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.Chaim Shapiro