Opinion: The truth about UC Campuses

Feb. 3 was a historic day for the University of California and its Hillels. On that day, UC President Mark Yudof met with all of the UC Hillel directors in his office in Oakland to discuss our observations regarding how Israel is faring on campus, how the Jewish community perceives the university’s actions and inactions, and, most important, how Jewish students are feeling about the situation. It was a momentous meeting — not only because it was the first time that such a gathering took place, but because it signaled the full integration of Jews and of Jewish interests into the administrative agenda of a major American university system and also because on that occasion, the chief executive officer of one of the nation’s largest universities chose to publicly state that as the university president, “I am concerned and do care about the well being of Jewish students on campus.” This is a milestone in the American Jewish experience and, to a great extent, IT is a measure of the character and integrity of Mark Yudof. A student of Maimonides and a constitutional lawyer, Yudof headed the University of Texas system before assuming his present position. As an activist in academic life, he led two groups of university presidents on organized trips to Israel on behalf of Operation Interchange sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. One of his first acts as president of UC was to reinstate the university’s EAP (Education Abroad Program) at the Hebrew University, after years of suspension.

During our meeting, President Yudof expressed his support for the Jewish community and for Israel, and he spoke enthusiastically of his desire to see the establishment of Israel Studies programs at all the UCs, in addition to the remarkably successful initiatives at UC Berkeley and UCLA. It was clear to the group that President Yudof was in touch with all the goings-on (controversial speakers, problematic professors, incidents of purported anti-Semitism), that the reports of the individual Campus Climate Committees and the UC Jewish communal liaison kept him alert to the Jewish student sensibilities, and that he had an abiding interest in hearing what we, the campus Jewish professionals, working with thousands of Jewish students every day, had to say. He also articulated a complex position regarding free speech that was strongly affirmative while noting that “bad” free speech ought to be condemned and countered with “good” speech. The worst possible reaction to “bad” speech is censorship. President Yudof indicated that he, himself, had suffered an anti-Semitic verbal attack from a student protester at a recent UC Regents meeting. He gets it!

Indeed, there are intergroup tensions, anti-Israel events, and the Middle East conflict does impinge on campus life. However, for the most part, as we reported to President Yudof, our students appear to be in control. More of them are becoming involved in campus politics and are influencing the nature of the debate. Some students, with the assistance of university administrators, are rebuilding coalitions with minority groups. And the university, with the president’s energetic backing, is actively promoting a travel/study program to Washington, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan that nurtures coexistence between Jewish and Arab students. In doing so, the University of California is engaged in a pioneering, creative endeavor that could effectively transform the campus and inspire a new generation of public peacemakers who are schooled in conflict resolution and who have benefited from an intense and intimate intergroup experience.

We left our meeting buoyed by President Yudof’s constructive engagement and by his commitment to continue the conversation. In fact, one idea that he embraced involved reaching out to Hillel International with a proposal, that together they convene a consultation involving other university presidents so as to hear how they see the situation on their campuses and to develop a national perspective that reflects the reality on the ground.

As to communal fears that the well-being of Jewish students is threatened on campus and that, confronted with an orgy of hate, young Jews have felt a compulsion to hide their Jewishness and cover up any outer symbols of identification, we are pleased to report that nothing could be further from the truth. A survey of Jewish students at politically vibrant UC Berkeley indicates that the overwhelming majority is enjoying the campus experience and feeling safe, welcome and accepted at UC. The remaining agenda for those in influential administrative positions is to determine how to cope with the inevitable, periodic campus confrontations that constitute negative blips on the screen. With President Mark Yudof heading up our team, we are confident that wisdom, constructive engagement and sober advocacy on behalf of Jewish concerns will carry the day.