Are Jewish students safe at the University of California? Yes and no.

Posted: 3/27/2015 11:38:00 AM
Author: Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
Source: This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Newsz on March 26, 2015.

Are Jewish students safe at the University of California? Yes and no:
Posted: 03/26/15
by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

What is the campus climate like for Jewish students at the University of California? As the old Jewish joke goes: in one word, good; in two words, not good.

Let’s start with the good.

Last week, UC President Janet Napolitano and Board of Regents Chair Bruce Varner issued a strong statement condemning recent anti-Semitic incidents on UC campuses, which have included swastikas spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis and the inappropriate questioning of a candidate for the student judiciary board about her Jewishness and Jewish affiliations at UCLA.

The Napolitano-Varner statement was issued on the heels of two other unprecedented responses to escalating anti-Semitic activity on UC campuses: the student senates at UCLA and UC Berkeley each unanimously approved resolutions condemning campus anti-Semitism.

Both resolutions invoked the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism as a standard for identifying anti-Semitic activity. The world’s most authoritative and well-accepted formulation of contemporary forms of anti-Semitism, the State Department’s definition recognizes that anti-Semitism often “manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel” and can include language or behavior that “demonize[s] Israel” by “blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions,” “delegitimize[s] Israel” by “denying Israel the right to exist” or applies “double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

These three statements by UC officials and student leaders acknowledging and condemning the heretofore officially unacknowledged problem of anti-Semitism on UC campuses are all good, and the student resolutions invoking the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which recognizes that certain expressions of animosity towards Israel are anti-Semitic, are very good indeed.

Now let’s turn to the not so good.

These commendable statements pay little, if any, attention to the enormous elephant in the room — the fact that the recent anti-Semitic incidents are directly related to the virulently anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaigns being promoted on UC campuses. For example, the swastikas drawn on the Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis appeared less than two days after a contentious vote in the student senate on an anti–Israel BDS resolution. Just after that vote, a student council member who had sponsored the divestment bill wrote on her Facebook page: “Israel will fall insha’Allah #UCDDivest”; and the four student senators who challenged the candidate for the judicial board because she was Jewish were sponsors and supporters of the most recent anti-Israel BDS bill at UCLA.

In fact, Jewish students on each of the UC campuses that have played host to BDS campaigns — Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz — have reported being the victims of anti-Semitic activity, including harassment, physical and verbal assault, threats, vilification, and discrimination; defacement and destruction of their property and the property of Jewish student organizations; and the disruption and shutting down of Jewish student events.

And it’s not just the BDS activity of anti-Israel students that has created a hostile environment for Jewish students on UC campuses. In a report of the campus climate for Jewish students at the University of California commissioned by former UC President Mark Yudof, Jewish students from seven UC campuses testified that one of the most distressing issues for them was the sponsorship of unambiguously anti-Zionist events by university departments and administrative offices. Since that report was issued in 2012, the problem has only gotten worse, with numerous departments and administrative offices on UC campuses sponsoring events which openly promote the boycott of Israel. Moreover, approximately 250 UC faculty members have endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities and scholars and more than 100 have publicly endorsed undergraduate and graduate students’ BDS campaigns, with many of these faculty using their classrooms and course curricula to promote BDS.

It should come as no surprise that BDS activity on UC campuses is linked to anti-Semitic behavior. Virtually every activity promoting BDS involves rhetoric that demonizes and delegitimizes Israel and holds it to an impossible double standard — exactly how the State Department defines anti-Semitism.

So while statements condemning swastikas and the rejection of a candidate for student government solely because she is Jewish are important and commendable, unless the direct relationship between BDS rhetoric and activity and anti-Semitism can be publicly acknowledged, these statements will do little to ameliorate the University of California’s “Jewish problem.” This will only happen when UC officials adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, and charge campus administrators with using the definition to identify anti-Semitic behavior and respond to it with the same promptness and vigor as they do all other forms of racial, ethnic and gender bigotry and discrimination.

Rossman-Benjamin is faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz and cofounder and director of the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization that combats campus anti-Semitism.