OPINION: Walker Wall and Pittsburgh: How can our community proceed?

(Julia Frankel • The Student Life)

Last week, two other Jewish students and I painted the words “Antisemitism exists. Acknowledge it” in big black letters, along with two blue Stars of David, on Pomona College’s Walker Wall, a space dedicated to free speech. Less than a day later, part of our message and one star were covered up with white paint.

This act violated Walker Wall’s unspoken policy that messages must not be painted over within 24 hours of being posted. How did this happen? Why did this happen?

Left unanswered, these questions force me to examine some painful explanations, ones I have repeatedly considered over the past week, based on my observations of Pomona’s response to the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Though every major news outlet broadcast and reported on the shooting, it hardly seemed to infiltrate our Claremont bubble. While other Jewish students and I grieved for losses which seemed uniquely intimate, other students went about their weekends, discussing their costumes for Halloween and carrying out their affairs as usual.

Almost no one brought the shooting up in conversation with me. Save for an email from Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr and a Havdalah service held by Rabbi Danny Shapiro that night, Pomona’s campus and student body remained quiet.

Reactions on other college campuses across the country were more pronounced and more timely.

At University of Southern California, UCLA, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Santa Monica College, for example, vigils held immediately in the wake of the shooting were organized not just by Jewish student organizations like Hillel and Chabad, but also by church groups, Muslim student associations, interfaith organizations, and student governments.

These vigils were attended by hundreds. Off-campus, Muslim Americans and social justice organizations, too, have shown enormous displays of support — both financial and spiritual — toward the Jewish community.

As a Jewish student, I am left to wonder what to make of both the paintover of Walker Wall and of Pomona’s response to the shooting. Surely this is a campus with progressive and moral intentions. I have seen Claremont mobilize in response to the troubling Kavanaugh hearings, after which a multitude of events and support sessions were planned to assist students in what was undoubtedly a difficult time.

There are many on this campus who understand that in the face of grave injustice, silence can often be confused with complicity. While I am sure our community does not intend to condone the anti-Semitism which propelled this attack, a week of relative silence — coupled with the erasure on Walker Wall — shows that we still have a lot of work to do in order to truly refute the hateful philosophies that are gaining a platform in our society today.

I am just beginning to understand the complexities of Pomona’s campus culture and cannot make a definitive claim as to why the massacre provoked little immediate outcry among the student body and campus organizations, nor why the paintover of Walker Wall occurred.

Drawing from my experience in a left-leaning public high school in New York City, however, I do find that a certain hesitation exists in these spaces when responding to anti-Semitic attacks.

One possibility is that some may conflate their own critical views of Israel with their response to American anti-Semitism. Some also may doubt the true oppression of the Jewish people, seeing that American Jews enjoy some privileges that marginalized groups do not.

But in the face of this massacre, it must be made clear that to sympathize and stand with American Jews does not imply any particular stance on the policies of current Israeli government.

To speak out against the recent rise of anti-Semitism should not be considered politically incorrect, or “unwoke.” Though portions of American Jewry are privileged in ways other marginalized groups are not, our persecution is historical, deep-seeded, and recurring. As reported by the Anti-Defamation League, 2017 saw an 89 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses from 2016.

On Nov. 2, the Claremont Colleges’ chaplains and various Jewish organizations at the 5Cs hosted a Solidarity Shabbat dinner, which finally initiated a communal healing process, albeit, one week after the shooting.

Starr spoke movingly of the plague of anti-Semitism, and a diverse group of students — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — joined together to mourn the 11 lives lost.

Discussions and healing processes, however, should also occur outside of spaces created by Jewish groups. Pittsburgh’s attack invoked not only anti-Semitism, but also the ideologies of white nationalism and xenophobia.

Campus organizations concerned with rising levels of hate and violence directed at other specific populations in our country might have seen Pittsburgh as a call to common action. While Havdalah and Shabbat services are excellent settings for communal mourning and discussions of anti-semitism, so are classrooms, dormitories, event halls, and club meetings.

Though the Walker Wall incident shakes me to my core, the Shabbat on Nov. 2 showed me that our student body does have the compassion and strength to rally against hateful forces both on- and off-campus. We just need to work on doing so, more immediately and more communally.

Julia Frankel PO ’22 is from Brooklyn, NY. Her interests include politics, creative writing, and debating anyone who thinks non-Brooklyn bagels are worth eating.

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