October 17, 2019

At UCLA, Zionophobia trumps anti-Semitism

Portions of this article originally appeared in Haaretz.

In what should rightly be considered a major victory for Jewish students at UCLA, the undergraduate student government at its March 10 meeting unanimously passed “A Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism,” which specifically says that delegitimizing Israel is a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

I am concerned, however, that, the impact of this resolution will be short-lived if we fail to confront head-on the real problem that plagues our campus — Zionophobia — and address it as a threat based on its own racist character, not merely as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

The unanimous condemnation of anti-Semitism was galvanized as a reaction to a Feb. 10 event in which prelaw student Rachel Beyda was drilled by several student association council members on how she would maintain an “unbiased view,” given her affiliation with the Jewish community on campus. Although they didn’t name Israel, this was the insinuation.

The incident triggered nationwide media attention and a tsunami of condemnations regarding the anti-Jewish climate at UCLA and other college campuses.

Fabienne Roth, who started this line of questioning, was apparently unaware of its combustible implications when she used the word “Jewish community,” instead of the standard “Zionist community,” which has long been tolerated, even by some Jewish leaders, as an acceptable expression of contempt. This time, Roth’s mistake has touched an extremely sensitive open nerve, resulting in coast-to-coast calls for apologies, suspensions and resignations.

In the widely watched MSNBC program “Morning Joe,” for example, anchors asked one another with increasing bewilderment and outrage, “How did these students ever get into UCLA?” “Why does the chancellor not suspend them immediately?” “What culture is going on at UCLA, and in a lot of other colleges across the country?” “What if these students did (that) to a Black student?”

The innocent crew on “Morning Joe” would not have asked these questions had they been aware of the anti-Israel culture that has been fomenting at UCLA, largely unabated, for the past decade or so.

It is a culture that depicts Israel as the village villain, or “a controversy,” constantly facing public trial. In this cruel arena called the “public square,” Israel is rarely seen for what it is: a homeland to a war-stricken nation and a respect-deserving symbol of identity for thousands of students on campus.

This culture has its roots in academia, too. The history department, for example, has allowed Middle Eastern history to be taught by professors who have made thriving academic careers laboring to “prove” that Israel is a “white settlers’ colonial society.” It is a culture that permitted its Center for Near Eastern Studies to be directed and co-directed by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters, who make sure every student knows that Israel does not really belong in that region. It is a culture where students come to class wearing “Israel Kills” T-shirts, yet any mention of Muslim symbols is sure to trigger the heaviest gun of political correctness, “Islamophobia!”

It is a culture where pro-coexistence students, especially in the social sciences, prefer to keep silent rather than risk mockery and social estrangement. Most importantly, it is a campus overrun by soft-spoken BDS propagandists who managed to hijack the student government’s agenda with repeated proposals for anti-Israel resolutions, the purpose of which is one: to associate the word “Israel” with the word “guilty.”

As many of us have witnessed, BDS tactics are brilliant. The charges may vary from season to season, the authors may rotate, and it matters not whether a resolution passes or fails, nor whether it is condemned or hailed. The victory is in having a stage, a microphone and a finger pointing at Israel saying: “On trial.” It is only a matter of time before innocent students start chanting: “On trial.”

Coming from this culture, it is quite natural for a council member to assume that Rachel Beyda, as a Jew, is likely to have a built-in reluctance to joining the never-ending orgy of Israel indictments. Jews are presumed to know a fact or two about the Middle East. Jews are also presumed to suspect indictments authored by organizations like BDS, which openly denies one of Jews’ most deeply held convictions — the right of Israel to exist.

I am purposely using the generic term “Jew” here in its most inclusive, people-based sense. I do so because the great majority of Jews do consider Israel the culmination of their millennia-long history. Although some Jews will go to great lengths to argue the Judaism is not Zionism, the fact is that today Israel serves as the greatest common unifier among Jewish students on campus. The leadership of Hillel, for example, repeatedly assures concerned parents and donors of Hillel’s commitment to the Zionist dream and to pro-Israel education. I also take it as self-evident that deep inside, buried in all forms of criticism and escapism, most Jews understand that their future as a people rests inextricably with the future of Israel.

So what is all the outrage about Roth’s misuse of the inclusive term “Jewish”? Roth’s mistake was not that she probed into Rachel Beyda’s faith as a Jew, or that she presumed Jews to be monolithic in their relation to Israel. Her mistake was to adopt the cultural norms of BDS, according to which Jews should only gain social acceptance and student government credentials by joining the “indict-Israel” circus, as some of their professors have chosen to do.

Part of our outrage should also be directed at ourselves, and at our leadership, for failing to educate the campus that Jews are a people, not merely a religion, that this people has a dream called Zionism, that Zionism is synonymous with a universal right to self-determination and, most important, that religion does not have a monopoly on human sensitivity. In other words, that when it comes to campus norms of civility, Zionophobia is at least as evil as Islamophobia.

By reacting to anti-Semitism with greater sensitivity than to anti-Israelism, we reinforce the idea that religions are entitled to a greater protection from discrimination than other identity-forming narratives, and we thus give anti-coexistence forces the legitimacy they seek to harass Israel supporters with ideological impunity.


Judea Pearl is Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation