January 21, 2019

Keeping UCLA a place of thriving Jewish life and pro-Israel activism

There’s a campus where Israel is celebrated and Jews thrive. It’s a place where Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns have been defeated 15 times since 2002 and where 80 percent of the most recent student body presidents have been committed Jews. 

Every year, hundreds of students celebrate Israel on Yom HaAtzmaut by dancing and waving Israeli flags in the center of campus. More pro-Israel students attend national Zionist conferences than from any other college in the country. And it was students from this campus who piloted the idea of campus-specific trips of non-Jewish influential students to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a program which is now being replicated on 20 other campuses.

[RELATED: UCLA’s betrayal of Milan Chatterjee]

Not to belabor the point, but 200 students regularly attend Shabbat dinners, and at the most recent Interfaith Shabbat, dozens of Muslims joined with Christians, Hindus and Buddhists to celebrate alongside their Jewish friends. Students here wear Jewish paraphernalia with pride all over campus, including Israel Defense Forces T-shirts.

The university I’m profiling is UCLA, and if you have any doubts, you can read more from UCLA students by visiting uclahillel.org/prospective_students.

Based on everything you’ve read so far, UCLA is exactly the kind of place you’d want to send your kids — and rightly so. UCLA has one of the most vibrant and robust Jewish communities of any college campus in the United States.

So why is it that this university has been labeled anti-Semitic and even “unsafe”? 

Well, it’s complicated. The UC system was targeted more than a decade ago by anti-Israel activists for a pernicious community-organizing effort with one goal: to delegitimize the Jewish state. 

Activists strategically built relationships that are now bearing fruit, not just at UCLA, but around the country on nearly every major campus. Hiding behind attractive concepts such as “justice” and “human rights” lurks a movement that denies Israel’s right to exist. As BDS advocate Ahmed Moor stated succinctly: “BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.”

The resulting BDS programming now attacks Israel and its supporters year after year.  The UC system is no longer unique. This is a nationwide problem.

The most recent tactic attempts to defame student leaders who take pro-Israel or even neutral positions. The case against Milan Chatterjee echoes the intimidation and questioning of former UCLA students Rachel Beyda, Lauren Rogers, Sunny Singh, Avinoam Baral and Avi Oved in recent years. Some of those cases even involved illegal email hacking and the leaking of private information. 

Despite these events, Jewish life and pro-Israel activism at UCLA is secure and thriving, and has only grown stronger as a result of Jewish students’ impassioned response. Nevertheless, the current tenor of the anti-Israel campaign on campus is absolutely unacceptable, and I’d like to share some humble suggestions for how you can help:

1. Continue to send us your most passionate, well-educated Jewish students. A strong pro-Israel community is only possible where there is a strong Jewish community to support it. And with few exceptions, the leaders of the pro-Israel community come from homes where they received a robust Jewish education and learned to love Israel.

2. Avoid hyperbolic language such as “unsafe.” It unnecessarily scares parents — and insults the truly dangerous aspects of campus life: sexual violence, drugs, alcohol and stress. We absolutely should push back hard against BDS hostility. And we can do that without invoking Hitler, fascism, Zika and terrorism.

3. Be specific. Join us in insisting that the recently passed Principles Against Intolerance, which specifically reject anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionsim, be vigorously enforced. The policy was enacted. Now it needs to be implemented.

4. Insist that UC administrators refrain from entertaining politically motivated attempts to intimidate students.

5. Praise the administration when it takes positive steps. I disagree with UCLA’s handling of the most recent case, but I applaud the positions Chancellor Gene Block took in an interview with the Jewish Journal last year. Positive feedback provides much more motivation than going negative.

6. Don’t fight with people with whom you mostly agree. Let’s devote our energy to combatting BDS, not fighting other Jews.

7. Finally, let’s reconsider how our reactiveness may be helping draw unwarranted attention to anti-Israel messaging. BDS groups promote divestment campaigns and create controversy to get attention. The response of the Jewish community to these events sometimes provides them exactly that — we wind up inadvertently fueling their fire.

Education, relationships and even empathy are much stronger change agents than yelling or scare tactics. And shifting our focus to the 99 percent of the students who have yet to form an opinion about Israel is a better strategy for ensuring its future than arguing with a handful of obdurate radicals.

There is even hope for those students, though it may simply be a matter of waiting. There’s a reason insurance rates go down at age 25. That’s when the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brains that governs executive function, fully develops. Or to quote one of my Muslim colleagues who is a former BDS activist: “Let me just start this conversation by telling you that I want to smack the 18-year-old version of myself.”

Is everything perfect at UCLA? Of course not. But we have a robust and secure Jewish community, and we are working really hard, and strategically, to make it even better. We need your help to make sure that Jews here continue to enjoy a safe, thriving, innovative and strong community. Your support is valued and appreciated.


Rabbi Aaron Lerner is the executive director of Hillel at UCLA.