Standing Strong in Chapel Hill — Brother Jake Harris (UNC, 2027)

Students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Including AEPi Brothers, protect the American flag from protestors. Photo: Parker Ali/Daily Tar Heel

The images have been seen across the country and around the globe. As pro-Palestinian protesters on the campus of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill tried to tear down the American flag for a second time, a group of students – many of them AEPi Brothers from the Omega chapter – held the flag off the ground and defended it until law enforcement could again secure the area.

For Brother Jake Harris (North Carolina – Chapel Hill, 2027), being there – in the middle of the protest, protecting the American flag and holding up an Israeli flag – was a seminal moment in his young college career.

“I had just gotten out of my English class and was on my way back to my dorm to study when one of our brothers called me and said that there was another massive protest on the quad and that I needed to get over there. He knows that I share his beliefs about Israel and would stand with him,” said Brother Harris.

By this time, the illegal encampment had been going on for four to five days and the protests were getting louder.

“The night before this all happened, several of us had gone around campus and ‘chalked the sidewalks’ (editor’s note: this is a common and accepted practice on many campuses as long as the comments are not hateful). “We wrote things like ‘Do you know what you support?’ and ‘Hamas started the war against Israel.’ We did this because we wanted to show the Israeli supporters on campus that we have a voice too.”

“The encampment was disbanded in the morning but the protests on the quad that day were really big. We were sitting on the steps overlooking the quad. At that moment, I was having a very respectful conversation with a woman who was protesting. And, over her shoulder I saw that the American flag (on the flagpole in the center of the quad) had come down. We were all so shocked that it happened. We were asking each other, ‘Why would they do that? What is wrong with these people?”

Brother Harris on the right just before the flag was taken down the first time

The university chancellor and law enforcement came onto the quad and went to the flagpole, pulled down the Palestinian flag that had been raised and once more raised the American flag. “We walked with the chancellor and the police, holding our Israeli flags high. People were yelling at us and throwing stuff at us, but we kept moving forward with our Israeli flags. At this point some other people joined with us, not just supporting Israel but supporting America.”

“I have nothing against protests. If you want to protest, go for it. That’s what our country is built on. But, tearing down the flag of the country that gives you the right to protest to put up a flag of a place that would probably kill you for protesting it, is very ironic.”

As the Chancellor was leaving, someone yanked the Israeli flag from Brother Harris’ hands and ran off. After giving chase, the flag was recovered, and Brother Harris had a fascinating interaction.

“I grabbed the guy who had the flag (he picked it up after the initial thief dropped it and ran off) and he squared up like he wanted to fight me. I asked him if he even knew what he was supporting, and we ended up having a really good five-minute conversation. It was amazing that when we started the discussion, he had his fists raised in my face and at the end of the conversation, we each told the other, ‘I don’t hate your people but what happened to our people is not ok.’ We shook hands, I took back my flag, and headed back towards the center of the quad.”

“When you really sit down with these people – well, most of them – they are just people. A lot of the people protesting don’t even know what they are supporting. They are just told that it’s a great cause and they should support it.”

As he turned back to the center of the quad, Brother Harris initially thought that the American flag had been torn down again but then he saw a group of students – both Brothers of AEPi and members of other fraternities – holding the American flag up off the ground and keeping the protesters away and not letting the protesters near it. Still carrying his Israeli flag, Brother Harris stepped into the middle and began protecting the barricades to keep the protesters away from his Brothers and the flag. “People were flipping us off, they were pouring stuff on us, they called us horrible names. We were getting plastic and metal water bottles thrown at us. But, we stood there and started singing the national anthem and Am Yisreal Chai.”

Eventually the police returned and put up fencing around the flagpole and protected the flag. But something happened around that flagpole. American supporters joined with the supporters of Israel to stand up for shared ideals. “Israeli ideals are similar to American ideals. We share beliefs in freedom and democracy.”

“The protests had been going on for so long and it was getting to the Jewish community on campus. I’m on the Hillel board and, like a lot of our chapter, I go to Chabad pretty regularly. It felt like Jewish students were living under a microscope. We were being judged for our beliefs and our Judaism. People started associating my Judaism – my identity – with what they perceive to be something terrible. I was tired of that.”

“I wanted to prove that the Jewish community has a voice. I wanted to stand up for the other Jewish students on campus who weren’t there because they were either afraid to be there or – worse – were afraid the show their identity, who they really are. We all knew it could be dangerous. There was always a chance that someone could throw a punch and things could get more violent. But I went out there not just for me but for all of the Jews on campus.”

Later in the week, while celebrating shabbat dinner at Chabad, Rabbi Zalman talked about the flagpole and how what the brothers did went viral and the good that was coming from it. “I looked at my chapter Brother and I thought, ‘We did this. We made a difference. We made it so that Jewish students didn’t have to feel like they were being silenced.”

“When the police officers saw the crowd around the flagpole, they told us to stay back that it might be dangerous. We said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s show our support. Let’s stand strong.”