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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Jewish Story of the UNC Frat Boys Who Held up the American Flag

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Proud AEPI brothers stand up for Jews and America

By: Faygie Levy Holt

Images of a small group of students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill holding up an American flag amid violent anti-Israel protests last week captured the attention of the nation. The boys were caught on camera struggling to keep the Stars and Stripes from falling onto the ground after the protesters sought to replace it with a Palestinian flag.

What isn’t as widely known is that about a dozen of the 25 or so students who kept the American flag flying were young Jewish men—brothers from the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, or AEPi—and members of Chabad-Lubavitch at UNC. All of them participate in Fra-Torah, a weekly Torah class at Chabad, attend Friday night Shabbat dinners, and are part of Chabad at UNC’s Lions of Israel tefillin club.

Among them was 19-year-old Jacob Harris, who told Chabad.org that while he didn’t initially plan to challenge the protesters, when he heard that friends and other supporters of Israel and the Jewish people’s rights to dwell there were being called “fascists and Nazis,” and worse, he had to do something.

“I realized these protests had evolved. For the first time here in college, I felt as if my presence at my university as a Jewish student was being scrutinized,” Harris said.

Joining up with a few friends, Harris went to the quad—the central area on campus—carrying an Israeli flag. What he saw when he arrived upset him deeply.

“We watched in horror and disgust as the protesters tore the American flag in the center of the quad off its pole and replaced it with a Palestinian one,” he recounted. “This demonstration had become completely out of hand.”

Police arrived soon after, and the American flag was returned to its rightful spot. However, once the authorities left, protesters again targeted the flag.

That was when Harris and his friends jumped into action. They encircled the flagpole and held the American flag aloft over their heads to ensure that it didn’t touch the ground. Photos of the young men standing proud in the face of blatant hate quickly spread across the country.

“The scene that stood before us was just awful,” said Harris. “The same people that had promoted their protest as peaceful were pelting us with all sorts of projectiles—a metal water bottle gave my friend a black eye simply for standing up for his identity and defending the Stars and Stripes.

“The American flag is a symbol of freedom—the freedom represented by that flag allows me to express my identity just as it allows individuals to protest. Seeing the flag being taken down by the same people that it gives the right to protest felt like a slap in the face of every American citizen,” Harris said.

‘Standing Up for What They Believe In’

Rabbi Zalman Bluming, co-director with his wife, Yehudis, of Chabad at UNC at Chapel Hill, wasn’t surprised to see the young men jump into action.

“[They] have in spades what so many of their peers are sorely lacking: common sense, love of their country and a willingness to defend it,” he said. “Moreover, these boys see one another as brothers and defend their highest common commitments as brothers should. We Jews will stand up for America’s flag when others are prepared to trample it. And our true brothers in this great country stand united with us.”

While some have sought to define the violent protests on campus as one of fighting oppression, those who have gone to the encampments and watched the protests say there’s much more going on.

“This is an American fight,” Bluming said. “It’s not just Jewish values being threatened on campus; it is American freedom and American values. There is a tremendous synergy between Jewish values and American values, and I am very proud of what these young men did in standing up for what they believe in.”

He added that Judaism encourages people to be upright and upstanding citizens, to take part in their communities and support their government, something he said the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged. “He wanted people to go vote, to be involved in civic service,” said the rabbi. “The boys weren’t wearing tefillin at the time, but I believe that’s where they get the strength to stand up for what they believe and be successful doing so.

Harris, who participates in Chabad activities at UNC as often as possible, believes that his Jewish identity played a role in his stepping up and getting involved.

“I went out there because I wanted to provide a voice for the Jewish students who felt unwelcome on campus and show that it’s OK to be proud of an identity,” Harris said. “I’ve seen the impact our presence in those protests had on other college campuses as Jewish students have become more comfortable expressing their identities. I’m very grateful for the impact of our actions.”


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