Sometimes teachers of history are made aware, in a matter of moments, that we have become players in the history that we teach. Time becomes telescoped, with symbols and gestures from 1940s Germany jumping from grainy newsreels to full-color smartphone video from Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. And then cowards in disguises, whistling “Dixie,” champion their vanquished flag with its legacy of slavery — from the chaos of Reconstruction to the reborn Klan of the 1920s — on a college campus in Northwest D.C. in the 21st century.
This act of racism took place on the campus of American University on Tuesday night, Sept. 26, but it was sadly not the first such act. On an evening that should only have been celebratory, with detailed plans announced for A.U.’s new Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center by its director, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the campus was targeted by racist agitation for the second time in less than five months.
In May, the school’s first African-American female student body president found bananas, with personal messages written on them, hanging from nooses on trees outside her residence. Participants, meanwhile, left last month’s event to find garish posters affixed to bulletin boards in several campus buildings bearing the Confederate flag and words touting “Dixie” — and adorned with branches of cotton plants.
The implicit support for slavery — not as a realistic plan but as a demeaning way of saying to students and faculty of color that they are less than people, that their value lies only in being commodities — takes on an air of deadly suggestion when combined with the noose incident last May.
We have seen this before. We have seen torch-bearing, swastika-clad demonstrators in several American cities, and we have seen an unrelenting barrage of violent acts and words on the national stage over the last few years. Rather than appreciating that the United States is special because of its diversity and freedom, purveyors of hate speech and violence hope to divide our country further. But because we have seen this before, with the right approach, we can frustrate their aims.
Those of us who believe fervently that past is prologue and that knowledge of history is essential to understanding our present, know that masquerading as perpetrators of the Holocaust or as henchmen of Klan violence should not be dismissed as mere swagger; words and images do matter. The Holocaust owed much of its effectiveness to the fact that it began by separating and dehumanizing Jews and others deemed undesirable by the regime. The kind of imagery employed by the criminal who violated A.U. last week has some goals in common with the Nazis: to liken certain groups of people to animals, to promote a fictional glorious version of a corrupt system, and to encourage fear of the stranger in our midst.
In his wise remarks to the campus community after the vandalism was revealed, Kendi acknowledged the wider circle of hurt that such acts create, specifically recognizing Jewish students as being victims of the same kind of white supremacist agenda as the African-American community. “I write to A.U. students,” he proclaimed, “especially students of color and Jewish students.”
As scholars of the Jewish experience, my colleagues and I know too well the Jewish people’s long history of being targeted by the type of hate and base prejudice that was demonstrated at A.U. But we also know the Jews’ history of activism — of resisting those who attack people because of their race, religion or background, and of fighting for the rights of those victims. This includes, in particular, a history of empathy with the African-American community and activism even at the risk of some Jews’ lives — from the turn of the 20th century, through the Depression era, and famously in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Jews have learned in every era that it is not enough to condemn hate crimes with words, but that informed action is the key to change.
In my Jewish history and literature courses, I seek to inform about a history that is often difficult but remains proud, and to show our students that it is not enough to know, but also to speak out, to question assumptions, and to expose hypocrisy and prejudice.
I was struck by the following lines in Kendi’s remarks: “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the strength to do what is right in the face of it.” If universities and the rest of our community respond with creativity and openness to different ideas and different people, if faculty and students join together to learn, applying lessons from the past to our complicated present, then we will be fulfilling our mission — and we will join those who meet fear with courage.
Dr. Lauren B. Strauss is scholar in residence and director of undergraduate studies for the Jewish Studies Program at American University.