It was her first week back at the University of California, San Diego, and Sara Ahdoot had already become the target of an anti-Semitic attack.
A psychology senior at UCSD, Ahdoot had planned to celebrate the start of her last year of undergraduate studies with a bang: by going out to a club. However, what was supposed to be a fun night out soon became a nightmare that many Jewish college students hope to never encounter. Shortly after arriving, Ahdoot noticed a familiar face — a male member of the pro-Palestinian group at her school, Students for Justice in Palestine. He noticed her too.
“I have felt uncomfortable around this student for the past two years and he saw me at a night club,” she recounted. “And after he saw me, he confronted me with nothing but hate and would not leave me alone.”
Throughout the night, Ahdoot was harassed about her Persian origins, yelled at and flipped off.
“They followed me, and called me by my first and last name. They were yelling that I was a ‘racist Zionist cow.’ I have never felt so unsafe in my life.”
Fearing that the attack would turn violent, she fled the club on the verge of tears. For her whole college career, Ahdoot was proud of her Judaism and her love for Israel — the Jewish state. She wore her Star of David necklace everywhere she went, letting the world know that she wasn’t ashamed of her identity, or her homeland.
And yet, the night after Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, she experienced attacks from a fellow UCSD student that saw her identity and homeland as patently unacceptable. Ahdoot said, “I didn’t know anyone would actually come in my face or put me in danger until tonight. This problem is way more serious than I had imagined.”
The University of California’s Anti-Semitism Problem
Long-time examiners of anti-Semitism within the University of California system know that Ahdoot’s story is nothing new. Over the past academic year, Jewish students across the UC system have experienced an unsettling rise in anti-Semitic attacks on their identity. Just as the racism once manifested within Jim Crow laws has evolved and choked the basic equal protections enshrined in our criminal justice system, so too has anti-Semitism transformed and seeped its way through the bedrock of these universities. It has evolved to become as a new political anti-Semitism — the result of an overwhelming tide of anti-Israel activism on campuses that overstep reasonable criticism of Israel’s domestic policies into demonizing perceptions of Israel and those who call it home.
Yael Steinberg, an alumni of UC Davis is no stranger to this demonizing rhetoric when she encountered anti-Israel sentiment on campuses across the UC’s overstepping into anti-Semitism. “I have seen discussions of [boycotts against Israel] turn nasty — from describing Jews as ‘privileged’ and ‘rich,’ to calling Jews ‘baby killers’ and told to wipe the blood off their boots. It’s terrible. Jews on campus face this intolerance the most when in conjunction with discussions about Israel, which often crosses the line from debate into hate speech.”
Aaron Boudaie, an Iranian-Jewish freshman at UCLA was warned about the latent anti-Semitism within the UC system, and yet was still surprised he saw how this hate had manifested on campus, “When I was coming to UCLA, I was warned by many about anti-Semitism on UC campuses. But even I was surprised to find that in 2015, at such a liberal and open university, Judaism and Israel are always under attack.”
Earlier this March, UCLA student Rachel Beyda’s eligibility for a student judicial board position was questioned because she was active in the Jewish community. That same month, Berkeley became the target of anti-Semitism when graffiti was found in a campus restroom that marked “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber.” In February, shortly after UC Davis passed a resolution to economically divest from companies invested in Israel, a Jewish fraternity house was defaced with swastikas. UC Davis student senator, Azka Fayaaz was quoted after the divestment vote advocating for the destruction of Israel through a Facebook post, “Israel will fall. Insha’ Allah.” Last fall, the phrase “Hitler did nothing wrong,” was etched into a table at UCLA’s Bruin Cafe. These attacks can be dated back to last October, when a series of fliers were posted on UC Santa Barbara’s campus accusing Jews of being behind the September 11 attacks.
Arielle Mokhtarzadeh, an Iranian-Jewish sophomore at UCLA said “Anti-Semitism is not new to the UC system. It is a silent hatred that has been festering on our campuses for far too long.”
It is this cycle of anti-Semitic incidents on the UC campuses that have lead Mokhtarzadeh, Boudaie, Steinberg and other activists and organizations to push the UC Board of Regents on September 17th to verbally include the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism in a revision of the UC Board of Regents’ proposed “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance.” As the UC Regents move forward to revise their statement, Boudaie hopes that the board will “avoid a useless broad brush statement and allow for the protections we have always been looking for in the Jewish community.”
This protection exists in the form of the adoption of the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism — which defines anti-Semitism as demonization, delegitimization and double standards applied to the Israeli state. The motion to include the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism has generated heated debate about the constraints of free speech and academic freedom when faced with intolerance. The LA Times editorialized that adopting this definition in the statement would be a “mistake.” They argued, “It’s hard to see how these standards could be transplanted to the campus of a public university committed to a robust exchange of views and subject to the free-speech provisions of the 1st Amendment.”
However, UC Davis alumni, Yael Steinberg disagreed with these claims. “One would still be free to say whatever they want to say, but what it would do is help clarify the description of hate speech. Currently they are not being held accountable when free speech crosses the line into racism and intolerance. This statement is basically a statement of reproach for actions and words that are unacceptable,” she said.
Mokhtarzadeh agreed that the application of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism is not an effort to stifle ideas and dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “To say that this definition limits any students ability to criticize Israel is just a mask for what I believe to be an effort to delegitimize the Jewish student experience. There is absolutely a way to criticize a government or its policy without crossing the line into hate speech and slanderous rhetoric,” she said.
Indeed free speech is an inherently democratic right, however the argument of “free speech” has conversely been used as a shield in which hate and threatening attacks on Jewish identity have been propagated within the UC system. Mokhtarzadeh believes that the criticism of Israel’s policies that she sees on campus is “often nothing more than anti-Semitic rhetoric masked behind politically correct terminology.”
Certainly the UC system has been part and parcel to conversations surrounding trigger warnings, political correctness and microaggressions, but often these conversations surrounding protections against identity-based hate have widely excluded discussions of anti-Semitism in relation to anti-Israel activity on the UC campuses — as clearly evident with the exclusion of anti-Semitism in the statement.
This is concerning, considering since 2002, a number of pro-Palestinian organizations on UC campuses have intimidated and even used anti-Semitic rhetoric to overstep rational criticism of Israel and threaten Jewish students and their identity in the process. An early example of this unsettling phenomenon was in 2002, when 79 pro-Palestinian protesters from UC Berkeley’s branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, disrupted a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration calling “Viva! Viva! Intifadah!” Since then, these cases have not only grown, but have become the norm.
Often spaces reserved for dialogue and education are appropriated to spread hateful rhetoric, as was the case in 2007, when a symposium at UCLA was drowned out in cheers of “Zionism is racism,” “Zionism is Nazism,” and “F*** Israel, F*** Israel.” But none could compare to UC Irvine’s reputation in the late 2000s, where notorious Holocaust deniers such as Amir Abdel Malik Ali spoke to students about “ZioNazism,” and students called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Even earlier this year, Irvine’s Israel Independence Day event was disrupted and blocked by anti-Israel protesters.
The connections between passed divestment resolutions and the current anti-Semitic climate cannot be ignored. A majority of UC schools have all successfully passed divestment resolutions against Israel: UC Irvine, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Berkeley. It comes at no coincidence that anti-Semitic attacks have been recorded at four of these institutions.
Boudaie believes that while supporters of divestment campaigns against Israel have good intentions, anti-Semitism on UC campuses have been widely exacerbated by the boycott movement, “BDS [Divestment] is an anti-Semitic movement. Its leaders advocate for the destruction of Israel, the one and only Jewish state. While some might have good intentions when advocated BDS, the movement is, by and large, a product of anti-Semitism and something which grows anti-Semitism by making Israel and the Jewish people an enemy.”
These events are not to be taken lightly as what the LA Editorial board would call a “robust exchange of views.” Just as anti-Semitism was legitimized and normalized in the 1930s by universities inviting Nazi diplomats, academics and students to diversify “academic and cultural” exchanges of ideas, UC failure to adopt the state definition of anti-Semitism in their regents proposal against intolerance would further normalize and legitimize the discrimination that Jewish students feel when they encounter incidents of anti-Semitism and demonizing anti-Israel activity on campus. UCLA freshman Alexander Kashfi believes this inaction to confront the hate speech found in the Divestment movements have lead for this normalization of anti-Semitism throughout the UC system, “I am confident that the BDS movement has lead students across the UC and nationwide to believe that hateful and anti-Semitic attacks are socially acceptable and justified.”
These fears are tangible and real. Even Boudaie could related with Student Regent Abraham “Avi” Oved’s emotional and powerful story at the Board of Regents meeting on September 17, where he recounted his mother’s advice not to wear his star of David outside.
“When Student Regent Avi Oved mentioned his Israeli mother’s advice to not wear jewelry which displays his identity, it resonated with me. My parents have shared similar sentiments throughout my life. Beyond that, I remember several instances in recent memory in which I had considered omitting the fact that I am Jewish or that I am pro-Israel. This was out of fear that this information could hurt me and my aspirations – of being included and of being involved.”
Old-fashioned anti-Semitism may have been on a global decline on college campuses following the Holocaust, but over the years it has endured, transformed and morphed to continue to threaten college campuses today. Just as the Jewish community protested the arrival of Nazi diplomats and academics to Harvard campus in the 1930s, the current Jewish community of the UC system has united to fight against this bigotry. Mokhtarzadeh remains hopeful that the regents will listen to their demands and revise a broad policy of intolerance to include anti-Semitism.
“I would love to see the Regents turn to the students to hear what they have to say. Allow each community to define for themselves their experience with hatred and discrimination on campus. Empower them to define their experience, not let their experience define them. Addressing anti-Semitism brings us that much closer to the positive, productive campus climate which we all so desperately desire.”
But, this starts by acknowledging that the issue of anti-Semitism in the UC system is not a isolated, modern phenomenon, but a systematic and historic one–a result of a decade long policy of the UC system condoning the hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric on its college campuses in the name of criticism of Israel.
As the UC Board of Regents Committee on Educational Policy move forward to rewrite its proposed “Statements of Principles Against Intolerance,” it’s imperative that they listen to these concerns of the communities that the acts of intolerance affect and marginalize. If a state definition is adopted, it will allow for even more robust and nuanced dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that doesn’t sway into demonization and calls for the destruction of Israel. By not allowing for shallow, bigoted perspectives of Israel on campus, students can truly engage in an academic discourse about policy. If UC President Janet Napolitano said it was her personal view that the Board of Regents should adopt the state definition of anti-Semitism, then the rest should follow.
Ahdoot’s story — her experiences with intimidation, harassment and violence as a result of her Judaism and her support for the Jewish state — is not new, nor will be the last should the UC fail to realize a systemic problem in their schools.
It’s time to admit it: the UC system has an anti-Semitism problem. But the question ultimately becomes, what are they going to do to stop it?