Different Tack on Campus Challenge

Speeches about “holocaust in Israel.” Academic boycotts. Divestiture campaigns. Professors who intimidate their students. Jewish speakers whose rhetoric is anti-Israel.

These program initiatives and phenomena that have seemingly overwhelmed our universities during the past few years have certainly transformed the campus quad into a zone of controversy. Some activists have gone so far as to characterize this onslaught as “Anti-Semitism 101” and have pressured the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to issue guidelines for confronting the scourge of campus anti-Semitism.

Indeed, the above occurrences are undeniable, as are the vile expressions of Jewish bigotry at a select number of institutions of higher learning. However, rather than focus on the catastrophic response, which is traditionally Jewish, it behooves us to observe that Jews are actually experiencing a Golden Age at American universities and that the general atmosphere at the most prestigious schools is positive and supportive of Jewish interests.

The past 15 years alone have seen the appointment of a score of Jewish university presidents and chancellors, some of whom openly identify with the Jewish community. And apart from the proliferation of Jewish studies programs, Holocaust courses and hundreds of Judaic scholarly volumes published under academic imprint, 20 new Hillel facilities have been dedicated in the last decade alone. Moreover, fraternities and sororities at major campuses, many of which were known to exclude Jews due to anti-Semitic bias, are now reported to have a Jewish membership in excess of 30 percent, while the traditionally Jewish Greek houses (with the exception of Alpha Epsilon Pi) are no longer exclusively Jewish.

As for the small number of notorious and outrageous incidents, the fact is that everyone who is concerned with the issue can identify each one of the targeted campuses, as well as the particulars of the specific brouhaha. If this is indeed the case, then the supposed widespread orgy of hate unleashed on the campus was actually limited to a few well-publicized events.

As such, rather than locking ourselves into a war-footing and training students to strike back and retake the campus, we ought to develop a strategy consistent with the campus reality that is appropriately creative, intelligent and nonconfrontational. In short, we should use our sekhel (common sense) and not only our prideful emotions.

At UCLA, where calm has generally reigned, that has indeed been our approach. And, recent events lend support to my contention that a positively oriented program is a more effective means of meeting the political challenge. For example, when we learned that Muslim students were planning to set up a mock checkpoint on Bruin Walk, we determined that our message would stress Israel’s pursuit of peace, and I decided to appear on campus with a sign declaring: “Peace for Israel. Peace for Palestine. Share the hope.”

As I stood holding the sign aloft with student eyes curiously fixed on the “old” man with the unconventional proclamation, whose hands were heavy and tired, a student approached and asked if he could help me by holding up one side of the sign. Only too pleased to receive assistance, I turned to the young man and asked him his name.

“George,” he replied.

“And where are you from?”

“Gaza,” he replied, continuing, “in fact, this is the only statement that I agree with. I reject the Muslim students’ tactics, and I disagree with the Jewish students who are in their face. Our goal should be to build understanding and cooperation. There’s no reason that UCLA students, no matter what their ethnic or religious backgrounds, should be fighting with each other. Yours is a better way.”

Subsequently, I learned from George that he was an engineering graduate student and that his father was born in Gaza, his mother in Ramallah. He was a veteran of UCLA’s interethnic struggles, having spent seven years as an undergrad and grad on the campus and had no patience for the politics of confrontation.

His heart-warming and mature reply confirmed and affirmed my strategy of stretching out a hand to our “hostile” neighbors and seeking to build a new coalition. (Coalition building, by the way, is an activity that is completely absent from the playbook of the so-called advocacy groups whose approach has dominated the public policy agenda of the Jewish Community over the past few years.)

George was/is a brother-in-peace. And our immediate goal ought to be to seek out other like-minded and gutsy brothers and sisters who can function as healing agents between the contending communities. Then we will be able to replace the politics of confrontation with the politics of reconciliation.

I believe firmly that if one party to the conflict sincerely opens his/her heart to the other, by acknowledging their narrative while maintaining the integrity of one’s own position, then the foreskin of the opponent’s heart will begin to peel away. This is the legacy of the Jewish tradition, and this is the way of the rodef shalom, the pursuer of peace.

In fact, the good will that was generated that afternoon on campus persisted into the evening, when I went to hear Malik Ali, whose anti-Semitic vitriol had roiled the waters at UC Irvine just the previous week. I found that he had chosen to tone down his vituperative rhetoric, due to a request by the Muslim student leadership. Moreover, two Arab students who knew me from previous encounters apologized to me for sponsoring such a scurrilous hater and pledged not to invite him again.

The following week saw a continuation of Hillel’s constructive engagement, as we sponsored the visit of former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon. Contrary to his own expectations, there were no counterdemonstrations as he had experienced at other universities, only polite, if challenging questions.

Our objective in extending the invitation was to expose students and faculty to a true national hero, who as Israel’s foremost military strategist was also consumed by the moral consequences of his decision-making. He distinguished himself in his provocative and poignant analysis of “The Ethics of Counterterrorism.”

Finally, to cap two weeks of intense programming, Hillel hosted Dr. Nayyer Ali, former board chair of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and co-editor of a volume on human rights in Islam, as its Friday night after-dinner speaker. His topic: “What Every Jew Should Know About Islam.”

Ali was magnificent as he presented both a basic history and theology of Islam in an organized, comprehensive and self-critical manner. He was not at all leery of pointing where things went wrong. Ali was also brutally honest when he openly admitted that the Arab world bears some responsibility for its Jewish refugees and was vigorously pragmatic and compromising when he resolutely advocated for a two-state solution.

But the highlight of the evening came in the question-and-answer period, when Ali’s remarkably irenic personality became apparent and in the private discussions that ensued for hours thereafter. For among the more than 100 attendees that evening were a group of Muslim student leaders, some of whom were clearly present to monitor the speaker and expected that he would denigrate Islam, much as their invited Jewish lecturers do when they speak of Israel or the Jewish community.

To put it baldly: They were blown away by the openness, the warmth, the welcome and, above all, the reluctance to engage in aggressive political debate. The conversations on that particular Shabbat of peace were of future dialogue, cooperative projects, Jewish and Muslim religious practice and of the joint effort expended on behalf of the kosher-halal dining program in the residence halls.

Students began the difficult heart-opening process: sharing their stories, curiously questioning the unknown “other” about his/her background, marveling innocently at the commonalities between Islam and Judaism.

It was a promising beginning, a small step on the long road to building trust between the two communities.

When I arrived home that night at 12:15 a.m., I knew that there was truly another path.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA and an instructor in sociology and Jewish studies at UCLA.