View of Royce HallRecently, the Jewish newspaper, The Algemeiner, released its list of the “40 Worst Campuses for Jewish Students in the United States and Canada.” Included in this list of infamy were such internationally known institutions as Columbia University (#1 for hostility against Jewish students), the University of Chicago, the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of Washington, Vassar College, New York University, and many others. UCLA, where I have taught for almost four decades, came in at number 6. The Algemiener list is scarcely the only one of its kind. UCLA also makes the cut from the notorious David Horowitz, who is always on guard for any sentiments, especially on college and university campuses, that offend his right-wing agenda.

The rap against UCLA often stems from an unfortunate incident on February 10, 2015. A young Jewish woman student, Rachel Beyda, was nominated for a position on the student Judicial Board. When she appeared before the Student Council, she was questioned about her religion and her ability to serve impartially: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

Later, Ms. Beyda was voted in unanimously and the four council members who initially voted against her apologized. This incident was unambiguously anti-Semitic and was roundly condemned throughout the campus community and through the national media. I took every opportunity personally, in class and in private conversations, to condemn the original student council action and the odious questions to Rachel Beyda. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I am acutely sensitive to all forms of racism and anti-Semitism (and sexism and homophobia) and I always speak out wherever and whenever I encounter them.

But this regrettable incident also needs proper perspective. In various social gatherings for the past two years, I have been asked, even confronted, about the allegedly dangerous atmosphere that Jews face at UCLA. Inevitably, the first example I hear is the story of the Rachel Beyda affair. This incident was a matter of juvenile ignorance rather than evidence of systemic anti-Jewish bias on campus. University students sometimes do dumb things; this was one of the dumber things I have seen in my many years of university teaching.

Jewish students hardly need to fear for their safety at UCLA. Some of the hysteria surrounding anti-Semitism on university campuses, like the Algemeiner list, almost implies that Jewish students must wear yellow armbands or band tightly together for emotional and physical security and protection. The UCLA campus is full of Jewish students and faculty and Jewish students enjoy a generally welcoming atmosphere. They socialize with each other and with many others in one of the most ethnically and racially diverse institutions in the country (but one where African American, Latino, and American Indian representation is still depressingly lower than it should be).

Like all groups in the United States, the Jewish community at UCLA is remarkably diverse, both religiously and politically. Many are observant, attending services and refraining from going to classes and other obligations on major Jewish holidays. Some, probably the majority, are progressive while others are politically conservative. Attitudes about Israel also vary. Many Jewish students and faculty are strong supporters of Israel, including the present Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Some, like myself, are deeply critical of Israel and its policies of occupation and racism. All opinions are expressed openly and freely, including in the active campus Hillel, where I have spoken several times over the years.

Palestinian viewpoints are also regularly expressed, as they should be on a university campus. Doubtless, some pro-Palestinian opinions are uncomfortable to many Jewish students who have grown up with family-induced, highly uncritical views about Israel. But I remind them regularly that they don’t come to UCLA in order to have their views constantly affirmed. The whole purpose of higher education is to be exposed to alternative positions, however uncomfortable they may be. Jewish students are no more entitled to “safe spaces” than any other group of students when it come to vigorous debate, no matter what the emotional consequences may be.

Very occasionally, some pro-Palestinian rhetoric crosses the line and becomes anti-Jewish. And some pro-Israeli rhetoric also sometimes descends into troubling Islamophobia. I condemn both expressions as vigorously as I can, often publicly. But to conclude that a general atmosphere of anti-Semitism pervades the UCLA campus is nothing short of ludicrous. My classes, including my African American Studies classes, always contain substantial numbers of Jewish students. To date, I have only heard one anti-Semitic comment in class (and none ever from an African American student or faculty member in class, in my office hours, or in many African American cultural and political events on campus). On that single occasion, I responded immediately and harshly.

I have sponsored student-initiated Jewish art exhibitions, have written letters of recommendation for students seeking admission to graduate programs in Jewish Studies or rabbinical school, and have regularly discussed in my office with hundreds of students what it means to be Jewish in America in the new century. None of these accomplished young women and men has expressed concern about an anti-Semitic atmosphere at UCLA.

But I am also extremely candid in criticizing Israel and its leaders and policies. Generally, my Jewish students listen respectfully, although a few have expressed dismay. None has accused me of Jewish self-hatred, although recently a few have dropped my class when I told them of my support for the Iran nuclear treaty, my loathing of the Netanyahu regime, and my distaste for the Birthright Program that Sheldon Adelson has largely bankrolled. These sentiments are not rare and they are certainly common at UCLA, including among many Jewish faculty and students. I always remind my Jewish students that vigorous debate, including fierce disagreements, has long been a part of Jewish history and culture.

If some of these students return home and complain that such sentiments contribute to an anti-Semitic campus environment, they are as deluded and foolish as the editors of The Algemeiner. My own view is that a much more serious danger emerges when students flee from robust argument and controversy. We should always be on-guard against anti-Semitic forces throughout the world and throughout North America. The resurgence of extreme right wing, even pro-fascist governments and movements throughout Europe is especially alarming. The incipient Trump presidency likewise appears to have liberated racist and ant-Semitic forces throughout the country, perhaps even within his government itself. That should be the major focus of Jewish and progressive communities, not the isolated incidents at UCLA and other universities that are among the most important incubators of the genuine resistance we need in the coming years.

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Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communication studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, and a short biography of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson For Beginners (2013).


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