In most university campuses in America, “cultural appropriation,” meaning the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture is a hot-button issue and is widely considered morally wrong and highly insensitive.
It is such a hot button issue that Yale University became embroiled in heated debate just a few weeks ago over whether the school administration was sensitive enough to concerns about students wearing Halloween costumes that may be seen as culturally offensive. The debate over Halloween costumes at Yale began when the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to the student body asking students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes that could offend minority students. It specifically advised them to steer clear of outfits that included elements like feathered headdresses, turbans or blackface. In response, Erika Christakis, a faculty member and an administrator at a student residence, wrote an email to students living in her residence hall on behalf of those she described as “frustrated” by the official advice on Halloween costumes. She then voiced her opinion that students should be free to wear whatever Halloween costume they want, even it offended some students. The uproar caused by Ms. Christakis’s email was immediate, vociferous, and it ultimately led to Ms. Christakis’s resignation.
In 2012, Victoria’s Secret sent model Karlie Kloss down a runway in a fringed suede bikini, turquoise jewelry, and a feathered headdress, in what was described as a “sexy Indian” costume. In response, many decried Victoria’s Secret for its insensitivity to Native Americans. Since a war bonnet like the one Ms. Kloss wore has spiritual and ceremonial significance, with only certain members of the tribe having earned the right to wear feathers through honorable achievements and/or courageous acts, Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist of the Oglala Lakota Nation, justifiably, told MTV News she felt what Ms. Kloss and Victoria’s Secret did was the equivalent of someone casually wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor that was not earned.
Universities in America are so sensitive to not engaging in the callous sort of insensitivity demonstrated by Victoria’s Secret that when certain students on November 2013 at the University of Minnesota threw a fiesta-themed bowling party with some students dressed up in sombreros and ponchos, University of Minnesota Vice Provost and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young issued a strong condemnation of the party and promised that the students involved would be “educated” about cultural appropriation. She also issued a statement apologizing on behalf of the entire school to all Chicano and/or Latino members of the University of Minnesota community.
In light of this recent history and the incredible sensitivity that university administrations and professors generally have when it comes to the appropriation of other cultures’ symbols and histories, one would expect that a university professor in 2015 would never appropriate a symbol associated exclusively with the institutional, state-sanctioned oppression, discrimination and even murder of one group of people in order to try and make a point on behalf of another group. That is certainly what one should reasonably expect. When that historically oppressed group is Jews, who in America in 2015, are somehow not considered by many in academia to be a minority deserving of protection (notwithstanding the fact that 60% of all hate crimes in America based on religious identity over the last 5 years were against Jews), this expectation would not be reasonable; and if you expected a painful symbol of Jewish history not to be appropriated by a university professor, you would be wrong. Very wrong.
According to the Times of San Diego, just last week, a University of San Diego religious studies professor, Bahar Davary, out of concern about growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the USA decided to have her students and other faculty members wear around the USD campus a yellow Star of David marked with the word “Muslim” as well as a crescent moon symbol associated with Islam in order to “invite a conversation” (as Professor Davary indicated in the Times of San Diego article).
While I am all for “starting conversations” about important subjects, and for combatting racism, bigotry and unlawful discrimination, it is deeply offensive that Professor Davary and some of her colleagues at the University of San Diego elected to engage in such blatant cultural appropriation. As Professor Davary should know (as a professor of theology and religious studies), the yellow badge (or yellow patch), also referred to as the “Jewish badge,” called in German the Judenstern (literally, the “Jews’ star”), was a cloth patch or armband that Jews were ordered to sew on their outer garments to mark them as Jews, and as a “badge of shame” at certain times in different countries since the year 700 A.D.
The yellow badge of shame, or yellow Star of David, that Professor Davary elected to appropriate to help make her point, has a long and terrible history that is unique to the Jewish people, which in and of itself makes Professor Davary’s actions offensive and insensitive. Anti-Muslim bigotry certainly deserves condemnation as do all forms of xenophobia and bigotry. And legitimate concerns about Islamist extremism and Islamist-based terrorism should never be used as an excuse for vilifying or discriminating against Muslims. This important point, however, does not give anyone the license to appropriate Jewish history (let alone to try and invoke in the minds of many people the industrial-scale genocide that Nazi Germany inflicted on Jews during WWII).
Moreover, while many people today solely associate the yellow badge or Star of David with the Nazis and the Holocaust, the yellow badge of shame was first required for Jews to wear by Umayyad Caliph Umar II in the early 8th century in Baghdad in order to separate and distinguish Jews from the Muslim majority. The practice was reissued and reinforced by Caliph Al-Mutawakkil (847–61A.D.), and remained in force for centuries thereafter throughout the Middle East by Muslim dictators in order to oppress and shame Jews as “Dhimmi.”
It is also a historical fact that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, was a big supporter and fan of Hitler, and that sadly much of the Muslim world today is a veritable hotbed of anti-Semitic propaganda, incitement to violence and agitation. In most Arab countries today, Jews are routinely demonized and defamed, and the ancient Jewish communities in almost all Muslim areas throughout the Middle East and North Africa were subject to vicious pogroms, discrimination and expulsion from 1941 through 1952. In Algeria, the closest thing in the Arab world today to a functioning democracy, and where there are almost no Jews left due to rampant state sanctioned pogroms and discrimination from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the Algerian Army on November 1, 2015 – in honor of Algeria’s Revolution Day -marched to repeated chants of “Oh Arab, oh sons of Arabs, march on, march on, and turn your guns towards the Jews, in order to kill them, slaughter them, and skin them!” [see here].
In many places in Europe today (where one sadly cannot even blame the demagoguery of dictators or the state control of the media), Jews cannot walk the streets while displaying any Jewish symbol (such as the Star of David) or even traditional Jewish attire, for fear of harassment and even assault (primarily by young Muslims). In France and Belgium over the last 10 years many Jews and Jewish institutions have been targeted for violence, and sadly many Jews have been murdered solely because of their religion, all by people claiming inspiration to commit these heinous acts in the name of Islam.
Thus, while it is plainly wrong to tar or target all members of a religion for the actions of some of their co-religionists; and statements that call for the “banning” of Muslims or ascribing any particular evil to Muslims are simply abhorrent, the history of the yellow badge of shame and the fact that it was first devised and used for centuries by Muslim dictators in order to demonize and discriminate against Jews makes the cultural appropriation by Professor Davary even more appalling. And if Professor Davary really wants to “start a conversation,” than that conversation should include an honest discussion about the terrible role that Muslim dictatorships have had throughout history in perpetuating vile, vicious, and mendacious Jew hatred and discrimination (which sadly continues in most Muslim dictatorships and in many Muslim communities in Europe to this very day). After all, with violent anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, with the Algerian Army currently marching to chants of “kill, slaughter and skin” the Jews and with the overwhelming majority of adults in most Arab countries presently holding strongly anti-Semitic views about Jews, that is a conversation worth having.