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Brandeis Rabbi responds to criticism of student union president

Rabbi and Executive Director of Brandeis Hillel Seth Winberg responded to social media criticism of Brandeis’ Student Union president’s Instagram comments about a New York Senate Bill—a bill that would require school children in the state to be educated on the meaning of swastikas and nooses as symbols of hatred and intolerance—according to its text

Winberg’s email, which came out on July 24, followed tensions on social media as Brandeis students discussed the president’s statements—arguing that the swastika’s history in other cultures should also be acknowledged—and as social media accounts with larger followings drew attention to the conversation.

Winberg acknowledged the backlash Student Union President Simran Tatuskar ’21 faced online, including what appeared to be a threat on an Instagram page with over 13,000 followers. An Instagram user wrote that they were “finding her name location and address [sic].” The Instagram page replied that it had that information, according to screenshots obtained by The Brandeis Hoot. The page, @stop_antisemetism, which deleted the comments, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a post on Facebook, Winberg said that he was “embarrassed” by the response to Tatuskar’s post made by those who claimed to be representative of the Jewish community. Winberg also wrote that a more productive reaction would be to be considerate of the opposing argument, ask further questions to get a better understanding and check the facts before criticizing someone. 

“Some of the assessments of the current student union president have been unfair and distressing,” Winberg wrote in an email to the Brandeis community addressing the backlash. “My sense from her other social media posts is that she is aware of and speaks up about antisemitism … Students deserve the benefit of the doubt as they find their voices and learn how to express themselves sincerely and delicately.” He continued, “We need to be vigilant in combating antisemitism, and we should all be allies in that regard.”

The social media backlash followed an Instagram story on Tatuskar’s account that questioned a New York Senate bill—S6648—which passed in the senate on July 21, according to the senate. The bill comes in response to a rise in hate crimes nationwide, according to a CNN article

Tatuskar posted comments, around July 20, made by an Instagram account discussing the bill and added her own commentary, where she argued that both histories—the Hindu and Buddhist history of the symbol and the Nazi history—should be taught. 

“I grew up in a religious family and understand the historic significance and value of this symbol in Hindu culture,” she wrote in the post. “I don’t understand why cultural appropriation from Hindu/Buddhist culture for a truly evil and vicious cause by Nazi Germany isn’t isolated from the origins of the symbol and what it still continues to mean.”

“I think it’s important to teach both – awareness of other cultures and to be cognizant of antisemitism as a reality,” wrote Tatuskar. “I’m aware of how valuable and historic Jewish culture is, and the level of antisemitism that’s faced to this day that needs to be addressed. But that can’t be done by invalidating other cultures and their values/symbols in the process.”

Winberg responded directly to Tatuskar’s comments, writing, “My own view is that there ought to be a way to teach about the swastika as a symbol of hateful anti-Judaism without disenfranchising American Hindus. The Third Reich’s misappropriation of the swastika should be taught as part of Holocaust history.”

Tatuskar later clarified her remarks in a subsequent post, saying she regretted the misunderstandings it caused.

“The Nazi swastika undoubtedly represents the horrors of the Holocaust,” Tatuskar wrote in the subsequent post a few days later, on July 22. “Hitler tilted the swastika and turned it into a symbol of hate … As someone who is not Jewish, I know that I cannot fully understand the Jewish experience and feelings my post evoked, but I never wanted to harm anyone … The current version of the bill erases and vilifies various cultures for using this symbol. This may perpetuate ignorance, since all students will learn that the Swastika [sic] is solely and exclusively associated with hatred and intolerance rather than being educated about the full historical and cultural meaning of the symbol.”

The history of the swastika dates back to before the Second World War, and the word “swastika” means “well-being” in Sanskrit, according to a BBC article. The symbol is used by Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists and was used in the west for advertising and product design prior to the 1930s. Within the religion of Hinduism, “it is an auspicious sign that signifies prosperity and good luck, hence it is displayed during religious festivals,” according to an ABC op-ed. The swastika was used during the Second World War by the Nazi Third Reich for uniforms, flags and even troop formations at rallies, according to The Smithsonian. The symbol used by Nazi Germany at the time, the black straight-armed hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, was placed on a white circle and red background to form the Nazi flag.

The symbol is notorious for representing antisemitism and the Holocaust—or the imprisonment and genocide of around six million Jewish people. It is known as a hate symbol in the U.S. and linked with white supremacy movements, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The symbol has been banned in Germany since the end of World War II, according to a Vox article.

Several Brandeis Instagram users referenced a post by user Anna Rajagopal, who does not attend Brandeis (though she says she was accepted into Brandeis’ mid-year program last fall and chose not to attend) and who self-identifies as both Indian and Jewish. She told The Hoot in an email that several Brandeis students reached out to her about Tatuskar’s posts. She wrote about the meaning of the symbol to her and criticized Tatuskar’s statements in a post to over 3,000 followers on July 21. 

“Here’s the bottom line: If you aren’t Jewish, you are not ‘aware’ of the way the Swastika [sic] affects us Jews. We suffer from intergenerational trauma correlated directly to the Swastika [sic],” the post reads. “As president of @brandeisuniversity’s student union, this is unacceptable. I ask—Why post this now? The answer: Because antisemitism is finally gaining the attention that we Jews have long waited for, and you are using our momentum—our outcry of trauma and pain.” 

Rajagopal wrote she stands by her post and that Tatuskar’s second post “was not an apology” but minimized Jewish trauma and failed to acknowledge that some Jewish people are non-white. Rajapogal wrote that she condemns threats and doxxing—where individuals publish another’s private information online as a form of revenge—of any kind.

“I hope that the Jewish community—my community—realizes the nuance inherent to this issue … I am a Jewish Indian. I grew up around the Swastika [sic], with the symbol present in my life—as a symbol of peace. As a Jew, I also grew up with that symbol as a reminder & bringer of great trauma. Jewish Indians NEED [sic] to be included in these discussions. This conversation can’t be Jews versus Indians, because then we are leaving out thousands of those of us who exist as both,” she wrote. “To allow Hitler, Nazi Germany and White Supremacy [sic] to continue to pit both marginalized groups against each other is doing EVERYONE [sic] a disservice.”

Several prominent Instagram pages, including @jewishoncampus and @stop_antisemitism, also posted criticism against Tatuskar and the Free Press Journal, an English daily newspaper out of Mumbai, and the website Swarajya Magazine picked up the story. Tatuskar’s original post was reposted to the Instagram stories of several Brandeis students in the following days. 

When Tatuskar clarified her statement, she wrote that her original post was about the New York Senate bill. Tatuskar described the Nazi definition of the swastika as “vital and necessary learning for all students,” and concluded that, “marginalized identities should not be pitted against one another.”

She cited a leadership summit that Winberg also references in his email response. The 2008 summit, attended by both Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, representatives of the World Council of Religious Leaders produced a declaration which included a description of the swastika’s history. 

“Svastika is an ancient and greatly auspicious symbol of the Hindu tradition,” the declaration reads. “It is inscribed on Hindu temples, ritual altars, entrances, and even account books. A distorted version of this sacred symbol was misappropriated by the Third Reich in Germany, and abused as an emblem under which heinous crimes were perpetrated against humanity, particularly the Jewish people. The participants recognize that this symbol is, and has been sacred to Hindus for millennia, long before its misappropriation.”

The discussion was brought to the comments section of Brandeis University’s official Instagram page on July 23, which discussed the return to fall learning. It was repeatedly commented on by users writing the hashtag “#Hinduphobia,” “#westandwithSimranTatuskar,” “#stophinduphobia” and others. This post now has over 150 comments, with Brandeis students and others discussing the origin, meaning and modern use of the swastika. 

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