoed this sentiment: People who go around randomly reviving Nazi symbols — especially, I might add, when those symbols are made out of snow — are, for the most part, idiots. The problem is that tolerance for idiocy, particularly the kind that celebrates genocide, is quite a bit lower when the idiots in question are supposed to be among the smartest people in the world.
But is an incident like this really worse when it happens at Yale than when it happens elsewhere in the city, the country or the world? The Women’s Center board, and all Yalies who declared themselves outraged by the “Yale Sluts” sign, got a ton of flak for asserting that Yale students should hold themselves to higher standards than average Joes. The world is a misogynistic place, people said, and Yale women better stop expecting better treatment if they’re going to survive after college ends. This kind of argument — that instead of questioning societal problems, we should lower our standards and accept chauvinism in our community — has always struck me as flimsy at best.
But when the symbol in question is something as extreme as a swastika, perhaps the meaning of its context shifts. After all, isn’t the swastika most terrifying when it appears in an environment more historically receptive to violent anti-Semitism than Yale has been?
Last summer, I spent five weeks in Rome. During my first week in the city, I was shocked to see a large swastika drawn in black ink on a wall of a building in a popular neighborhood. As a Jew, I have confronted the history and legacy of the Holocaust time and time again, in both informal and academic settings. But I could not remember ever before coming face to face with the swastika, the unequivocal symbol of the genocide that was responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities all over Europe.
I began to keep an informal tally of the swastikas I encountered around Rome. Once I started paying attention, they seemed to pop up everywhere. I felt frightened and overwhelmed. I kept coming across a symbol that aimed to negate my existence, a symbol that seemed to have the tacit approval of others who saw it.
The meaning of the swastikas in Rome had everything to do with Roman history. The Nazis occupied Rome for nine months. Rome’s centuries-old Jewish community was deported to concentration camps without any intervention on the part of the pope. Even if the perpetrators of the graffiti were only bored punks, the swastika in Rome could not be seen as an arbitrary symbol. It purposefully glorified a period of terror and murder in Italy’s recent past.
The most striking example of Nazi graffiti that I saw in Rome was in EUR, Mussolini’s fascist outpost that now serves as a business center. The harsh, imposing architecture of EUR serves as a chilling reminder of fascism’s power and brutality; building after building testifies to the fascist imperative to wipe out individuality for the sake of national supremacy. Turning a corner, I saw three swastikas, enormous, imposing, recently scrawled at eye level over white marble. The message couldn’t have been more clear: The glorification of genocide and anti-Semitism is bound to continue in the places where it once proved the most deadly.
The crafting of the swastika on Old Campus was a bizarre act that glorified hatred and prejudice and contributed to a disturbing trend at Yale. But instead of inspiring us to get too up in arms about anti-Semitism on campus, the swastika should encourage us to turn our attention to places around the world where this symbol of hatred carries a powerful message of fear precisely because it taps into recent history. The snow has already been scraped off the tree, and I am confident that Yalies will respond intelligently to this event. It won’t be so easy to erase the appeal of anti-Semitism elsewhere.
Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.