Several weeks ago, I was sitting in my common room with a friend from East Africa.
While we were talking, my friend brought up a question she had been meaning to ask for some time: Why is anti-Semitism such a powerful force? Why is so much emphasis placed on the Holocaust when so many other genocides have since been perpetrated?
A million thoughts rushed into my head. I began with Paul’s Letter to the Romans, proceeded to explain the Inquisition and described the cycle of pogroms that characterized life in Eastern Europe for countless generations. We each create little individual bubbles, but living at Yale with so many different people helps us pierce these bubbles and learn from one another.
Too often, we conflate our victory over the Nazis with a victory over anti-Semitism. Centuries of oppression and violence culminated in the premeditated murder of six million Jews. But the roots of this hatred are so deep, and its grip so strong, that despite our best efforts, we’ve failed to eradicate it. Holocaust education is now mandatory in the United States, and is taken very seriously in Germany. Yet mobs are throwing Molotov cocktails at synagogues in Paris, gunmen are murdering Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, neo-Nazis are marching in parades in Dresden and virulently right-wing nationalist parties are rapidly gaining ground in European elections. The number of French Jews moving to Israel has never been higher; it has now surpassed the immigration levels of American Jews and shows no signs of slowing. Not for nothing are some of the most thoroughly integrated Jewish communities of Europe choosing to leave.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that anti-Semitism is limited to Europe. Just over a week ago, a Jewish fraternity house at Emory was vandalized with swastikas. A quick search for “swastikas at colleges” on Google News brings up similar instances at Eastern Michigan University, Penn State and Oswego State University, among others.
On Monday night, an email from Dean Jonathan Holloway brought to life the history I explained to my friend. As I read it, my stomach curled into a little knot. Swastikas? At Yale? On Old Campus? Apprehending the perpetrators seemed unlikely; I was more concerned with the administration’s response and the student body’s reaction. But my first thought was that this answered my friend’s question. The Holocaust is still central to Western collective memory because its driving force, anti-Semitism, continues to rear its head.
By the time this piece is published, I’m sure that this vandalism — along with the swift and overwhelmingly supportive response — will be national news. The average American might be shocked because Yale is such an august part of the American mythos, and scandal at such respected institutions is always juicy gossip. What disturbed me most, though, was the violation of what I considered to be a safe, open space. Yale, like the America it aims to reflect, is a place where people are valued for their character and contributions to society. This guarantee of personal safety and free speech is what allows us to share our opinions, ideas and values with each other. Only such an environment can create a place for meaningful and productive academic and personal growth.
I’m grateful to Dean Holloway for denouncing the vandalism with such strong language, and I’m also grateful to him for notifying the entire student body. Bringing the vandalism to everyone’s attention not only affirms the University’s zero-tolerance policy toward hatred but also creates space for the massive response of solidarity and support that was organized in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Had the swastikas simply been erased and the report quietly filed away in a cabinet, I would have felt defeated and isolated. Instead, our community banded together to cover the walkway in front of Durfee and Vandy in beautifully colored messages of love and peace. The snowball effect was incredible, and my heart swells with gratitude to think about the brotherhood and sisterhood that my peers pledged to each other.
There is power in numbers; by standing together we can beat back hatred, racism and anti-Semitism. Our differences strengthen us. Although I wish that the swastikas had never appeared in the first place, they have reinforced my conviction that sharing our diversity, our stories and our values with each other not only enriches each individual, but also the entire community.
Esther Portyansky is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.