Changes offer hope for more peaceful year at U.C. Davis

U.C. Davis administrators are assuring Jewish students that the quarter that kicked off on Monday will be more pleasant than the last one, when a university department declared Zionism is racism.

Pro-Israel students and faculty claim the university's Cross-Cultural Center served as a bastion of pro-Palestinian activity last year, culminating in a widely distributed anti-Zionist e-mail.

"Zionism is an ideology that we consider racist in nature because it denies the Palestinians their identity and nationhood," declared the June 14 e-mail. "Zionism is racist because it utilizes political power to displace and oppress Palestinian people."

The e-mail violated dozens of U.C. Davis policies in espousing a political view, which is also off-limits for a nonprofit entity such as the CCC, a division of the university's department of student affairs.

The university says it has since cracked down on the 12-year-old cultural center. Three professional staffers have departed and student interns have been "very overtly" informed of the "balancing of one's voice as an individual and as an employee on behalf of the department," according to Janet Gong, U.C. Davis' assistant vice chancellor of student affairs.

The center issued an apology two weeks after sending out the e-mail.

In addition to instructing interns on professional behavior, the university has "taken appropriate personnel actions." Gong declined to elaborate further, but last year's director, Winnie LaNier, has since exited the CCC and is now working at Cosumnes River Community College in Sacramento. Of last year's four professional CCC employees, only interim director Greg Toya remains.

LaNier could not be reached for comment.

Toya characterized the e-mail as a "staff effort," calling it "an obvious mistake on our end."

"I realize we got caught up in a volatile political situation. We realize our mistakes. We want to learn from the experiences of last year and truly adhere to our mission of inclusion. I honestly hope Jewish students will feel welcome to come here. If anyone views us as inaccessible or unwelcoming, that's a travesty," said Toya, the department's assistant director last year.

"I invite Jewish students to come to the Cross-Cultural Center to engage us in conversation and give us a chance. Human beings make mistakes and departments are run by human beings."

Earning the trust of pro-Israel students may prove difficult, however. Hadar Cadouri, the president of Aggies for Israel, said CCC leaders repeatedly gave him the run-around last year when he expressed concerns the center was becoming a pro-Palestinian stronghold unwilling to work with his group.

Last year's CCC Middle Eastern community intern, Lara Kiswani, was a vocal leader in the Students for Justice in Palestine, and pro-Israel students were placed in the position of having to work with her if they wanted the CCC to help facilitate an event. Numerous Jewish students said Kiswani not only refused to assist "Zionists," but was hostile and abusive.

Joel Hass, a mathematics professor and Davis Hillel board member, said he saw the CCC transform into a home base for pro-Palestinian activists.

"We became aware that in various demonstrations that were organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine, they were being organized out of the Cross-Cultural Center. We saw them assembling their signs and they had these large puppets of George Bush and so on, and they were actually coming out of the CCC. I saw this myself," he said.

"The mission of the CCC and the whole office of student affairs is to create conditions on campus where students interact constructively. They're having the opposite effect of what they're supposed to be doing. I hope this will be rectified."

This year's Middle Eastern intern at the CCC, Layla Kasikow, is also an SJP member, and several pro-Israel students wondered if she will behave similarly to her predecessor. Toya, however, said "Layla will be much more open-minded and work with everyone who comes to see her." The CCC has also added an "intercultural" intern, meant to serve as a mediator between conflicting groups.

Messages left for Kiswani and Kasikow were not returned.

While gratified by the university's steps, many pro-Israel students and faculty are still leery of the CCC.

The center "is clearly not fulfilling its mission if it singles out one group and labels them as racist. I can't imagine a Jewish student feeling comfortable walking into the CCC," said Mike Singer, a professor of soil science and Hillel board member.

"The only assurances the university has given me is that there will be changes in the way the CCC operates. I've been on campus too long to see these kinds of vague statements as being very useful. But we'll see."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.