March 19, 2019

The Jewish Question at UCLA: another perspective

Over the past month, college campuses nationwide – from UCLA and the University of Chicago to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the University of Oklahoma – have been roiled by anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry. The treatment of Rachel Beyda, a UCLA undergraduate who was interrogated by fellow students about whether her Jewish identity and affiliations with Jewish student organizations would prevent her from maintaining an unbiased view on the student judicial board, set off a national discussion about the resurgence of anti-Semitism on campus.  At UCLA, these discussions were spurred and framed by the polarizing efforts of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), on the one hand, and campus groups most forcefully supporting the policies of the Israeli government, on the other. When both sides behave like and are portrayed as monoliths, the result, as we have witnessed at UCLA, is the disappearance of any “middle ground” where honest discussion and open debate might happen. At the same time, as campus-wide alliances have coalesced among a staggering diversity of student groups (ranging from those representing African American, Latino, and Asian Pacific Islander students to those representing LGBT issues, labor, sustainability, and immigrant rights), Jewish students have become isolated because they are painted as the oppressor.  Alliances of solidarity that used to be givens between Jewish students and other groups advocating for civil rights have all but disappeared. We have lost the ethical compass and coalition-building possibilities of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. How has this happened and what can we do?

As the faculty director of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies for the past four years, I have had the opportunity to teach and interact with thousands of UCLA students – both Jewish and non-Jewish – and have helped develop a wide-range of diverse curricular, research, and public initiatives. I have also spoken to many students, faculty, and staff about the broader issues of campus climate and what we need to do to educate all our students to become responsible, knowledgeable, and engaged citizens in the 21st century.  As one of the top public universities in the nation, located in the second-largest Jewish community in the United States and in one of the most diverse cities in the world, UCLA has an absolutely vital and essential leadership role to play. Debates should – and must – happen at institutions of higher education.  There will – and must – be disagreement. And it is the responsibility of our faculty and staff to help frame these debates for students, to help adjudicate differences, to provide direction, and work to disabuse students of prejudices. The work is never easy.  But when these debates become calcified into black and white, us and them, oppressor and oppressed binaries, they degenerate into supposedly essential categories (Jews are x; Palestinians are y).  When there is no nuance, there is no debate.  

Over the past weeks, I’ve received messages from all across the world, many by friends and colleagues at other universities, wondering what’s going on at UCLA. What happened to the university that was home – in 1948! – to some the first Jewish studies courses at any public research university in the United States (taught by Max Weinreich, the leading figure in Yiddish scholarship after the War)? What happened to the university that – over the last 50 years – has produced more than 215 PhDs in all field of Jewish Studies, all of whom went on to become leaders across the world in academia, government, the non-profit and for-profit world, and more?  What’s going on at a university that boasts more than 28 affiliated faculty members in all fields of Jewish Studies, who – combined – teach thousands of students every year in dozens upon dozens of classes?  Why are such things happening at a university in which, earlier this week, three dozen graduate students from across the United States and Israel – the future leaders in Jewish education – convened at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies for a two-day conference to explore the future of Jewish Studies?  How is such anti-Semitism possible when programs like “Bearing Witness,” a collaboration and service learning course coordinated by the Center for Jewish Studies, Hillel, Jewish Family Services, and the Jewish Federation, are thriving, with nearly a hundred students of diverse backgrounds and faiths interviewing Holocaust survivors to learn about the value of eyewitness testimony?

I think we need to take a step back from the media frenzy. Yes, the incident with UCLA’s student judicial board was appalling. It was anti-Semitic, and it contravenes the fundamental values of respect, participatory democracy, and diversity at the heart of our public institution. But it was also corrected. Not only did the students publicly apologize, but – just the other night – the UCLA undergraduate student government unanimously passed a sweeping resolution condemning anti-Semitism that, among many other things, resolved that councilmembers attend diversity training to learn about the history of anti-Semitism and how it manifests itself. No, they didn’t punch each other, and no, they didn’t characterize each other as enemies. They came together around a common goal.  Allow me to explain why this is necessary.

To be sure, part of the problem at UCLA and other campuses has been the mutation of anti-Israel positions and sometimes “just” Israel criticism into anti-Jewish discrimination. This slippage is pernicious since it not only equates all Jews with Israel and flattens divergent points of view within the Jewish community but also considers Israel and Israeli society to be monolithic.  It fails to take into account the divergent – and quite dissonant – voices from within Israel, including Arab voices, the American Jewish community, the academy writ large, and, yes, even differences among the coalitions and supporters of BDS.  I fear we have reproduced a polarized climate, especially in the media, in which voices of dissent from within have been silenced and where Jewish students – understandably feeling isolated and targeted – have been forced to turn inward in an effort to defend their very identities as Jews.  The fundamental problem is that we are letting two, mutually and absolutely exclusive sides define the terms of the debate as well as set the framework for what constitutes Jewish identity and even the very discourses of human rights. This is a lose-lose proposition for everyone. 

So what can be done? For starters, we need to change the framework for the discussion. One way to do so is to return to the very long Jewish ethical tradition that exists independent of the political circumstances in Israel/Palestine; it’s a tradition rooted in prophecy, responsibility, stopping violence, and most all, the commitment to justice.  We might also look beyond our own traditions to frameworks such as those of “truth and reconciliation” commissions to find models for looking each other in the eyes and actually empathizing.  More locally at UCLA, we need to engage all of our students through a common enterprise, perhaps even a common experience or class, in which they come together despite the partitions. Racism, like Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, is something that is learned. It can also be unlearned. And it must be for the sake of our democracy.

Some of my faculty colleagues have already given consideration to concrete initiatives, and our undergraduate student council has called for diversity training for its own members. I support these ideas and would add that we would do well to amplify the range of perspectives – comparative, historical, political, interdenominational – that represent Jewish and non-Jewish voices in the broader public sphere. We must also work to reestablish alliances of solidarity with other groups.  It will mean not silencing dissent locally, while vigilantly fighting anti-Semitism globally. UCLA’s faculty and student leadership have a long commitment to fighting discrimination and combatting racism of all kinds. We also have one of the most vibrant and historically significant Jewish Studies programs in the United States.  Of course, our work is far from over.  

But to have a debate, you need a slice of common ground, a willingness to engage, and an honesty of intention in which you are willing to ask difficult questions, examine a range of responsible perspectives, and engage on terms that are not entirely your own.  It is arduous work.  It can easily be short-circuited and degenerate into reductive sound bites or, worse, name-calling, punching, outright racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and, finally, obliteration. At the end of the day, higher education provides us with tools to imagine another way.  As educators, we teach context, complexity, historical depth, comparative frameworks, interpretative methods, and, most of all, values of dignity and models for responsible citizenship.  These remain the irreducible foundation of our democracy.  The fact that we can engage in debate at all is the most basic testament to a healthy democracy. I can assure you that UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, together with our faculty, staff, students, and many partners at UCLA and beyond, will model the way. And we must start by building coalitions within and especially beyond our own communities. The work ahead will be tough, and we won’t always see eye-to-eye. But to imagine new frameworks for co-existence, in which we can all live and be treated with human dignity, is the grandest challenge for any democracy. We must rise to this challenge and do so humbly.