Latest update: June 11th, 2012
The first six sections of my story have focused on my struggles adapting to a strange college environment forced on me against my will. While that story is self-contained, I thought it would be worthwhile to at least partially answer the main question my book will address: What ended up happening to me? This is a fast-forwarded account that describes my watershed moment as a college student.
It is not often that someone can look back and divide their life into two separate and distinct sections—a before and an after. It may seem that the logical dividing point in my life was when I left yeshiva and started college, but that really is not the case. It was very possible, if not likely, that I could have spent my collegiate career as an overwhelmed and uncomfortable fish perpetually stuck out of water, without experiencing any significant personal change or growth. I get a lot of weird glances when I say this, but it is 100% true: Louis Farrakhan changed my life – for the better.
While the Nation of Islam is probably not a major part of most of our lives, they are rather prominent in Chicago where they are headquartered. I had been following the extreme racial and anti-Semitic antics of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam for quite some time. He was often in the news, and never for any particularly good reasons. The black and white world in which I lived had everything to do with right and wrong and nothing to do with race, but there were few people I deemed more radically evil than Farrakhan.
I had often seen members of the Nation of Islam on the train or handing out their propaganda newspaper, “The Final Call.” They were people I avoided at all cost.
As I became more active in my classes, it was clear I stood out. People I didn’t recognize would come up to me in the hallways or on the bus and comment about something I said in class. I attributed that visibility to my yarmulke, but the truth is I stood out because I was so actively engaged in my classes, much more so than my classmates.
The message I internalized, however, was that I was obviously different because I was Jewish, and my peers would always notice that. It was my job to represent my heritage well and successfully defend it when necessary.
I was absolutely shocked to find signs advertising a speech by Louis Farrakhan at the start of the fall 1992 semester. I could not understand how this was possible. The concept of political correctness was fundamental to the college experience in the 1990’s. We were consistently told that anything derogatory or in anyway insulting to a racial or ethnic group was forbidden and even grounds for dismissal, yet somehow, the most virulent of anti-Semites was speaking at a campus sponsored event!
To me, this was even more evidence that the persecution of Jews was unique in world history, how else can one explain the most basic principle of campus discourse being ignored to allow Farrakhan the opportunity to speak?
While the planned event did encourage some heated student discussions both in and outside of class, I chose to ignore them. I kept looking for signs and fliers about the counter demonstration that would surely take place during the speech, but none appeared.
I assumed that the protesters had taken a more secretive approach, and that there would be a major protest at the event itself, if not by the student body as a whole, at least by the Jewish students, even if I was not aware of who was organizing it.
The speech was limited to NEIU students only. While I was a student, I was having a tuition bill issue that semester (they could never read my FAFSA and I went through 5-6 revisions before we got it right—they have since moved to an online system). As a result, I did not have the stamp on my ID certifying that I was a current student.
That meant that I could not gain admittance to the speech itself. Security was tight on the day of the event. I showed up outside of the auditorium early, fully expecting to find a major protest underway, but I was sorely disappointed. There was not a single sign or person protesting. I was shocked. How could that be? How could a person like Farrakhan be allowed to speak in the first place? And even if he was allowed to speak, how could the college community ignore this provocation? I simply could not believe it.
I don’t get angry often, but I was livid. I stood watching as hundreds of student filed past security to hear him speak. I paced the floor outside of the auditorium for the duration of the event, whipping myself into a frenzy.
My thoughts ran wild: “This was unacceptable. This was a direct assault on me and all of my fellow Jewish students. The rules never seem to apply to us, do they? How was it possible that political correctness completely ignored the rights of Jewish students? How is it possible that I am the only one who is here and upset by this? Where was the protest among the students, if not the campus as a whole, at the very least by the Jewish students? If I am already seen as the representative of my faith, don’t I need to be more proactive about defending it?” It was just too much for me to bear.
I never found out what Farrakhan actually said during his speech. It was not taped and the only discussion of the event in the student newspaper was a complaint that event security, reportedly hired by the Nation of Islam, treated students differently strictly along racial lines, but it didn’t matter. Farrakhan could have had nothing but praise for Jews and Judaism in his speech at NEIU, the fact that a person with his repugnant history was a welcome campus guest was an affront to everything I held sacred.
It is tempting for me to wonder what I might have done had I been in that auditorium. As I see that day as a turning point in my life, I like to think that I would have stood up against a largely hostile crowd and challenged Farrakhan directly, lambasting him for his racism and criticizing my peers for allowing this abomination to take place in their midst.
The truth is, even though I would eventually take an active role defeating initiatives to fund student trips to Farrakhan’s “Million Man March” as well as defeating a plan to invite Leonard Jeffries, another well-known racist, to speak on campus, I was not yet ready to lead such a charge. I may have booed and hissed during the speech, but it is very unlikely that I would have done anything beyond that, regardless of what Farrakhan said.
As I watched the students leave the auditorium after the event, and I didn’t see any form of protest, I had more than I could stand. Perhaps Jews are treated differently on campus and different rules apply to us. It was clear to me that Jews could be directly attacked on Campus in a public forum by the very symbol of American anti-Semitism with the full approval of the college administration without a whimper of protest from anyone, but I didn’t have to stand for any of that.
As I walked away I vowed to myself that something like this would never happen again as long as I was a student at NEIU! At that moment I vowed to run for Student Government and make sure this could never happen again.
I was angry and upset, and I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a watershed moment that forever changed the course of my life, transforming me from passive to active and from a timid and self-doubting follower to a vocal and assertive leader. I would no longer complain about things I did not like, I would take the initiative to change them. I vowed to change NEIU, but what I really changed most was myself, and none of it would have happened were it not for Louis Farrakhan.
Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a social media consultant and a freelance writer currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/
About the Author: Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a freelance writer, public speaker and social media consultant. He is currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at email@example.com or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/
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