U.C. report on Jewish campus climate: Campus life vibrant, but defining anti-Semitism makes it safer

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The recent Jewish Campus Climate Report, issued July 9, is a vital step in developing the infrastructure and tools needed to further our vibrant Jewish community at the University of California. The report addresses both positive campus experiences and challenges facing Jewish students in order to “identify steps needed to make campuses more inclusive and welcoming for Jewish students” and all other community members.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations, including adoption of a hate-speech-free campus policy, a working definition of anti-Semitism, population data on Jewish students, access to kosher food, accommodation of religious observance and a place for Jewish students at future campus climate meetings.

These recommendations are most welcome given recent incidents that have undermined the goals of civility and tolerance on U.C. campuses. Freshman year, a friend of mine had swastikas drawn on his dorm room door. During the yearly “Israeli Apartheid Week,” what is often disguised as “legitimate” criticism of Israel morphs into classic anti-Semitic tropes, such as blood libel and Jews controlling the United States. At U.C. Riverside, vandals defaced an Israeli flag displayed at Hillel with the word “terrorists.” The Campus Climate Committee was established to confront incidents of hate directed at Jews with the same severity as other forms of bigotry on our campuses.

Adopting a definition of anti-Semitism, one of the key recommendations of the report, is necessary to ensure that university officials have sufficient knowledge and sensitivity to recognize anti-Semitism when it occurs and actively speak out against it. The administration cannot stand idly by as such prejudice persists on campus, because inaction could be interpreted as approval of such acts.

Opponents of the report claim that allegations of campus anti-Semitism seek only to silence anti-Israel discourse. This is not so. But while not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, some anti-Israel sentiment crosses the line into hate speech. For example, while disapproval of government policies falls within “political discourse,” statements such as “You Jews are the new Nazis, but worse” cross that line.

The report correctly addresses the intolerable environment in which anti-Semitic comments and hate speech are ignored by the administration. Restricting speech is not, however, the solution to anti-Semitism on campus.

Just as student groups may exercise their right to free speech by printing an incendiary op-ed or sponsoring a controversial speaker, our administration must exercise that same right of free speech by publicly condemning expressions of bigotry on our campuses. This sends a clear message to students about the line that separates academic freedom from racism.

This is not to say, by any means, that anti-Semitism is at the center of Jewish life on campus. The report also emphasizes the diversity of the Jewish community. At the committee meeting presenting the report to U.C. President Mark Yudof, I was joined by Jewish members of Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street. While those students acknowledged that their viewpoints do not represent a majority of Jewish students on campus, their voices were certainly heard. Extensive efforts have been made to involve students of various political affiliations and religious observance in this project.

This diversity has fostered passionate student leadership that has created a thriving Jewish community across the U.C. system; this was highlighted in the report. Students engage in a Jewish life filled with holiday celebrations and community outreach programs. At Berkeley alone, there are 16 Jewish student groups, inspiring meaningful Jewish experiences for students interested in everything from political debate to medicine. It would be a disservice to ignore this truth of Jewish life on campus. And it is from this place of strength that Jewish students must work together to fight against bigotry on campus.

With this report, our campuses, filled with students from all walks of life, must work together to make our public university what it is intended to be — accessible and welcoming to students from all communities. Together we can work toward a campus climate that fights bigotry and empowers all of its students. For the first time, through this report, Jewish students’ concerns are being heard and addressed. The Campus Climate Report will act as a solid foundation on which to build a strong, bright and promising future for Jewish communities at the University of California.

Arielle Gabai is a fourth-year student at U.C. Berkeley majoring in public health. She is president of the Jewish Student Union and a member of the Berkeley Hillel board of directors.