As a member of two special-interest groups who tend to react with great vehemence to incidents of hate speech—Jews and academics—one might think that I would be especially primed to be exercised by the swastikas chalked on the Yale campus last night. Add in the fact that I am a Yalie—I teach at Yale now, and I attended Yale: 22 years today I was probably standing on the exact spot in front of Durfee Hall where the swastikas were found, eating fro-yo and bouncing to Bob Marley coming out of speakers facing the quadrangle from the windows above—and I should be the single most enraged human on the planet.
But I am not. I am saddened, and a bit worried, in case it turns out this is part of a campus trend. But I always treat cowardly, dead-of-night hate speech as the likely work of a disturbed individual, maybe two, as likely to be a drunken bit of demented derring-do as a genuine expression of anti-Semitism. Of course such acts are disturbing reminders that anti-Semitic tropes persist, and that there’s a certain kind of sicko who, when drunk or angry or aggrieved decided to say or write something anti-Jewish (or anti-black, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-immigrant). But a lot of years on campuses have taught me that the first incident is usually not a harbinger of a second. Most students and faculty are horrified, and the perpetrator—who, by the way, may not even be a student, could just be somebody who stumbled onto campus—may wake up the next morning wondering what he or she did.
Rather than be enraged, in this case of anti-Semitic blather I have reason to be curious. Because wasn’t it just two months ago that Episcopal chaplain to Yale students Bruce Shipman wrote a letter to the New York Times, suggesting that the proper response to anti-Semitic attacks in Europe was to look at Israel’s behavior? (You can read more about that incident, and my interview with Shipman, here.) I, and others, took Shipman to task for assigning blame for anti-Semitism to Jews, rather than to bigots.
So—dare I say it—the swastikas were, in one small way, a bit of good fortune, at least if one is interested in clarifying the discussion around anti-Semitism. For if Shipman had not resigned last month from his job, he would be a campus chaplain right now, and he would have the opportunity to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper right now, in which he could opine about acts of anti-Semitism that happened, on his campus, last night.
And so we can ask, would Shipman use this occasion to write, (as he did in the Times), that “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question”? I actually think not. I think that he is a good enough pastor, and a sensitive enough man, that if the anti-Semitic incident were close to home, he would realize that, obviously, the thing to do is condemn the bigotry and to minister to all the victims, Jewish and Gentile alike. He would act with love.
Not unlike, in fact, the Yale students, who had the perfect response. According to the Yale Daily News:
In an effort to display student support for Yale’s Jewish community, the three students — Javier Cienfuegos ’15, William Genova ’15 and Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, a former staff reporter for the News — started drawing a chalk mural reiterating [the dean’s] admonition of hate outside of Durfee Hall.
By 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, a group of 15 students had collected outside Durfee. They were passing out chalk to passers-by, inviting them to draw hearts and peace signs under the statement “There is no hate in this house,” a direct quote from [the dean’s] email.
A number of different campus groups, ranging from Students Unite Now to the Yale Track and Field Team, affixed their names to the mural.
As the hurdlers and pole vaulters can tell you, Yale, like most American campuses, is a safe and happy place to be Jewish. Among its various blessings, sometimes the students act with more wisdom than the elders. Which is just what we we teachers hope for.
Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.