I was excited to join a fraternity in 2002, my sophomore year at Indiana University. Greek life had a big cultural influence at Indiana University, with about a quarter of the entire undergraduate class being in a fraternity or sorority.
It was also my first experience with the Confederate flag.
I chose to pledge the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. I specifically chose Phi Kappa Psi because most of the brothers in the fraternity were from different parts of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and across the Midwest. I grew up in Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., I didn’t just want to recreate my East Coast metropolitan experience at Indiana University. While many other students decided to join fraternities and sororities with others from their same hometown or cultural background, I specifically wanted immerse myself with people of different cultures and backgrounds.
I loved attending Indiana University for that reason. Many of my classmates didn’t previously know anyone who was Jewish or whose parents were from Israel, and for many students from Indiana, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met. Some of my fraternity brothers were from big cities, others from small towns. Some loved NASCAR, and others loved hockey. Some loved hunting, and others loved animals and nature. There was a lot of diversity in my fraternity, and that’s what I loved that the most.
Lots of shenanigans traditionally take place in a college fraternity and sorority houses across the U.S., but my fraternity always strived to stay classy. The nickname of our fraternity was “Gentlemen on the Hill”, and our fraternity house was situated at the highest point of Monroe County, Indiana. 9-time Olympic Gold medalist Mark Spitz and former Indiana Governor and U.S. Senator from Indiana Evan Bayh were even brothers of our fraternity and lived in our fraternity house.
Our house was a mansion that housed over 80 brothers, who all lived in different types of rooms. Our house was two floors, with lots of living rooms, dining rooms, food halls, a patio, a basketball court, and a big lawn. While there were many fraternities and sororities at Indiana University, each house had its own unique characteristics and personality.
After an entire semester of pledging, I was excited to finally be a brother and move into the fraternity house. I was put into a shared room with two other brothers who were from Indiana. They were from the same hometown and knew each other and were friends prior to attending Indiana University. I was an outsider to them at first as I didn’t
know them well or know many people in Indiana (they grew up in Indiana, they had many friends who lived in the area).
We had two rooms between the three of us: one was a large, living room that we all shared and served as our common area, and the other was our private bedroom which included our beds, closets and personal belongings. Our living room was like a normal living room with couches, a TV, and sound system.
We spent the first week moving into the fraternity house decorating our shared living room, and our diversity would be reflected in how we decorated. I had a disco ball because I loved disco music, and they had albums of country music because they loved country music. They put up a mounted deer head because they loved to hunt, I had a fishing rod because I loved to fish. This was all good and fun, until when, to my surprise, one of my brothers took out a large Confederate flag, and hung it on the wall of our shared living room.
Up until this point of my life, I had only ever seen Confederate flags on TV or in movies. Growing up, one of my favorite TV shows was the Dukes of Hazard. The Dukes not only had a Confederate flag on the top of their race car, but it also was immersed in different cultural aspects in the show. In Indiana, it was not uncommon to see a Confederate flag as a bumper sticker on the back of a pick-up truck or hung in the front yard of someone’s house. But, this would be my first time living in a room with an actual Confederate flag.
To me, the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate and segregation, and it made me feel very uncomfortable. But, to him, the flag was a sign of culture, pride, and community. Both feelings of the Confederate flag are still true today to millions of people all across the U.S.
I didn’t just want to quit the fraternity because of this. We were all brothers, and even though I disagreed with having the flag in our living room, and I knew we would all have to live together in a situation that worked for all of us. I specifically joined the fraternity to embrace cultural differences, and if I wanted to be in a fraternity with just a bunch of Jewish people from the East Coast, I could just join another fraternity, but I didn’t want to.
So, after about a week of thinking about it, I decided what I would do.
I measured the dimensions of that large Confederate flag, and went online and ordered an Israeli flag the same exact dimensions. Since my family is Israeli and I’m Jewish, I figured I had the right to take up a similar sized space on our shared living room wall with an Israeli flag, as he had the right to take up space on our wall with a Confederate flag.
About a week later, the Israeli flag came in the mail, and I hung it right next to the Confederate flag on our living room wall.
Word spread quickly throughout the fraternity house, and all my brothers embraced the Israeli flag with the Confederate flag. I’m sure it was equally unusual for some of them to see or be in a house with an Israeli flag, just like I was with a Confederate flag. The Confederate flag with the Israeli flag was the ultimate sign of embracing differences between us.
We had a great time living together that first semester in the fraternity house, and as we got to know each other we discovered we had a lot more in common with each other, and only semantics were our differences.
As I was writing this story, I realized that every flag in the world is actually perceived as both a sign of cultural pride and community by one group and a sign of hate and segregation by another. Flags are just piece of cloth and color, but their make up and construction are all the same. My background is American and Israeli, and if you go to parts of the Middle East like Iran or Iraq, they will perceive our flags with hate and segregation, but the same is true about how we perceive their flags. Flags even divide people around the world who are the most culturally similar: India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea, Israel and Palestine, Arabs and Iranians, Russia and Ukraine, Greece and Turkey, Ireland and the U.K., Croatia and Serbia, China and Taiwan, and more and more. We might have good intentions when we put up flags, but they can also serve to divide us.
The two only places I can think of that unite all flags of all nations of the world are the United Nations and the Olympics. These venues serve to unite all people together and recognize everyone’s right to exist and succeed. When you include all people of all flags, everyone is included, and anything superficial that may serve to divide us is eliminated. If we just look at flags, we will never unite as people. This is what my personal story taught me. The key to peace and understanding each other is to look beyond the flags and differences we may perceive. Even though the colors and designs of the flags are different, their construction and materials are the same. We are all people made up of similar DNA, and our differences are only at the very surface, the deeper you go you will see the more similar we all are.
That being said, the very last time that there was an Israeli flag at our fraternity house was when the Israeli Search and Rescue Team partnered with the Indiana National Guard to stage a demolition of our fraternity house, because a new fraternity house was being built, and use it as a training session for both American and Israeli search and rescue teams. I’m proud to say my cousin is the commander of the Israeli search and rescue team and was part of the drill in our old fraternity house with members of the Indiana team. I’m sure the members of the Indiana and Israeli military shared similar bonds as did our fraternity brothers, and all these people were all brought together through shared experiences in our fraternity house.