Anger. Heartbreak. Fear. I felt them all when I saw that an alt-right group called the White Student Union had formed a chapter at my large Southern university and was posting anti-Semitic flyers around campus during Passover.
Their website declared Jews to be treasonous, and specifically targeted the Hillel here. My Hillel. Their fliers and posters promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and harmful stereotypes.
“What is this, Nazi Germany?” I thought. As president of Hillel — someone who had never experienced this kind of intolerance— I suddenly felt uneasy.
Thankfully, students were outraged over this group’s formation and called for the university to take action. While the group’s website and its patent violations could be changed to remove its affiliation with the university, we were still left with a hate group actively promoting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on our Alabama campus.
The angry response to the bigotry was, I hate to admit, not something I had entirely expected, but it was meaningful. I grew up in a large, mostly liberal Jewish community in the Bay Area. Everything that shaped me into the young adult I am today came from the spiritual community in which I was raised. I was active at my synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. I was a member of NFTY, the Reform movement’s teen leadership group, and I traveled to Israel with Write On for Israel/Young Judea.
My entire identity has been rooted in Jewish culture and identity, so it was more of a culture shock than I expected when I first came to Auburn University in the fall of 2015.
I joined a sorority, I tailgated football games, but most importantly, I found a Jewish community here. As a Jew, I had never felt excluded until recently. However, after the election last November, things have become tense on campus. There has been an increase in harassment against minorities as well as an increasingly outward display of hateful ideologies.
When the well-known white supremacist Richard Spencer announced that he would speak on our campus last month, community outrage as well as concerns about safety led Auburn to cancel the event.
A defiant Spencer said Auburn would “rue the day” of his cancellation, and that he would bring his people with him. Online, members of the alt-right harassed students who opposed Spencer and his hatred. While I believe it was right of the university to cancel the event, it is not because I disagree with him. It is because his rhetoric and his supporters posed a threat to the safety and well-being of the minorities he targeted.
This is a Southern version of the “free speech versus hate speech” debate we saw last week in the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s appearance at UC Berkeley.
The days leading up to Spencer’s appearance were tense, but at the same time I saw some of the most inspiring activism on campus, opposing hatred and fighting with unity and collective resistance.
Ultimately, the university was forced to let Spencer speak when a federal judge declared the cancellation was a violation of his First Amendment rights. Nevertheless, his April 18 appearance was a disaster. Spencer contradicted himself constantly, unable to answer questions clearly, and he was caught off guard when much of his audience opposed him.
Across campus and outside the event, peaceful protests took place. By the end of the evening, students walked to the bars to celebrate the departure of Spencer and his supporters. I felt a pride in my university that I hadn’t felt since before the election.
Despite this, there is more to be addressed on how to respond to anti-Semitism on my campus as well as at others across the country. To be Jewish in America today is to be in a constant flux based on how people respond to our Jewishness. With the sharp uptick in anti-Semitic acts and hate speech nationally, we can expect to see more such concerns.
Until now, I had never felt unsafe because of my Jewish heritage. However, that doesn’t mean I will hide it, and it certainly doesn’t mean I will back down from fighting for the values that were instilled within me by my vibrant Jewish community.