As many of you have become aware, a swastika—the infamous symbol of hate and bigotry—was found painted on the East Campus tunnel last week. This space is commonly used by students and community members to share expressions of peace, love, solidarity and whimsy. While this vile icon was immediately painted over following its discovery and the action was quickly condemned, its impact withstands.
I admit that even as I pen my thoughts, I am still conflicted as to whether or not I want to say something at all, or whether or not I should say something at all. This ugly icon wasn't directed at me specifically by name. It wasn’t plastered on my home. It wasn’t painted on my specific school or even on my campus. There is so much hate already out there, is it really in my best interest to shed more light on it and potentially bring any undeserved attention to the culprit? When has making waves ever made for smoother sailing?
But I am angry and sad that this happened in my University and in my community, not half a mile from my doorstep… Though not as angry and sad as I likely should be. Perhaps centuries of anti-semitism have made me numb to regular attacks on my people. Still, I am not immune.
Duke Vice President for Public Affairs & Government Relations, Michael Schonfeld condemned it as a “cowardly action.” I respectfully, but strongly, reject this equivocation.
This was a bold and confident undertaking. It wasn’t idly scrawled on the inside of a bathroom stall. It wasn’t scribbled on the inside of a library book. There was no cloak and dagger. This symbol was proudly painted in full view, in the middle of the day on a busy college campus parallel to a well-used road and in full view of any of the multitude of buses, cars and passersby who stream past that very spot all day long.
Referring to this individual as a “coward” is an easy way to miss the significance of what actually happened on Wednesday. This is not simply a graffiti problem. What is really being said when someone in our midst feels comfortable enough to premeditatedly bring a brush and paint to a public space in broad daylight to deface a mural with a hate icon?
This is not a call for everyone to grab their torches and pitchforks to find and banish the evil from within. Rather, this a call for introspection. We should all ask ourselves how we let things get to this point.
None of the most heinous and embarrassing periods in human history started at the same monstrous level of their ultimate peak. The Holocaust didn’t start with the Final Solution. It started with the publishing, disbursement and consumption of hate speech such as Mein Kampf—and with that hate speech becoming accepted as the norm. It started with an inadequate response to Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). It started with the comfort regular people settled into when morally detestable and reprehensible assemblies came to town squares, arenas and other soapboxes. It was a singular voice that gained steam and snowballed into one of the worst atrocities in history. All with support generated from the aloofness and indifference of the common gentile folk.
Following my acceptance to the Divinity School, I was deeply concerned about the fundamental clashes of ideas and cultures I was bound to encounter as a Jewish student in a Christian seminary. But these concerns were quick to dissipate as I got to know my peers, the faculty and the administration. The school and the University have an unfortunate history with bigotry and prejudice on every level of the academic tree and there is still a lot of work to be done.
However, I am proud to be a student at Duke’s Divinity School where, not only do I feel safe to maintain, practice and voice my religious convictions, but where I am also welcomed warmly as a respected peer. I have zero doubt that the hate-monger who painted the swastika on the East Campus wall came from outside the Divinity School. And that is a testament to the knowledge that DDS strives to be a place of recognition, acceptance, tolerance and diversity. Are there shortcomings? Absolutely. But we are well on our way to becoming a beacon of light at Duke University—a light that the University so badly needs, such that heinous acts like these will ultimately be repelled entirely from our campuses.
Yair M. Koenig is an MTS candidate at the Duke Divinity School.
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