By Jen Ehrlich
At Stanford and in academia we often feel very far removed from the kind of violent, obvious hate that we saw at the Capitol this week, and mostly we are. But to say we are removed from any kind of hate, racism or anti-Semitism is false. As a Jew on campus I know this well, it lurks here as it does most places. And I don’t just mean the swastikas we find around campus periodically — though, of course, I mean them, too — I mean in classes, in conversations, in a casual way that could be considered uninformed if it weren’t coming from some of the most educated people on the planet.
A few years ago I took a Shakespeare class; in section we discussed “Othello,” rightfully taking a great deal of time to discuss the racism of having a character described as a “Moor,” even a “noble” one. When we later read “The Merchant of Venice” it was very different. No one agreed that the book was anti-Semitic and no one understood why having a villain who was a hook-nosed Jew who loved money more than his daughter, who is forced to convert or die in a “comedic” scene, was hateful. I tried to explain to my classmates and TA, not that we shouldn’t read this play, but that we needed to read it as critically as we did “Othello.” Acknowledging the harm such stereotypes wreaked upon not only Shakespeare’s England but on our present. I left the class in tears not because of the play, distasteful as I find it, but because not one of my classmates would acknowledge that there was anything harmful to be found within it.
Several years passed in which I didn’t have to deal, in class, with any of this creeping bias, often accompanied by the belief that because Jews in America are mostly white and a stereotypically “model” minority, everything from microaggressions to larger acts of hatred are more tolerable and less threatening. And then last fall arrived.
First, in a history class we read the memoir of a woman, searching her family’s past to discover if her grandparents had been Nazis. A German living in America, she was consumed by guilt and wanted to explore her past to assuage said guilt. It was an uncomfortable read, a book less about accepting complicity and more about hoping for exoneration. That one of the students in the class casually said that a relative had been in Hitler youth but wasn’t a real Nazi speaks to the general tone of our discussion. Almost everyone agreed that this was an interesting memoir with a beautiful design, and a style that many students wished to emulate. Again, no one was being hateful, or purposely hurtful but also — other than one or two other students — no one saw this book as ethically questionable.
A few weeks later, in my philosophy class, we read the work of an actual Nazi. Though Carl Schmitt was not yet a Nazi when he wrote “Definition of Sovereignty,” he would soon be. And so I was frustrated reading his work, distressed knowing that shortly he would “devot[e] himself, with undue enthusiasm, to such tasks as the defense of Hitler’s extra-judicial killings of political opponents and the purging of German jurisprudence of Jewish influence.” And upset to see the foreshadows of it when he said, “thus [there is] only one solution: dictatorship.” But the thing that truly shocked me was our class discussion about the text. A conversation in which several people enthusiastically praised Schmitt’s critical thinking and conclusions, and again, I was the first one to bring up the implications of this work from this man. In the last session of class, my mouth dropped as several students listed Schmitt as one of their top three thinkers from our course. As a friend of mine said, “why all praise for the Nazi?!”
To be clear, I’m not saying we cannot read the work of fascists. In several poetry classes I have read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot but the key difference was the professor opened those classes by saying something along the lines of “this poet was brilliant, and a fascist and an anti-Semite, a person who wrote, did and said many deplorable things.” Did I enjoy reading said fascists? No. But I felt that my disgust was acknowledged as real, and that the difference between the worth of a writer’s work and the writer’s worthless morality was made clear.
But I guess I am also saying, in four years when hate crimes against many groups, including Jews, have gone to unprecedented levels, when QAnon spreads conspiracies ripped from the Jew haters of the old countries, when armed Nazis invade the Capitol building with sweatshirts saying “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (“6 Million Wasn’t Enough”). Maybe we can try harder to make clear that being an anti-Semite, fascist or Nazi is not in any way acceptable. That reading texts with hints of this or foreshadows of murderous complicity is triggering and that it is not morally neutral.
To adore “The Merchant of Venice” is not a completely innocent act. To love a memoir about assuaging German guilt is not simple. To admire Carl Schmitt is not a neutral declaration. Professors can and should teach whatever they think will best educate their students, but I hope that, as it becomes clear again and again that the most hateful among us will often add Jews to their list of targets, we can stop and examine why these acts keep happening at Stanford. And consider why we think the thinker and the thought or the artist and the art can be separated with little contemplation about the damage both the writer and the work might have done?