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.