“I’ve never seen anything like this here,” says Texas A&M architecture Professor Anat Geva, an Israeli who received her Ph.D. from the university 21 years ago and was one of thousands protesting the appearance of alt-right leader Richard Spencer there Tuesday night. “I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and never expected to see a man spewing Nazi ideology here.”
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It’s not everyday a white supremacist gets an academic pulpit. To the Jewish students on the College Station campus, who represent 0.5 percent of its demographic, it was a wake-up call, says Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg.
Though most of the demonstrations on the Texas campus were peaceful, police in riot gear clashed with hundreds of vocal protesters wielding signs, chanting “Spread love not hate,” and heckling Spencer as he entered the Memorial Student Center. Police eventually stormed the building and arrested two activists from off campus.
The protest, which united four disparate groups, was the largest on the campus in decades, reports the local newspaper Eagle. Some 400 students entered the building to attend Spencer’s lecture, but MSNBC reports that his fans only numbered a dozen, with the vast majority speaking out or covering it as press, including a reporter for the neo-Nazi newspaper Daily Stormer. One protester, dressed in a clown costume, stood by Spencer’s side as he spoke, and held a sign that read: “He’s the real Bozo.” A counter-rally for diversity drew thousands to Kyle Field, a 100,000-seat football field off campus.
“I thought, God forbid this is where it all started. How could I ever look my kids in the eye some day and say, I stood on the sidelines and did nothing? That’s why I felt I had to go and confront him,” says Rosenberg, who led a group of 70 students from the Hillel building to MSC. “It was our first act of civil disobedience. Though we protested in peace, we showed we are not a silent minority.”
Hillel partnered with other religious student organizations like the Muslim Student Association to amplify its message, says Rosenberg.
“This is an assault on any society that is diverse and inclusive, and that means Muslims and gays, as well as undocumented student immigrants from Central America in Texas,” says Joan Wolf, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M. “When Richard Spencer says something like, ‘Let’s party like it’s 1933 [as he did in November at his Washington, D.C. rally] that resonates with Jews, because we think of Nazi Germany. We have a visceral [understanding] of that.”
Spencer: 'Trump first step toward white identity politics'
Spencer, who leads the National Policy Institute, a hate group that advocates a “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, drew headlines last month when he led a crowd in Hitler salutes, chanting “Heil Trump!” just feet away from the White House.
“This country belongs to white people,” he told students last night, according to the Houston Chronicle. “Trump was the first step toward white identity politics in the United States. He is not going to be the last. The alt-right is a new beginning.”
When the Washington Post first reported Spencer’s appearance on the Texas campus a few days before Thanksgiving, it caught university officials off guard. Thousands of outraged students urged the university president to cancel Spencer’s visit, says Rosenberg. But university spokeswoman Amy Smith said it couldn’t because of state laws and free speech. A former student who is not affiliated with the university reserved the room, she added.
Texas A&M’s president, Michael K. Young, organized a counter-event, a celebration of diversity called Aggies Unite (Aggies is the nickname for A&M students), which drew between 4,000 to 6,000 attendees, according to local estimates, which wasn’t a bad show considering it was the next to last day of finals.
“I was going to attend it,” says Rabbi Matt, as he’s called. “But it didn’t feel like a direct or serious enough response. This isn’t a party. And the university president should have considered the feelings of the Jewish community when he planned this celebration.”
Rosenberg said that marching alongside 12 other members of the campus clergy, the way Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did with Martin Luther King at Selma, felt more appropriate. His group carried signs that read “Our Race is the Human Race,” “Aggies Against Hate” and “I am a Jew and I Love You.”
Earlier in the day, Rosenberg confronted Spencer at his press conference, inviting him join in love, not hate, and study Torah with him. Spencer replied: “Do you really want radical inclusion in the State of Israel?”
He also arranged for 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Max Glauben, who had been in the Warsaw ghetto and five concentration camps, to speak at Aggies Unite. His granddaughter is a Texas A&M pre-med senior and Hillel member.
“I came to be united with you so that hate and bigotry won’t win,” he told the stadium crowds as his speech was live-streamed through the university’s website. “It’s better to be an upstander than a bystander.” His granddaughter Delaney Becker, who visited Nazi concentration camp Majdanek with him four years ago, said watching him address her peers about neo-Nazis felt surreal.
“I remember sitting in the gas chamber with him and he kept saying, ‘life must go on.’ You have to pull yourself up. Goodness wins,” she says. “I just never thought we’d have to deal with this.”
For Geva, who recalls listening to the trial of Adolf Eichmann broadcast on Israeli radio when she was 11 years old, participating in the protests felt like a personal mission. She remembers riding the bus as a child when suddenly her mother let go of her hand and ran into the arms of another passengers, sobbing. It had been the woman who employed her and helped save her life during the war, when she passed as a non-Jew.
“An experience like that you never get over,” Geva says. “That’s why I’m here today. Never again!”
Joan Wolf, women’s and gender studies professor and member of the Jewish Faculty Network, echoed the sentiment.
“I hope this whole thing is extinguished very quickly,” she says. “This may be one spark, but if you don’t make it clear you’re going to stamp it out, it can catch and spread like wildfire.”
“Though the university has not reported any swastikas on its walls, as has been the case on other college campuses in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, Spencer’s A&M visit was viewed as a coup for white supremacists who are eager to push an “alt-right” agenda on college campuses, according to Mother Jones.
Jews on campus feeling buoyed
All the Jewish students and faculty who spoke to Haaretz said they felt heartened by the protests, calling it a silver lining to Spencer’s visit.
“I’ve never seen such a huge outcry here,” says Dianne Craft, dean of the college of medicine. “My father was in the U.S. Air Force, so I grew up all over. I was a teenager in Germany and visited Dachau with my mother in 1966, before it was fixed up. I remember seeing the claw marks on the wall. And there was still this stench. That’s as much of a sense of the Holocaust any of us should have to take.”
As for Rabbi Matt, he says he has his work cut out for him.
“We can’t allow hate to be normalized here,” he says. “It may not hurt much if you’re white. But many of our Muslim brothers and sisters are scared to death. You don’t allow that on campus again. Let the courts decide what’s a violation of speech.”