Students Object to UCI’s Decision to Not Rehire Hillel Rabbi to Teach Jewish Texts Course

The students called the class “one of the most intellectually stimulating courses we have taken at UCI” and lauded Levine’s impact as a teacher for the course.
June 4, 2024
Inset: Rabbi Daniel Levine ; UC Irvine Langson Library (Mikejuinwind123 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Seventy-five students have penned an open letter objecting to UC Irvine’s decision not to renew their contract with Hillel in Orange County Rabbi Daniel Levine as a lecturer to teach the university’s “Jewish Texts” course.

“We write to you as deeply concerned students regarding the status of the class History 18A (Jewish Texts) taught by Professor Daniel Levine,” the letter, dated May 21, began. “It has recently been revealed that this class will not be renewed yearly and will only be offered every other year. In addition, the History Department has chosen to remove Professor Levine as a lecturer, meaning he will no longer be able to teach this course, which was developed and refined to what it is today by him over the past three years. This change concerns us on many fronts, as we feel that it not only harms a professor who is an invaluable addition to our scholarly environment but that the decision to remove him and restrict the class as a whole presents a serious threat to the academic experience of students within the Jewish Studies minor.”

The students called the class “one of the most intellectually stimulating courses we have taken at UCI” and lauded Levine’s impact as a teacher for the course. “His passion is evident in his lectures; he engages students effectively and delivers content in an intellectually rigorous manner,” the letter continued. “He is an empathetic professor who is always available to address students’ needs or questions. Most importantly, Professor Levine brings extensive expertise to the class, combining his historical knowledge with a deep understanding of Jewish philosophies. His insights and mastery of the material have significantly enhanced the class content. Frankly, we see no valid reason why he should not continue in his position, and we suspect that this decision was not based on a fair evaluation of his performance, as everyone we know who has taken his course has praised his instructional capabilities.”

The students further objected to the university’s decision to provide the course every other year, contending that the class “plays a crucial role in exposing students to the cultural richness of Jewish thought and identity. This exposure is invaluable, especially in these politically sensitive times when Jewish identity is often scrutinized. Additionally, antisemitism remains a pressing concern while fundamental academic activities of the Center for Jewish Studies and its affiliates are under fire.”

The students concluded the letter by calling for Levine’s reinstatement and for the class to be offered yearly. “We are deeply disappointed and frustrated by the Department’s decision to restrict this educational opportunity,” they wrote. “Given that the class has consistently been fully registered and received positive reviews, we see no reason why it and Professor Levine should be prevented from continuing their impactful work.” The students also called for the university to investigate the matter and that “if this decision was influenced by discrimination against Professor Levine for his Jewish identity, assumed political views, or recent calls to disrupt Jewish Studies academic programming, we demand immediate corrective actions to condemn the incident and safeguard the academic freedom of our Jewish Studies faculty and students.”

Emily Chen, a senior majoring in Political Science and the letter’s author, told The Journal in a phone interview that “this cut is coming obviously at a time that has been politically very fraught” because one of the demands from the pro-Palestinian encampment that was cleared out from campus was that “the campus delink from all Zionist or Israeli-related programming and individuals.” That “obviously comes very closely related to the Center for Jewish Studies, as we do have a lot of programs that relate to those topics in a scholarly manner.” Chen, who is not Jewish, said that the History Department, which houses the Center for Jewish Studies and is part of the university’s School of Humanities, stated in a reply that “the minor is not very well-subscribed and the class in the past has been offered every other year.” But Chen contended that “there has been growing interest recently in students wanting to join the minor … the Center for Jewish Studies was only founded in 2017 so obviously we needed to have time to take off.”

Chen — who has taken Levine’s class — said that “Professor Levine has been nothing but well-rated, his classes have been nothing but full. We see him as a scholar who has great knowledge on this topic and should, we believe, be reinstated to teach this course based on the great experiences we have all had with him.”

Mika Schreiman, a freshman Psychological Sciences major, has also taken Levine’s class, and she told The Journal she “loved it … I have been in Hebrew school, I’ve gone to a Jewish day school, and Rabbi Levine taught me so many things beyond what my 18 years of being a Jew have taught me,” she said. “It was so mind-blowing, and it was so interesting and so engaging, and his class also opened up opportunities for me to talk to other students… I was able to have actual cordial conversations with people from different backgrounds.” Schreiman also lauded Levine’s structure of the class for making “everything easily understandable, but also allowed students that didn’t know a lot to just learn the basics.”

Shir, a second-year student who didn’t want to use her last name, told The Journal that Levine was “one of my favorite and best professors and lecturers at UCI.” She was especially impressed by his “deep passion and love for teaching but also for Jewish texts, and it’s so clear in his class.” She called the university’s decision to not renew his contract “devastating … A lot of first years, when they first joined UCI, didn’t know about his class and they got to know about how amazing of a community member he is and have been looking forward to his class all year.”

Junior Nova Sari, a History major and a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow, told The Journal that Levine’s class “strongly shaped my decision to minor in Jewish Studies” and that Levine “made it extremely entertaining.” “We’ve had many, many discussions about the stories of Talmud and it really felt like an interactive experience,” she said, calling the class “the highlight of my week.” Sari was “extremely disappointed and shocked” when she learned about the university’s decision to not renew Levine’s contract.

The Office of the Dean from the School of Humanities issued a statement on May 29 announcing the hiring of two new faculty members for the Jewish Studies program, Dr. Rachel Smith, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, who will teach the Jewish Texts class, and Dr. Margaux Fitoussi, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard’s Divinity School and has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia. Smith will be brought on in July 2024, and Fitoussi will be join the faculty in July 2025. Fitoussi “will begin a joint appointment in History and Comparative Literature,” according to the statement.

“We are deeply grateful to Rabbi Levine for his outstanding service and excellent teaching as a lecturer over these last three years as we transition into an expanded program,” the dean’s office’s statement added. “Our decision not to renew his contract is due to the successful search and appointment of two new tenure-track faculty members as well as the consequent review of departmental curricular needs and practices. We hope that students can continue to explore Jewish history and thought with Rabbi Levine through his many other professional activities and connections to UCI.”

“I’m sad that hearing from the Jewish students didn’t cause the History Department to reflect on why their actions seemed problematic,” Levine told The Journal in a phone interview. “I think this is connected to a wider trend where people ignore the majority of the Jewish community when we say that something is problematic. We’re the one community that doesn’t get to define what constitutes as hate against us, and it’s sad that the History Department is doubling down and even trying to gaslight the wider community into thinking that this wasn’t ideological, but just internal bureaucracy.”

Chen claimed that some students are concerned about the new faculty members “political involvements.” A second open letter has been written by Jewish students alleging that History Department Chair Susan Morrissey has a “conflict of interest.” It is public knowledge, they claim, that she is “part of the Faculty for Justice in Palestine and moderated a talk for the group on January 23, 2024,” the letter stated. “This same organization was involved in efforts a few weeks ago to pressure the university to cut funding for the Center for Jewish Studies and Jewish Studies courses … The organization also called for severing ties with ‘Zionist organizations and individuals’… This has left us concerned that Professor Levine’s visibly Jewish identity, which is often assumed to entail support for Israel, is what led Professor Morrissey to choose not to renew his contract.”

The letter also criticized the hiring of Smith and Fitoussi, stating that “both professors in question have publicly shared anti-Israel views” and that “Professor Smith was a leader and signatory for Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA… an organization with positions that do not represent the Jewish community at UC Irvine or at large.” Additionally, the letter contended that “Smith’s background focuses on Ottoman Jewish history” and that “research involving Ottoman Sephardic communities covers only a small portion of the material relevant to this course.” As for Fitoussi’s background, the letter acknowledged that while it’s “impressive … it does not align with the fundamental focus of the Center for Jewish Studies curriculum, and her hiring may overlook other scholars who are better suited for the position, namely those with a focus on the Jewish canon broadly.”

“This further supports the notion that Professor Morrissey’s anti-Israel agenda might be influencing hiring decisions, potentially prioritizing her perspective over the interests and needs of the Jewish community at UCI,” the letter stated. “We urge the university to consider these factors and ensure that the faculty hired to teach Jewish Studies are aligned with the community’s academic and cultural needs.”

The Journal received a quote from a student who took Smith’s “Jews & Empire” (under the direction of Professor Sarah Stein) in Spring 2022 at UCLA “There were several remarks/narratives that disturbed me throughout the quarter. However, one of the most especially concerning comments was made during a discussion of Whoopi Goldberg’s proclamation that the ‘Holocaust was not about race.’  A regular part of this course was discussing relevant current events. Hence, Goldberg’s comment was under discussion following the controversy that ensued after she declared this ridiculous and false statement on live television.  When asked about our thoughts, I shared that instances like these highlight the negative consequences of denying the fact that Judaism is more than a religion. I said that Judaism is an ethno-religion: a culture and group of people, as well as, a religion. The Professor said that she found this to be untrue.  I respectfully disagreed.  Several students nodded their head and accepted this as fact. These students likely had little to no education on the Jewish people and thus accepted as fact an untrue statement made by our Professor. It frightens me that this occurred at UCLA, an esteemed university.”

Chen said she doesn’t deny that [Smith] could take over the course ,but doesn’t see “why a professor who has degrees in Jewish Studies and is a rabbi… would not be reinstated for this course and would be given to someone who, perhaps, does not have the specialized qualification to teach it,”

“A lot of this does feel connected… all of those combined really do seem as though Rabbi Daniel was targeted for his perceived identity and his perceived beliefs as a visibly Jewish person on campus, which is very sad to see,” Shir opined.

Schreiman said that while “there’s no concrete proof that this is due to conceding to [the encampment’s] demands …  it does seem that there are a lot of undertones and a lot of coincidences that just happen to be happening… how many can be there until it’s like, this is not okay?”

“As Jewish students, we feel like this environment was made toxic… that’s weaponized against Jews,” Sari said.

“I think for a lot of people this is hitting a nerve,” Levine contended. “In the Jewish community we’ve seen a lot of universities and academic centers becoming anti-Israel activist centers … I think this has really come to the forefront with discussions around Israel where … there’s been a proliferation of professors using their platform as activist centers as opposed to actually trying to teach students how to think about ideas.” Levine himself claimed that he has been “very, very, very careful” to make sure he taught classes from “a non-ideological lens … I abhor people who use their public educational platforms as ideological activist campaigns.” He also alleged that were instances in which professors decided to actually teach their classes from inside the encampment; Schreiman similarly claimed to have heard from two or three students saying they had professors that held classes inside the encampment. “It was wild,” she said.

Levine clarified that his class wasn’t really about Zionism, as most of the course focuses on the Talmud and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), while only one week was spent on the Zionist movement.

“This is also why I think the students have been so impassioned by this issue because now they’re coming for class,” Levine said. “At the end of the day, as much as college is about fun and finding yourself … students are there to take classes, get an education, learn more about the world and getting good jobs. And now even their education is being compromised because there were 40 students lined up to take my class next year… this is the year, Jews have been in the news every day since October.”

StandWithUs CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein said in a statement to The Journal, “This decision comes on the heels of an increasingly hostile campus climate in which uneducated students are continuously questioning and denying Jewish history, culture, and experience.  Removing a competent professor and replacing him with a recent graduate whose affiliation with Jewish Voice for Peace suggests that she believes Israel has no right to exist — a view considered antisemitic by 85% of American Jews — to teach about Judaism, is beyond unreasonable to the Jewish student community. UC Irvine needs to remedy this situation by ensuring that they include mainstream Jewish voices for accurate representation and education. Until then, their Jewish Studies Department at UC Irvine cannot be taken seriously.”

The university said in a statement to The Journal, “UCI’s Department of History is committed to supporting Jewish Studies through regular offerings of essential courses for the Jewish Studies minor. Looking ahead, the department plans to offer History 18A (Jewish Texts) no less frequently than biennially, with the next offering scheduled for the winter or spring quarter of 2025. Additionally, the department is preparing to welcome new Senate faculty members in July 2024 and July 2025, who will further enrich the Jewish Studies offerings. It is standard practice in academic departments to assign teaching responsibilities primarily to Senate faculty members, resorting to hiring Unit 18 lecturers as needed to address any curriculum gaps that Senate faculty cannot cover.”

Morrissey, Smith and Fitoussi did not respond to The Journal’s requests for comment.

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