One month ago, I heard a disturbing story about an incident that happened at our university.
Leon Rajninger, a Romanian Holocaust survivor born in 1931, had just wrapped up a discussion with my class, taught by Professor Lee Bycel. Rajninger described how he and his family went into hiding during the Nazi takeover and came within inches of death multiple times.
He went on to tell us that before he joined us in the classroom, he was waiting in the cafeteria to meet our professor. A student walked up to Rajninger, asking if he was a professor and what he was doing on campus. Rajninger said he wasn’t a professor, but that he was at USF to share his story of survival.
The student then said their father did not believe the Holocaust ever happened. And as for them, they were on the fence about it.
“Well, you have a lot to learn,” Rajninger replied. After leaving the classroom, I felt angry and saddened that Rajninger had to go through this.
What is our duty as students when we hear a story such as this? First, it is to realize that dark views don’t always come from the fringe corners of our community. Sometimes, ignorance as dangerous as this is hiding in plain sight. Second, we have to attempt a dialogue with this student; considering they are on the fence, there’s a potential for change.
Rajninger’s interaction first made me think about a 2017 New York Times profile of “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” Tony Hovater is an ordinary Ohio man who likes to shop at Target and watch Seinfeld. Hovater is also a fervent white nationalist. (He may want to stop watching Seinfeld.)
Readers criticized the Times for “normalizing” Hovater’s views. I, on the other hand, found the piece deeply revealing about the banality of dangerous ignorance. For us to dismantle it, we must recognize how seemingly normal people can be taken ahold by fringe opinions.
What, then, to do with a student who holds such repugnant beliefs?
Do you censor and vilify them at every step or try to make some sort of attempt to break through their ignorance? Considering where this student stands, the latter is the only way.
I am reminded of another newspaper article about Derek Black, published by The Washington Post. Derek is the son of Don Black, the founder of the internet’s notorious white nationalist site, Stormfront. Until he went to college, Derek had been an ardent white supremacist for most of his life.
What challenged his beliefs? A Jewish student at Derek’s college invited him to Shabbat dinner, Judaism’s day of rest. The two eventually corroded Derek’s views until he completely relinquished them. (At the cost of being estranged from his family.)
I am not suggesting that this method can be used for everyone with such dangerous views. There comes a point where one’s beliefs are so heavily instilled, or they have acted on them, which renders any sort of reconciliation attempt null.
But if the son of one of the country’s most notorious white supremacists can change, can the student Rajninger interacted with also change? It is worth a try. This student is not lost on us just yet. Professor Bycel said, in retrospect, he would have liked to invite the student to hear about Rajninger’s story of survival, with the hope that this would set him on the right side of the fence.
This is the most powerful response.
What is the single, most powerful way to challenge a belief? Hearing a story.