Putting anti-Semitism on the radar at the University of California and beyond

Last week, the Regents of the University of California unanimously approved a landmark Statement of Principles Against Intolerance containing the following language.
April 1, 2016

We respond with more outrage and quicker when the same acts of hate are directed towards other students than to our Jewish students…I really ask my fellow Regents and the Chancellors to ponder why it is we seem less concerned about these acts of intimidation and hate directed against our Jewish students.” — University of California Regent Bonnie Reiss at a Regents meeting in November 2015

Last week, the Regents of the University of California unanimously approved a landmark Statement of Principles Against Intolerance containing the following language: “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” Although the statement has been widely hailed within the Jewish community for its unprecedented acknowledgement of anti-Zionism as a source of anti-Jewish hostility, many have overlooked an aspect of the statement’s language every bit as significant when it comes to ensuring the safety and well-being of Jewish students: the Regents’ clear call for anti-Semitism, in all of its forms, to be treated like every other kind of discrimination at the University of California – no more, but certainly no less.

Why is this so significant?  Because for far too long the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry has not been on the radar at the University of California. 

In 2010, when UC launched the Advisory Council on Campus Climate and satellite working groups on each campus with the goal of “enhancing and sustaining a tolerant, inclusive environment…so that every single member of the UC community feels welcome, comfortable and safe,” Jewish student concerns were conspicuously absent from these groups’ agenda. This, despite the fact that Jewish students were already reporting an alarming incidence of anti-Jewish bigotry on several UC campuses.

Furthermore, when attempts were made to put anti-Jewish hostility on the UC radar, they were aggressively and successfully suppressed by the very groups most responsible for creating that hostility.  For example in 2012, within days of the publication of a Jewish Student Campus Climate Report commissioned by then UC President Mark Yudof, which found that “Jewish students are confronting significant and difficult climate issues as a result of … anti-Zionism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)”, anti-Zionist student and community groups viciously attacked the report and demanded it be withdrawn.  

To this day the 2012 report’s findings and recommendations have been ignored by UC administrators, who have shown themselves unwilling to acknowledge let alone address acts of blatant anti-Semitism. Instead, they engage in a discriminatory double standard, tolerating hateful language or behavior when it is directed towards Jewish students but promptly and vigorously challenging it when directed towards other racial, ethnic or gender minorities.

It is precisely this inequity that the Regents Statement Against Intolerance sought to redress. Indeed, it is only against the backdrop of the long-standing and discriminatory treatment of Jewish students that the UC statement and its curious emphasis on anti-Semitism can be understood at all.  

And the Regents statement is historic, both for California’s Jewish students and for Jewish students nationwide, who have also fallen victim to an alarming growth in campus anti-Semitism and campus administrators who turn a blind eye to it. The University of California is our country’s most prestigious public university system.  Now that its governing board has unanimously acknowledged the serious and growing threat faced by Jewish students and called on its Chancellors to provide appropriate protection, it will surely encourage other university leaders to follow suit. 

There are some who fault the Regents for drafting an aspirational statement that has no “teeth” and does not require the ten UC Chancellors to take specific action in response to anti-Semitism. But within that aspirational statement is a clear call to UC Chancellors that echoes Regent Bonnie Reiss’ passionate warning and plea at a Regents meeting last November: 

No principles we issue, no matter how well written, will stop this climate of intimidation…unless each chancellor makes it a priority to look at this climate for their Jewish students as they would for their black students, their gay students, their Latino students, their Muslim students… I plead with each Chancellor…. take action now…so this intimidation and hate acts against our Jewish students stop.”  

Now that the Regents have put anti-Semitism on the radar at the University of California, it is up to the Chancellors on each UC campus to ensure that they respond to acts of anti-Semitism with the same promptness and vigor as they respond to every other form of unacceptable discrimination. No more, but certainly no less.

Rossman-Benjamin is University of California faculty and the director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses. 

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