Yesterday, an email was sent to the Jewish community at Stanford by Rabbis Jessica Kirschner and Laurie Hahn Tapper. This email informed students about a Snapchat story of a student reading Mein Kampf—Adolf Hitler’s manifesto.
The full email reads as follows:
The Stanford Daily later reported that the student reading Mein Kampf did not post the photo on their own Snapchat story, but was rather posted by another student. As of today, the Protected Identity Harm dashboard—where Stanford aims to list all reported incidents of discrimination—has not been updated to include this incident.
We do not yet know the backstory of the image. It could've been used for a class (HUMCORE 13 assigned the text last spring), or it could be a joke by two students as a Fizz comment claims.
Even if the comment is true, two girls holding up a non-politically correct item as a prop is not worth widespread condemnation. The incident being framed as a student reading a copy of Mein Kampf rather than commentary on Holocaust jokes shows (for many) the root issue is simply the possession of the book. Regardless of whether this specific copy of Mein Kampf was read for class or used for a drunken photo shoot, the public outrage about a “student reading Mein Kampf” (to quote Rabbi Kirschner and Rabbi Hahn Tapper’s email) is undeserved.
No matter what the context of the photo was, the community’s reaction stands in opposition to the liberal values of the university. The email to the Jewish Students Association email list, the filing of a Protected Identity Harm Incident, and condemnation added by the Stanford Daily article about a “photo of the student reading [Mein Kampf]” reveals how fast the Stanford community will jump on the censorship train in the name of fighting oppression. No matter the context, we should not chastise students for reading controversial books, and we certainly should not spread an institutional message that “feelings of safety and belonging” should be prioritized above academic freedom to read controversial books or the personal freedom to make an off-kilter joke.
Students should be exposed to banned books and uncomfortable ideas as only engaging with ideas outside of one’s comfort zone can one be pushed to strengthen one’s intellect. The ethos of ignoring, rather than engaging with, ‘offensive texts’ forces students into a state of hyper-fragility that “disturbed” them (in the words of Rabbi Kirschner and Rabbi Hahn Tapper). Any education that prioritizes student comfort over the pursuit of knowledge and full understanding is one that underestimates students’ ability to grapple with complex and perhaps sensitive topics. Not only does the ethos of ignoring sensitive texts patronize students, those who are not exposed to dangerous ideas—such as those articulated in Mein Kampf—will fail to respond to them in the real world.
I myself am no stranger to banned books, from the copy of Mein Kampf I have in my dorm room to my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in my childhood bedroom from my 6th grade English class. My friends who have seen my copy of the former in my room have often remarked about it, but these remarks are often padded by the fact that I am Jewish, and therefore my possession of the book is not questionable. But being Jewish should not be a qualifier to read an important historical text. Though Mein Kampf carries a hateful, genocidal message packed with poor writing, this should not disqualify the book from being read. In fact, Mein Kampf is worth reading because it exposes the mind of one of the most consequential men of the 20th century, and allows readers to comprehend the kind of thinking that, when given power, leads to violence.
Last spring, I gave a presentation on Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto—a document that inspired Hitler’s one-time political ally and fellow fascist Mussolini. The Manifesto encourages “contempt for woman” and the valorization of violence. After my presentation, a student asked me why I thought the Manifesto was worth reading. I answered that if we ignore ideologies that we find problematic, we might lose sight of the grievances that make these ideologies attractive to many (Mussolini’s fascist state enjoyed popular support for many years). Perhaps more importantly, we can only learn to debate and eliminate dangerous ideologies by wholly understanding their arguments. Civic engagement with politics now is at an intellectual low point because of the “do not interact” label stamped onto political opponents.
Luckily, it seems like many students have pushed back against the narrative that a student merely reading Mein Kampf constitutes an act of hatred against Jews. A Fizz post that linked the Daily article with the caption “I think this is one of the dumbest daily posts of all time. ‘Student reads historical book’” has over one thousand upvotes.
Hopefully, this spirit of historical inquiry and academic freedom will spread to the rest of Stanford, where it often seems that exposure to controversial or ‘dangerous’ ideas is frowned upon. Anyone who reads Mein Kampf learns how the suppression of speech is closely tied to fascist government. The widespread lampooning of the Daily article shows the resistance against attacks on academic freedom, and the freedom to read whatever one likes.