A foul odor is in the air. Lest we have any doubt about it, The New York Times has caught a whiff of it, reporting in its Thursday edition on the Rachel Beyda case at UCLA. Simply put, we are in the throes of another version of the infamous Jewish Question here on campus.
From the time of the 18th-century Enlightenment, European society has posed the Jewish Question in various guises: Do the Jews, the classic “other” in medieval Christendom, belong in our domain? Do they owe loyalties to their home countries, or rather to their narrow group interests? The question has arisen in this country as well, though in recent decades, many had come to conclude that Jews could operate in American society without aspersions cast on their loyalty.
Not so fast. Sadly and remarkably, the Jewish Question is resurfacing in the most progressive of venues: college campuses. Last week at the University of Chicago, anonymous postings on the secret-sharing site Yik Yak and a “UChicago Secrets” Facebook page were riddled with anti-Semitism. One posting claims that “a bunch of butthurt Jews cry and scream ‘anti-Semitism’ to their media mogul daddies.” The most shocking of posts expressed the wish that the “final solution had worked.”
And of course, we have our own local outbreak of the Jewish Question: the case of Rachel Beyda, whose qualifications for a position on the Undergraduate Students Association Council Judicial Board were challenged by a number of councilmembers because of her Jewish religious background. Fortunately, USAC reversed its earlier decision to deny Ms. Beyda a spot, and the four board members who voted against Ms. Beyda in the first round have issued an apology for suggesting that the candidate’s religion might incline her to bias.
Their contrition is welcome, but these cases are wake-up calls. As much as we assumed it to be dead, the Jewish Question lives on. At UCLA, it took the form of the myth that Jews are beholden only to their own and incapable of unbiased participation in society. At the University of Chicago, it took on a more blatant form of hatred.
Animating the two cases is a dynamic that has emerged on university campuses in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian controversy. As the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement has gained traction, sharp divisions among students have boiled over, blurring the line between political attitudes, religious affiliation and cultural tastes. Alexandra Tashman gave this development eloquent and poignant testimony in a recent Daily Bruin op-ed. She describes how, rather than choose between two undesirable positions on Israel politics, she simply ceased to identify herself as Jewish.
How have we gotten ourselves into this mess? It is true that many Jews strongly identify with the state of Israel. It is also true that that some Jews are strongly critical of the state of Israel – or have relatively little connection to it. The danger of the current discourse about Israel-Palestine is that it sweeps in all Jews, branding them as monolithic, biased and incapable of sound judgment. Moreover, Jews have come to be regarded as the vanguard of the oppressive, white majority establishment.
Only 70 years ago, Jews were as disempowered a group as could be imagined. In today’s world, intimations about Jewish power are not openly discussed in polite company, at least not in this country, as distinct from Europe. But they are whispered conspiratorially in some circles, and sometimes leak out into the public as anti-Semitism, as they did at the USAC meeting several weeks ago.
We must not ignore the signs that the Jewish Question, with its unique ability to impute clannishness and self-interest to Jews, is hovering. Its context has evolved, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to unravel complicated and charged associations between identity and politics on American campuses. But its potentially toxic effects remain.
In light of this volatile situation, we urge the campus to take the following steps:
- Survey campus attitudes regarding Jews, Muslims and other groups on campus.
- Sponsor a series of high-profile public programs and research initiatives to examine anti-Semitism in the past and present.
- Conduct facilitated conversations among student groups invested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
- Add courses on Jewish identity and anti-Semitism to the proposed new diversity requirements.
- Undertake a concerted campaign to raise awareness about anti-Semitism and its perils among all elements of our campus community, just as we affirm that it is intolerable to stigmatize or discriminate against other groups.
Ferdman is a graduate student in Latin American studies and a former Daily Bruin opinion columnist. Myers is a professor and chair of the UCLA Department of History. Rabbi Seidler-Feller is the executive director of Hillel at UCLA.