Scars and Bars: A Confederate Flag on Campus
Yeshiva University stands on a moral high ground. As a Jewish institution, YU has an obligation to be forward-thinking when others are not and to avoid silence in situations of injustice. This is not only due to the moral implications of apathy, but also because, as Jews, we know what it feels like to be victimized and demeaned. From the beginning of our history, Jewish people have been murdered and persecuted for the God we believe in and the messiah we do not. Six million members of our nation died a mere seven decades ago, because no one spoke up to their slaughterers.
YU’s responsibility toward justice is a major reason why I decided to come here: I envisioned an institution composed of people inclined towards equality and righteousness. And so, I was completely disgusted when a student on the Wilf campus donned a Confederate Flag at the election party held in the Morg Lounge. The student walked into the lounge wearing the Confederate Flag, when they announced the results for his home state of Alabama. I was completely dumbfounded at the utter audacity he had to bring a blatant symbol of racism and slavery to a YU event. Although I should have approached him, I regret to say that I did not. I was too shaken to even utter words of reproach. It was obvious that many in the room were offended by his actions – Republicans and Democrats alike. I noticed a few students approaching the flag-wearer, and I assume it was to ask him to ditch the flag or ditch the party.
It is no surprise that many Yeshiva University students were deeply hurt by this student’s racist gesture. The Confederate Flag isn’t just a Civil War battle flag, or a vital component of Southern culture. The flag, known as “the stars and bars”, is a blatant symbol of racism, slavery and white supremacy. It belongs to the same camp as the Ku Klux Klan and their white hoods, as the Nazi Party and their swastikas.
The Confederate Flag has been a symbol of hatred and suppression for over a century and half. There is a reason that white supremacist groups (largely the KKK) still see the Confederate Flag as the banner of their beliefs. It isn’t only because the red on the flag symbolizes the blood that they’ve spilled since they were founded, but because the flag was sewn with slavery in mind, and slavery alone. Before Dylann Roof murdered 9 black church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, he posted a photo of himself clutching two weapons of destruction – a pistol and the Confederate Flag. With one of these he took 9 lives; with the other he explained why. The flag was no play-thing to white supremacist, Dylann Roof. It held tremendous value and tremendous symbolism. It symbolized how superior he believed himself to be to the African-Americans he killed; it signified the hatred he felt in his heart towards African-Americans in general. The history of the Confederate Flag is a compilation of all that detestation.
Some might say that these incidents - the use of the flag by the KKK and white supremacists - prove nothing about the flag’s true nature. To refute this, we must look to why the Civil War was fought in the first place. The Civil War was a war of pro-slavery versus anti-slavery. Slavery was the reason that the South seceded to begin with. The pro-slavery views of the South led to one of the most brutal wars fought on American soil – a war fought to continue the enslavement of human beings. The Confederate Flag was the Southern flag, created to represent the South at the time of the war, and therefore, the South’s pro-slavery stance. There is no way around that.
When I see people in the South flaunting the flag, I am angered, but I brush it off. Because it occurs miles and miles from my home, it seems like it transpires on a distant planet. But when I saw a student wear the Confederate Flag on my own college campus, I wasn’t only infuriated, I was terrified. While I respect this student’s right to freedom of expression and the college’s allowance for him to express his views, I expect more out of the members of this university.
A few weeks after the incident, Rabbi Kenneth Brander released a statement via email concerning the student who wore the flag. Although it came a bit late, the statement was much appreciated by those who were offended by the flag’s display. The email stated that the “student was apologetic and explained that he was not appealing to racism or bigotry, but rather trying to celebrate his family’s roots in the South.” It quoted the student as saying, “I am 100% accepting of all people, and it so pains me to see all these people being offended by something I meant as no harm.”
While this all seems gracious and apologetic, we must look at the facts. Rabbi Brander condemned the Confederate Flag throughout the email, but did not condemn the student as much as he should have. He spent a good portion of the email explaining that the student meant no harm by displaying a blatantly racist and offensive symbol, and that “anyone who has spent time with him knows him to be a sensitive young person.” However, I do not need to know him to know that anyone, especially someone from Alabama, knows what the Confederate Flag symbolizes, and knows that it will offend and harm those who do not see it as simply a symbol of Southern pride. The flag-wearer did not intend to communicate peace, equality, and happiness by donning a flag that represents the opposite of those values.
It is my opinion that the student shouldn’t have been let off as easily as he was. Rabbi Brander’s statement regarding equality and justice was heartwarming, but how can he allow the student to receive no repercussions for his actions? Does this not open the doors for more students to voice racist and offensive opinions, since they can safely assume that they will not be punished for doing so?