The Watermelon Rebellion

Dr. Dana M. Reisboard, Ph.D, Widener University and Jack F. Sigman, Ph.D. candidate, Gratz College

May 7th, 2024

I sit here writing, not out of anger, but from a deep sadness and frustration with how academia has evolved from a mild case of antisemitism to a full-blown pandemic of vitriolic hatred towards Jews who believe we are a people, that Israel has the right to exist, and who believe that “Never Again” means never again to the Jews without just retribution.

Back in the day, we were told “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” This was always a milksop answer to a child who was being verbally bullied. However, after over 100 million hours in therapy, we have determined that the misused bromide was not true at all. Words hurt. In fact, to our psyche, words hurt more than broken bones as bones heal in weeks and are stronger for it. The broken mind takes years to heal, if ever.

Despite the efforts of free speech advocates, many programs have been designed to end the immunity of a particular type of speech that allows the expression of hatred directed against people that cause, at times, abusive, mind-numbing pain. The latest effort, which appears to be going viral, is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. This program is supposed to make certain places: Government agencies, schools from elementary through the University level, major corporate workplaces, and so on, a place wherein diversity is cherished and included in all phases of the workplace life, but also a place safe from mental harm, deliberate or not. While the first goal of the DEI program, inclusion of all that make up the fabric of humanity, is concretely workable in large institutions. However, making a place safe from mental harm is incredibly difficult given the 24/7 internet “news” bombardment that makes it almost impossible to filter out fake from real and fosters the creation of strong hatreds.

The Origin of DEI

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the DEI initiative arose from the ashes of the Chicago race riots following the assassination of the leader of the American civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luthor King. The admissions staff at the City Colleges of Chicago believed that becoming inclusive was one way to combat the racism dividing the city. However, without a blueprint to follow, they sought help at the conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The problem became obvious, a lack of minority admissions counselors. Before the campus could become diverse, the staff and faculty had to become diverse. However, it is often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The DEI initiative has grown exponentially over the last 36 years in that it now is embraced by most major government and private institutions within the United States (Europe has its own issues stemming from the overt racism within the fascist movements starting in the aftermath of WWI and culminating with the Holocaust). Unfortunately, the DEI initiatives appear to exclude certain minorities, especially the Jews. This despite the vulnerability of the Jewish population to discrimination and hate crimes. While Jews comprise only 2.4% of the population of the United States, they are targeted in more than half of all religious hate crimes. DEI’s failure to include Jews is contrary to its defined principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Consequently, we must find a more inclusive path to DEI that ensures protection and support for all marginalized communities.

Including Jews under the DEI umbrella should provide a safe space for Jews to explore their experiences. However, such inclusion must separate people from politics. For example, during a recent education conference focusing on diversity, one of my colleagues, Dr. Dana Reiboard from Widener University in Pennsylvania, experienced exclusion and political attacks when the majority of attendants wore “watermelon” badges, and a key event was a “Free Gaza” march. The conference’s programming promoted exclusion despite its purpose being to promote DEI principles.

The origin of the “watermelon” symbol is a good story. In the afterglow of the overwhelming “Six Day War” victory by, the Israeli government made what is seen now to be a rash decision to ban the flying of a flag that symbolized the quest for independence of the Palestinian Arabs. Not getting into the politics, but the way around the ban was to display a watermelon as it had the same colors as that flag. However, decades later, just as the Nazi Flag and the Confederate Battle flags ceased to be symbols of nationalism and became symbols of racism and hatred, so too has the “Watermelon” become a symbol of hatred for Jews as it is associated with the movement to destroy Israel.

Going back to my colleague’s emotional trauma, in her own words; at the conference, what they experienced presents a classic example of the “dual loyalty” trope, where Jews are excluded by a direct and indirect suggestion that they are not “trustworthy” or “loyal” because of their religion and association with Israel. The Gaza Conflict should not have been part of the subject matter or on display at this conference, but it was, and this is not a unique experience.

Dr. Reisboard’s experience shows that the exclusion of Jews has morphed into active antisemitism and has created a hostile schism within its members and its principles. Dr. Reisboard’s research shows that the DEI “Watermelon” display and Gaza March presented an asserted pressure to wear a “badge” of identification to assert loyalty to an identified group of people. This experience presents insight into recent student protests on college campuses. For example, a recent survey of participating students [citation] who marched in support of Palestinian statehood and civil rights, chanting, “From the river to the sea,” found that nearly half of these students did not know its true meaning. The slogan, banned in Germany and elsewhere is a declaration advocating for Israel’s erasure which, by direct consequence, would involve human eradication. When the Wall Street Journal explored this question through its survey of 250 student protesters, from diverse backgrounds, born in the United States, it was discovered that only 47% of the students could even identify the “river” and the” sea” referenced. More disturbing is that this select 47%, which identified the river as the River Jordan and the sea as the Mediterranean Sea must know that, by application, this means the erasure of Israel. They enthusiastically supported eliminating Israel, an existing nation, and replacing it with a new population, one that is not Jewish.

It is the promotion of this type of DEI program in our universities that encourages the encampments. It is this type of DEI program that allows non-student antisemitic and anti-Israel groups such as JVP, INN, IJV, JLF, SJP, AMP, and CAIR, among others, to organize, lead, and defend these campus protests and encampments that promote hatred of America, Jews, and Israel. The promotion of hatred is not a non-violent protest.

DEI was created with good intentions. But we both know where the road paved with good intentions goes.

About Jack Sigman

Jack Frank Sigman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Holocaust and Genocide program at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.

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