David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

A tale of two schools

It was the best of times and it was the worst of times….well, not really. It actually was just the worst of times, or so it seems on many college campuses today. This week, two scenes that fit the description above yet separated by thousands of miles and different cultures unfolded at two well-known schools. One school offered a clinic on how to respond to crises that any public relations team could use as a Tiffany standard for protocol. The other school should be ashamed of its silence and lack of response in the face of overt discrimination.

On the campus of UCLA one of its 45,000 students, a sophomore named Rachel Beyda, sought a position on the student judicial council. Her interview was secretly recorded, including the pre and post interview discussions that were thought to be in the strictest of confidence. During the deliberations pointed questions were raised about Rachel’s candidacy since she is an active member of many Jewish organizations on campus, including Hillel and some pro-Israel activities too. Caught on tape were other students questioning her bona-fides since she supports Israel and is active in Jewish causes. They believed that her involvement in Jewish and pro-Israel causes invalidates her to be an unbiased member of the judiciary council. The committee rejected Rachel for the position.

Could one imagine if the tape had edited out the words “Jewish” and changed them to “black” or “Latino” or “homosexual?” Would any affiliation tolerate such discrimination?! I hope not. Were that to happen I would be first in line to call out the leadership of UCLA for bigotry, racism and discrimination. Yet, this Jewish line in the sand has yielded no action from the leadership of UCLA. The very students on the council that discriminated against Rachel should be instantly removed from the council, annulling their impartiality to all peoples that stand before them. Sadly, UCLA has said and done nothing. Some papers and pundits have pointed to UCLA for this incident but the administration of the school has been deafeningly silent.

What a shameful example UCLA is modeling. I know much of my college education happened outside the classroom. I am glad I never went to UCLA. That is not the sort of supplement to my lecture hall experience I would have sought out when I was in college or even today.

Juxtapose that to a hateful incident that occurred on a bus with members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at The University of Oklahoma. A sampling of fraternity members – all students at the Oklahoma school — chanted with glee a hymn that called for the exclusion of blacks (instead of black, the derogatory ‘N’ word was used) from their Greek society. It even called for blacks to sooner hang from a tree than to join SAE fraternity.

Within minutes of this video leaking the fraternity was put on suspension and by Sunday night, just two days later, the International President of SAE closed down the fraternity on campus. He went on to say, “In addition, all of the members have been suspended (from the fraternity), and those members who are responsible for the incident may have their membership privileges revoked permanently,” the national organization said in a statement. “We apologize for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way. Furthermore, we are embarrassed by this video and offer our empathy not only to anyone outside the organization who is offended but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.”

The University President, David Boren called a rally and said without pause in his voice, “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.”

Boren did not undo the free will and choices of the students. He just made the consequences clear to them for those choices. Were he to have done nothing, his silence would have been understood as approval. I am glad he spoke up loudly, swiftly and appropriately. After investigation, Boren expelled two students for their role in the incident.

As long as there will be Jews and blacks there will be discrimination. It is utopian to believe that bigotry and hatred will disappear. It will not. But it can dissipate. That happens through demonstrated response and reaction to exclusionary behavior.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz and 50 years after marching in Selma, we still struggle for proper recognition of all peoples to be seen in God’s image. It is an uphill march yet, we have come so far in such a short time. Let us not despair. We must move forward. To do so, we learn from our universities; how to respond and how NOT to respond. We learn from our schools about repercussions and the power of inaction. In this tale of two schools, let us learn right and wrong and be wiser from the education we have been afforded by both.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.
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