Last week, the University of California Board of Regents voted on raising nonresident tuition by $978. Our student government rightfully worked to organize a demonstration in response to an action that would exacerbate food and housing insecurity on campus.
Prior to the protest, a list of chants was circulated: 11 revolved around students and unions uniting to combat tuition hikes, one focused on empowering mothers of color in academia and the other two centered on denouncing and delegitimizing Israel.
When Jewish students alerted the organizers that the chants constituted an unfair and inappropriate linkage of issues that would alienate many in the community, they were assured the chants would be removed.
On Wednesday morning, however, Jewish students were greeted with a litany of chants including, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “No peace on stolen land, justice is our demand!”, and “UC Regents, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”
There is nothing particularly useful in deconstructing these chants. My intention is certainly not to score geopolitical points or belabor the “Israel narrative.” But it is important to note that to many Jewish students, “from the river to the sea” constitutes a demand that Israelis be forcibly thrown into the Mediterranean Sea. I do not believe that all the people shouting this chant were advocating for this, but there is a difference between intent and impact. At the least, the chants accuse part of, if not all of, Israel as being stolen, and demand the end of the Jewish state.
Irrespective of their views on the current administration or geopolitical situation in Israel, the existence of a Jewish state is fundamental to a majority of both American and international Jewry. It is discriminatory for the protest’s organizers to compel Jewish students passionate about college affordability to scream for the delegitimization of their ethnic and religious homeland.
Many Jewish students at this university, including myself, are nonresident, low-income or reliant upon diminishing financial aid to attend this university. For us, participating in the protests would not have been a gesture of solidarity, but a personal obligation. However, it is repulsive to ask Jewish students to enter a space where something that is so intrinsically part of our identities is attacked. It runs contrary to the principle of an inclusive, intersectional protest to ask participants to check their identities at the door.
By no means am I pleading for the abandoning of rhetoric or the dismantling of organizations that criticize Israel. But when we are supporting a common goal, such as college affordability, clogging up the space with dialogue that bullies us out of the conversation amounts to targeting.
My intention is not to contribute to the liturgy of anti-Zionist condemnation. I have no interest in partaking in the annual rehashing of the boycott, sanction, divest argument; neither do I wish to suggest that the Jewish community is a perennial victim of institutionalized anti-Semitism on this campus.
We Jewish students who have been made to feel unsafe or unwelcome on this campus cannot change our identity. But we can change our behavior. Too often after problematic events occur, we have a tendency to look outwards. Of course, voicing our dismay when we feel unwelcome and threatened is our obligation. But in exclusively concentrating on the actions of others, we have lost sight of our own. Repudiating others is hollow and counterproductive when we fail to compliment those efforts with self-reflection.
The reality is, the mainstream Jewish community at UCLA has disengaged from intersectional activism on campus. Instead, we have replaced such activism with lukewarm allyship consigned to belated gestures and social media posts. We must align ourselves unconditionally with those causes that deeply affect our campus community and that we already care strongly about: fighting tuition hikes, vouching for sanctuary status, increasing mental health services, eliminating sexual violence and addressing food insecurity.
We cannot mold the agendas of movements or shape the actions of organizations when we have no seat at the table. It seems futile to make fiery disavowals about the organizers behind the tuition hike protest when we did not reciprocate with equally passionate statements in support of their cause. We cannot eliminate anti-Semitism from these spaces by retroactively asserting ourselves into the conversation.
A central tenet of the Jewish community on campus is its commitment to activism and humanitarianism. If we have disengaged from these activities, it is largely because participation appears to be contingent upon us abandoning our Jewish identity. There are certainly movements and communities on campus entrenched in anti-Semitism that will not welcome Jewish students, to their own detriment. But in the context of issues that are important to many students, we cannot afford to shun intersectional dialogue. If we Jewish students want a voice in protests for affordability or economic equality, we must find it before the protest happens. There is nothing abstract or unattainable about that.
The actions of the organizers, whether out of intention or naivety, should not prompt Jewish students to disengage from these issues. A majority of students committed to fighting tuition hikes understand that the fight for economic and educational justice has little to do with Middle Eastern geopolitics. The individuals Wednesday chose to distract from the timely issue of impeding tuition hikes that were less than 24 hours away, and instead hold a referendum on Zionism that would inevitably alienate many students.
But the Jewish community must define itself by what we choose to do, instead of by the anti-Semitism we experience. Let Wednesday morning serve as a Rorschach test for our community: Our thoughts and actions in response to what we saw should guide and tell us more about our community than anyone else’s.
Schaeffer is a third-year, study of religion and political science student who is active in the Jewish community.