Jewish at U.C.: the real report, by the students themselves

They called Tammuz Dubnov a liar. Right to his face.

The 17-year-old sophomore was standing in U.C. Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza alongside other students defending Israel.

Therefore, reasoned the pro-Palestinian protestors, Dubnov, who was born in Israel, must be a liar. “I stayed calm,” he recalled of the incident last spring. “They don’t actually know what they’re talking about.”

U.C. Berkeley, like any university, is a bastion of free speech, a testament to the power of the First Amendment and fundamental American values. At the same time, U.C. campuses have long been the sites of verbal attacks against Israel and, occasionally, Jews.

Divestment resolutions, heckling of Israeli speakers, “Israel Apartheid Week,” calls for academic boycotts of Israel and ethnic slurs — as well as an occasional swastika scrawled here or carved there — have become part of university life.

Two former Cal students sued U.C. after charging the university with tolerating a hostile campus environment (the suit was dismissed, but the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating).

Though campus officials routinely assure the public they do not tolerate anti-Semitism, the situation proved serious enough for U.C. President Mark Yudof to form an Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion in 2010.

Then this summer, a task force that had been formed to look into anti-Semitism on U.C. campuses presented a report. It noted that Jewish students confront “significant and difficult climate issues,” that some face “hostility … a feeling of isolation,” as well as derogatory “language and imagery” that would “not be tolerated …  if similar themes and language were directed at other groups.”

Jewish students gather at U.C. Davis

The report went on to note that although U.C. campuses are in most respects supportive of Jewish life, “fear and intimidation were an annual occurrence” around annual pro-Palestinian events, such as Palestinian Awareness Week (sometimes called “Israel Apartheid Week”).

The report offered recommendations, among them that U.C. campuses settle on a clear definition of anti-Semitism, ban hate speech and restrict official university sponsorship of questionable events, such as Israel Apartheid Week.

The response from U.C.’s administration? Thanks but no thanks.

Yudof tabled the report indefinitely, saying that he would not restrict free speech, no matter how onerous that speech.

“In general, anti-Semitic … speech, as opposed to action of discrimination, is protected,” he told the Los Angeles Times last month.

Michaela Fried and Chabad Rabbi Gil Leeds at U.C. Berkeley photo/dan pine

The California Legislature weighed in this summer, passing the nonbinding House Resolution 35, which called on universities to further crack down on anti-Semitic acts. That resolution drew praise from some Jewish organizations (StandWithUs) and condemnation from others (such as Jewish Voice for Peace), while some groups took a neutral position (ADL). U.C. officials rejected it on First Amendment grounds.

While the grown-ups argue, how are Jewish students at U.C. coping with the campus environment?

This series attempts to examine the climate at ground level, to see how Jewish students experience college life day in and day out, for better or for worse.

Interviews with students, professors, administrators and Jewish communal professionals suggest one overarching answer: Despite facing periodic hostility on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the kids are all right.

Michael Soliterman at Berkeley Hillel

Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis and U.C. Santa Cruz have thrived for the most part — receiving a good education, enjoying myriad collegiate activities and partaking in a rich Jewish life that’s for the taking if they want it.

That does not mean they always have it easy. Openly pro-Israel students contend they face social stigma and contempt from peers and professors. Others say everything is fine as long as they keep their pro-Israel politics to themselves. Some take an aggressive approach, charging ahead with in-your-face Zionism. Still others turn to Hillel, Chabad or Jewish-centric fraternities and sororities for support.

For Jewish students, it’s a tale of two college experiences, the best of climates and the worst of climates.

Said one Jewish U.C. Berkeley student: “We’re a minority on this campus, but not the kind that gets to claim the status of an oppressed minority. We can’t pull the oppression card.”

U.C. Berkeley

Rush Week at U.C. Berkeley couldn’t be more aptly named. While an October heat wave bakes the campus, students rush about Sproul Plaza, checking out dozens of booths touting fraternities, sororities and other student organizations.

One booth stands apart. It’s a sukkah being manned by the Chabad Jewish Student Center at U.C. Berkeley. Chabad Rabbi Gil Leeds stands in the sun, offering passersby a chance to shake the lulav.

Freshman student Michaela Fried, 18, takes him up on it. Petite in her blue-and-gold Cal T-shirt, Fried recites the blessing in the shade of the sukkah.

Sarah Weissman

As far as she is concerned, Cal is a haven for Jewish students like her. Incidents such as a 2008 on-campus brawl between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students (after a Palestinian flag was hung from an Eshleman Hall balcony above a pro-Israel concert) and the 2010 divest-from-Israel battle are ancient history.

“I’ve heard about protests and overall anti-Semitic sentiment,” the Los Angeles native says. “My sister went here and never mentioned anything too terrible.”

But Fried’s short time on campus has not gone without incident. When she saw members of Students for Justice in Palestine protesting a state Assembly resolution about anti-Semitism on college campuses, the site of angry, chanting students waving Palestinian flags shook her up.

“I just walked by,” she says. “I knew there was nothing I can do about it, but it’s still uncomfortable. Free speech is extremely important [but] there is a line you can easily cross into hate speech.”

Ever since the 1960s, U.C. Berkeley has been free speech ground zero. The so-called “Free Speech Movement” was born there in a crucible of feminism, radicalism and anti-war protest. Sproul Plaza is the ultimate town square.

Despite a commitment to First Amendment rights, U.C. Berkeley officials today agree with Fried that there is a line.

Sarah Beth Alcabes

Gibor Basri, the school’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion since 2007, cites the university’s formal “principles of community” as a guide to civil discourse. “As you exercise freedom to express yourself, please give some thought to how other members of the community are feeling,” he says in an interview.

He notes that Cal maintains a website “where anyone, if they perceive or witness any incidents that cross the line [of hate speech], can report anonymously. All are looked into.”

That wasn’t good enough for Stephanie Cohen, 22, who says she was subjected to so much anti-Semitism at U.C. Berkeley that she decided to transfer to another school.

Cohen attended U.C. Berkeley from 2008 through 2010, and was there during the height of the divest-from-Israel fight in the student government, one that devolved into vicious name-calling. She took that fight personally, especially when a kaffiyeh-draped student called her a “kike” to her face.

“During the vitriol I experienced, I heard words I’d never heard spoken,” she recalls. “We were called Palestinian baby-killers during the speeches.”

Though she concedes there are many worthy organizations for Jewish students at Cal, she found the school wanting for various reasons. She said she felt ignored when she complained.

“It wasn’t anti-Israel, it was anti-Semitism,” she says. Cohen considered graduating early, but then opted to transfer. She graduated from Georgetown University in June and now lives in Washington, D.C.

Madison Margolin

“Berkeley wasn’t the right fit for me for a variety of reasons,” she says, “but the divestment issue was the key to my leaving early. Some Jewish students didn’t experience any of this, but if you find yourself in this situation, it’s real and you sometimes have nowhere to go.”

Matthew White hopes distressed Jewish students would come to him. The U.C. Berkeley graduate serves as campus rep for the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, and is on campus most days.

He lists various offenses committed over the years. A student wearing a kippah was called a “kike” on campus back in 2007. An anonymous person scrawled a swastika on a white board on the outside of a Jewish student’s dorm room door a few weeks ago. Someone once accosted him because he wore a “Super Jew” T-shirt.

And those were the little things.

When White attended Cal, and was a member of a pro-Israel campus group, Tikvah, the campus climate was far more contentious than it has been more recently: merciless heckling of Israeli speakers, the 2010 divest-from-Israel bill that passed the student senate but failed to survive a veto, and that fist fight at Eshleman Hall in November 2008.

He admits he did some heckling of his own — when anti-Israel Jewish professor Norman Finkelstein spoke on campus in 2008.

These days, White says, Cal is quieter.

“Now we are more respectful of the boundaries of each other’s events,” he says, referring to pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups. “Tikvah vs. Students for Justice in Palestine disruption isn’t happening as much.”

Jewish Student Union president Arielle Gabai has her campus anti-Semitism antennae extended. A senior majoring in public health, she cites the 2010 divestment fight as her motivation to get involved.

The Cal Jewish community, estimated at 3 percent of the undergrad student body by the most recent U.C. Undergraduate Experience Survey, is “incredibly vibrant and diverse,” she says. However Gabai feels the tension surrounding issues of free speech and its limits.

Gabai says students “first and foremost are interested in protecting the free speech of every student,” but she also believes U.C. officials “should use their clout to condemn bad speech, to condemn anti-Semitism when it happens. It’s a fight to get anti-Semitism condemned the same way you would condemn any sort of racism or bigotry. As long as Jewish students are feeling unsafe, there is a line.”

Matthew White, Stephanie Cohen on U.C. Berkeley campus

Unsafe or not, there’s more to Jewish life at U.C. Berkeley than protesting.

The Jewish Studies department draws scholars of international renown. The Jewish Student Union embraces many Jewish clubs, from an Israeli folk dance group to Jews in Engineering (or JEWSE, pronounced “juicy”).

For students with left-leaning views on Israeli politics, J Street U, the college campus arm of J Street, provides a home.

J Street U Berkeley’s current president, junior Sarah Beth Alcabes, says she feels “more than anything, privileged to be part of the [Cal] Jewish community. My experience has never been one where I felt threatened or afraid to be openly Jewish at all. I’ve had overall really positive experiences.”

She says the most troubling incident since she’s been at Cal was when the Jewish Student Union voted last year to deny membership to her J Street U chapter. “I felt more excluded by members of my own community than by others outside my community,” she says.

Alcabes arrived at U.C. Berkeley after the tumult of the divestment fight, so her experience is one of a more temperate campus climate.

“I’ve never experienced free speech melding into anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism,” she says. “But I think free speech is so important. It’s part of what it means to be in the United States and to be a college student.”

While J Street U was not accepted into the Jewish Student Union, it is welcome at Hillel at Berkeley, as are all Jewish students on campus.

One of them, 21-year old senior Madison Margolin, says she found her Jewish identity thanks to Hillel. Now, four days a week, she serves as Hillel’s director of first impressions, a job that has her sitting at the front desk in the Bancroft Way facility, welcoming visitors.

The linguistics major makes a good first impression herself. Confident and articulate, Margolin grew up in Beverly Hills where she “didn’t need to do anything to feel Jewish.”

Connecting with Hillel in her freshman year allowed her to “embrace my Judaism in a way that is accessible, not abrasive and confrontational.” She started out volunteering at Hillel events, and later traveled to Israel on a Hillel-sponsored Birthright Israel trip.

Margolin says Hillel is “my outlet for feeling Jewish. Part of the reason I come here is because I feel really comfortable. It’s easy here. On campus, it just is what it is. I wear my Jewish star and no one questions me.”

Well, almost nobody. After the Birthright trip, one student living in her co-op told her Israel had no right to exist and questioned Margolin’s motives. “She says ‘So you’re going to support racist nationalism for a free trip?’ ”

Margolin remembers being taken aback. “It was the first time I had heard Zionism articulated that way,” she says. “I thought she was rude and abrasive, if not also closed minded herself, to pose her question like that.”

Situations like that and other campus tensions have caused her to become more political.

“As a Jew, my responsibility is to know about these issues,” Margolin says. “It’s important especially for Jewish students because it comes up in sporadic bursts or in the general climate. I hate to say it, but a lot of the time the rhetoric surrounding Israel borders on anti-Semitism and that’s where it becomes really uncomfortable.”

While Margolin runs the front desk, out back Mike Soliterman works the grill, piling up a stack of burgers for a Hillel barbeque. The 20-year-old computer science major says it’s quite easy to avoid the confrontational campus atmosphere: Don’t go near Sproul Plaza.

“People ask, ‘Isn’t there a lot of anti-Semitism at Cal?’ I say, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ ” Soliterman says. “I feel completely comfortable being Jewish on campus. I like to talk and hear about Israel, but it’s not something I get defensive about. That’s why I’m not susceptible to the kind of anti-Semitism someone else might typically encounter on campus.”

A BBYO member in high school, Soliterman is now active with Chabad and has participated in Hillel programs, including a Birthright trip and an alternative spring break that takes students on social action trips across the country.

“There are a lot of things to do,” he says. “You get opportunities handed to you on a silver platter. Every single little [anti-Israel or anti-Semitic] thing that goes on is over-reported. There’s no anti-Semitism here for me.”

Freshman Sarah Weissman, 19, has taken advantage of Chabad hospitality and Hillel barbecues, and quickly has made friends in the U.C. Berkeley Jewish community.

Before she arrived on campus this semester, she wondered if the anti-Semitism she had heard about would turn out to be hype. Though under no illusions, so far in the young semester, she says she has encountered no problems. For the aspiring lawyer, that itself is a bit of an issue.

“I love free speech,” Weissman says. “That’s part of the reason I came here. That doesn’t mean I’ll be comfortable with the opinions. It’s something you accept at Berkeley.”

U.C. Davis

“I’m a Yiddishe mama,” says Chani Oppenheim, executive director of Hillel at Davis. “It’s my most important role.

At least for a few hours on a recent blazing hot morning, she’s also a Yiddishe restaurateur, keeping an eye on the platoon of student volunteers who are prepping Hillel’s first free lunch of the school year.

Food in the sukkah at U.C. Davis Hillel

Apron-bedecked students trim strawberries and spoon sauce atop salmon in Hillel’s kosher kitchen (the only one in Yolo County). Others send up water pitchers on the basement dumbwaiter.

Precisely at noon, Oppenheim greets dozens of happy, hungry Jewish students, who fill their plates and dine in Hillel’s backyard sukkah. Free food and fulfilling a mitzvah prove an irresistible lure.

Oppenheim still has that move-in glow. Hillel at Davis recently completed a $5 million renovation that turned a former bungalow into a three-story chalet across the street from U.C. Davis. It is perhaps the premiere local institution for Jewish students, who make up nearly 10 percent of U.C. Davis’s total student body, according to Oppenheim.

Hillel not only sponsors a wealth of activities — from Shabbat dinners to a “Hookah in the Sukkah” party. It also serves as a refuge for Jewish students when they confront hostility or anti-Israel sentiment on campus.

Most say that rarely happens.

Though separated by less than 70 miles, U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis present very different climates for Jewish students. Unlike the urban, hillside jungle of Cal, Davis is hot, flat and quiet, a university known for training veterinarians, lawyers and winemakers.

Michelle Ahronovitz

That doesn’t mean Israel detractors haven’t found a home there. “On average, there are two to three anti-Israel, anti-Jewish events per year,” Oppenheim says. “There can be months when it’s really quiet. Students are not flocking to my office saying [they] feel unsafe on this campus or that anti-Semitism is around every corner.”

Pro-Israel student activists agree. Even after witnessing a particularly egregious anti-Israel incident last spring, Aggies for Israel president David Marias describes his campus as “laid back and calm.”

“There is a pro-Palestinian group,” says Marias, 20, a junior majoring in entomology, “but day to day you will not see them tabling. People are active but very calm, usually composed and most of the time polite.”

Activists were anything but polite last February, when a small group attended a speaking engagement and jeered two visiting Israel Defense Force veterans. One heckler repeatedly called them rapists, murderers and child molesters.

An eyewitness to the incident, Marias felt sickened afterward. “I was in shock,” he says. “I have never heard of or seen this happen at Davis before. Since then I have not seen anything else like it. It was out of the blue.”

Though campus police stood by, no officer intervened or escorted the hecklers out. One explanation for police passivity might have been that only three months before, the force found itself in hot water after an officer pepper-sprayed seated students who were part of the Occupy Wall Street movement on campus.

Chani Oppenheim, executive director of Hillel, (left) and Rachel Levy, U.C. Davis student

At least that’s what Gail Rubin believes. The local coordinator for the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, Rubin does not take a sanguine view of Davis as a safe haven for Jewish students.

“If one wants to be outwardly Jewish and pro-Israel [at U.C. Davis], they are subject to intimidation, to being belittled and subject to fear, emotional and physical [threat],” she says. “That’s for Jewish and even non-Jewish students.”

Rubin cites as evidence routine anti-Israel rallies sponsored by the Committee for Justice in Palestine; one in particular she says served up anti-Israel invective that bordered on anti-Semitic.

“A Jewish girl was having lunch,” she says, “and as she saw a more and more angry crowd, she moved away and was fearful. There was no coordinated effort within the Jewish community on campus to provide any support, protection or pushback. I spoke to this girl and she was quite hysterical.”

Rubin also notes a campus appearance in February 2011 by virulently anti-Israel activist Amir Abdel Malik Ali.

“In his talk, he said he supports Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah and Hamas,” she recalls. “At the end of the talk, to see half the audience filled with students — many of them traditional Muslims — clap and cheer him, it chilled me.”

Michelle Ahronovitz, 21, does not feel Jewish students are targeted at U.C. Davis, but she does sense tension.

“I know there is this underlying disrespect, and it’s scary,” she says. “On any day, a single comment could turn into something a lot worse. Yes, it’s a very calm campus, but the fact that underneath everything this [disrespect] is happening is an issue in itself.”

Most of that disrespect falls within the bounds of free speech. Sympathetic as he is to Jewish students, Davis law professor Alan Brownstein says nothing can or should be done to abridge the First Amendment.

“Free speech issues here are incredibly complicated,” Brownstein says, “and there’s no doubt people have to deal with a lot of speech they don’t like. The First Amendment protects that expression. The university environment requires the open exchange of ideas, and countenances those ideas even if you don’t like how those ideas are expressed.”

He notes that several times over the past 20 years, colleges have attempted to ban hate speech. All such rules were struck down.

“Feeling offended by speech isn’t something that can be remedied by the law,” he says. “It can be offset by positive speech, and by the university doing all it can to make students feel welcome.”

Brownstein’s colleague, Jewish studies professor David Biale, agrees. Though decidedly dovish when it comes to Israeli politics, he acknowledges there have been anti-Semitic acts on campus, and some hateful speech.

Biale would like to see offended Jewish students stiffen their spines and fight back with some free speech of their own.

Cutting strawberries at Davis Hillel

“There seems to be a tendency on the part of some faculty and some Jewish agencies to protect Jewish students from hateful speech,” he says. “I think that’s a mistake. If students want to engage in the debate, they have to be prepared to take their lumps. It’s patronizing and infantilizing to come in and say we’re going to protect our students from this speech. You need to give back as good as you get.”

Marin native Rachel Levy, 21, has been reluctant to join that fray. However, institutions such as Hillel have provided a needed welcome for her since she came to Davis three years ago. Though she has seen little overt anti-Semitism on campus, Hillel provided her with a safe place to vent anxieties.

“Students have a place to have conversations, to talk out their free speech instead of acting out on the quad,” says Levy, who served as a summer intern at j. in 2011. “They have Hillel to come to, they can allow themselves to decompress. That is a huge part of why we don’t feel as threatened.”

After lunch at Hillel, students cross the street to campus and head for class. Though the October heat wave has Davis in its grip, the quad bustles, with more Rush Week booths than at U.C. Berkeley.

One of those booths is a somewhat rustic sukkah, and standing beside it is Rabbi Shmary Brownstein of Chabad of Davis. After nine years on campus, he believes the climate is calm but disquieting.

“The sense I’ve had in recent times is ‘keep your head down,’ ” he says. “I wouldn’t call it fear. Jewish students just want to go about their business.”

Back at Hillel, Oppenheim reflects on the students she serves. In all aspects of operations, from party planning to strategizing responses to anti-Jewish hate speech, Oppenheim pushes the students to take the lead.

Her favorite example: That speech by Malik Ali two years ago.

Two days before Malik Ali’s event, Oppenheim texted, tweeted and emailed students, asking them to huddle at Hillel. After brainstorming, the students decided to turn Malik Ali’s words back on him.

They grabbed some poster boards and painted on them exceptionally hateful Ali quotes. The night of the speaking engagement, about 30 students showed up in front of the hall. Silent. Respectful. Holding the signs.

“The message was ‘Think for yourselves,’ ” Oppenheim says. “For me, as a Jewish educator, these are education moments. They could have been studying. I’ll never forget seeing them walk to that hall.”

U.C. Santa Cruz

Along certain pathways at the right time of day, sunlight slants through the redwoods, and U.C. Santa Cruz resembles the forest primeval.

A Sibelius symphony would go nicely with it.

It’s not really primeval. Many of the trees on this slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains were planted only a few decades ago, on the site of an old limestone quarry that was donated to the University of California.

For all its beauty and woodsy solitude, U.C. Santa Cruz boasts a bustling college campus, with some 16,000 students attending 10 affiliated colleges.

Barry Jakob, Yoshi Van Gelder, Elana White on U.C. Santa Cruz campus. photo/dan pine

According to the U.C. task force report, the percentage of Jewish Santa Cruz undergraduates in the student body stands at around 4 percent, second only to U.C. Santa Barbara. As at Berkeley and Davis, students have many Jewish clubs and institutions to choose from, including Hillel, Chabad and the pro-Israel Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee. Membership in the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, has more than doubled over the last few years.

Yet it’s different from Berkeley, where noisy pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian partisans often confront each other in public plazas. It’s also different from Davis, where students of all political stripes generally maintain polite composure.

The U.C. task force report on anti-Semitism noted that at Santa Cruz, some Jewish students and professors interviewed by the team “actively participate in the anti-Zionist movement.”

U.C. Santa Cruz poses exceptional challenges for Jewish students who consider themselves Zionists. Openly wearing one’s Zionism on one’s sleeve is a quick route to ostracism.

Before he transferred two years ago from a community college in Los Angeles, Barry Jakob had not realized how entrenched anti-Israel activists had become at U.C. Santa Cruz. He learned soon enough.

Active in student government, he came to Santa Cruz planning to run a one-year voter registration project. Jakob says some of his peers were so stridently anti-Israel that he believed his project would wither should his Zionism become known.

He kept a low profile that first year, completing the project but feeling bad about hiding his true opinions.

Guy Herschmann

“I knew I couldn’t bring up the fact that I supported Israel and was a Zionist,” Jakob says, “because I knew I would be marginalized and stigmatized. I was made to feel ashamed of being a Zionist and supporting Israel in student government.”

Jakob and other Jewish U.C. Santa Cruz students say one-sidedness is common. As an example, they cite the frequent booking of speakers who represent stridently anti-Israel views, such as Norman Finkelstein, and the dearth of speakers presenting a favorable view of Israel.

“Jewish students who try to engage in leadership positions face harrowing stigma,” Jakob says. “It’s not politically correct anymore to say I don’t like Jews. The politically correct thing to say is I don’t like Israel. So when you’re openly Zionist and pro-Israel, they look at you and judge you.”

It’s entirely possible for Jewish students to have a good college experience at UCSC. Now in his third year, Omer Levy joined the Jewish fraternity AEPi as a freshman and has enjoyed every minute.

Currently on the fraternity’s board, he lives in one of two adjacent AEPi houses just off campus (a total of 15 students live in the houses). The frat hosts barbecues, an annual camping trip and other activities.

Levy has made good friends and enjoyed promising networking opportunities through his membership; last summer, he interned at a major brokerage firm, thanks to a lead from an AEPi brother.

But perhaps most telling, Levy reports that many AEPi members, while proudly Jewish, often do not get involved with on-campus Israel advocacy.

“When it comes to Israel, most are pretty neutral,” he says, “and not too interested. They may be Jewish by blood but they don’t practice much. For those Jewish students uninvolved with Israel, it’s a pretty friendly environment.”

Not as much for those who play the role of pro-Israel activist.

Jocelyn Robinson program director, Hillel of Santa Cruz

Senior Guy Herschmann, a 22-year-old math/economics major, was born in Israel and grew up in Palo Alto. He is true to his school, calling UCSC “a good place to be Jewish.”

“It’s an amazing campus, with an incredible faculty and a great Jewish community. The classes are awesome, you can engage with your professors, who are generally open to discussing things, so in that sense it’s a wonderful place to get an education.”

However, the former StandWithUs campus rep quickly adds, “I don’t think it’s a welcoming environment for people who support Israel. If you want to be a closet Zionist and never talk about it, then it’s all good. You can join student government and student advocacy organizations. For students who [openly] support Israel, it’s very challenging. You’re constantly seen as evil if you support Israel.”

Herschmann is a member of SCIAC, the Israel Action Committee. The group seeks to generate good will toward Israel, staging events, handing out bags of Bamba (an Israeli snack), giving away falafel and reminding fellow students that there is another side to the conflict.

“Most people on campus don’t care and couldn’t point out Israel or the Palestinian territories on a map,” Herschmann says. “A lot of students have been taught that everything Zionists do is bad, and everything anti-Zionists do is good.”

That sentiment extends beyond students and their organizations.

Herschmann says he has attended lectures during which professors blast Israel, paraphrasing one as saying, “We have to stop the Israelis. If Israeli soldiers keep running over Palestinian children, it’s going to be a bad future.”

“When I took a politics class last year,” Herschmann says, “we watched a video that basically said that one out of three women in the IDF get raped, how Israel is this awful military superpower that oppresses Palestinians and women. I showed  it was bullshit by offering evidence to counter his claims, but the professor referenced Israeli academics who agreed with him.”

The campus played host last year to a “Teach-In on Islamophobia,” sponsored by several academic departments. According to students who attended, speakers presented a biased view of the conflict and some demonized Jews.

This past July, two U.C. Santa Cruz professors, Angela Davis (the former 1960s radical) and Gina Dent, co-signed a letter to various university chancellors and presidents that urged them to launch an academic boycott of Israel, which they described as an apartheid state.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew-language lecturer at UCSC, got so fed up with the anti-Israel full-court press she filed a complaint with the Department of Education three years ago. In a j. cover story last year headlined “Standing Tall in Santa Cruz: U.C. lecturer wages war against anti-Jewish activity on campus,” Rossman-Benjamin said her complaint detailed how UCSC is “a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

Omer Levy

Bruce Thompson, a Jewish Studies lecturer, has sympathy for Rossman-Benjamin, but doesn’t fully agree. He says Santa Cruz can be “a great place for Jewish students,” with its flourishing Jewish Studies program and thriving community.

“The majority of students can go through their years at UCSC and not feel especially threatened or encounter problematic or uncomfortable situations inside or outside the classroom,” he says. “But for those who are politically engaged activists or sensitive to criticism of Israel, the climate is fraught.”

He said one of his students attended “Israel Apartheid Week” two years ago and heard Israelis and Jews compared to Nazis. “This doesn’t happen very often,” Thompson says. “Nevertheless, it’s the kind of thing that can’t happen. [The student] was very upset. I think she felt a little afraid.”

Thompson says the administration sponsored a series of talks several years ago with the aim of “having people on both sides talk about possible strategies for moving forward, finding common ground, resolving the conflict. Not all the sessions were successful, but that’s an example of how the university tries to create a climate in which we can have civil discussion.”

Yoshi Van Gelder, 25, will discuss Israel with anyone, civilly or not.

The biology major devotes most of his energy to study, saying, “I primarily spend my time arguing about worms.” But this strapping IDF veteran and SCIAC member says when Israel does comes up, he does not hold back.

“People will argue with me and they won’t get far,” he says. “I’ve been there and done that, so what are you gonna say? You’ve read a book and heard your professor say something? I’m fortunate to be in a position to debunk their arguments completely. I usually end my arguments with the same thing: ‘Go see [Israel] yourself.’ ”

Senior and Mill Valley native Elana White, 21, says she feels very comfortable on campus, “but when it comes to the Israel issue, I feel I have to walk on eggshells. I’ve heard of swastikas in bathrooms, but never experienced it first hand. People [scrawl] swastikas because they think it’s funny. It’s not against Jews, but just really ignorant.”

White and scores of other Jewish students find community at Hillel and Chabad, both located off campus. It’s not easy to get to either, with Hillel located almost all of the way down the hill, two miles from the main quad.

That doesn’t stop Jocelyn Robinson from pushing to make Hillel a must for the campus’ Jewish students. The 21-year-old senior and aspiring law student serves as Hillel’s newly appointed program director.

Unlike the palatial Hillel buildings in Berkeley and Davis, Santa Cruz Hillel is modest. Located in a mini-mall next to a 7-Eleven, the newly remodeled one-room facility makes up in haimishness what it lacks in size. “My mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students on campus, and to provide educational and fun experiences,” Robinson says.

To that end, Hillel offers Cafe Ivrit (a Hebrew language club), barbecues, Birthright trips, High Holy Days and Shabbat services and a cozy place to hang out.

“[Students] like coming here,” Robinson says. “The food is consistently good. Last week we had about 50 people show up for our first Shabbat dinner [of the school year].”

She also hopes to help revive the campus’ Jewish Student Union, an organization that petered out some years ago.

Robinson might graduate before that happens. Herschmann, too, will don the cap and gown before too long, leaving the task of Israel advocacy to others.

While the campus climate might shift over time, Herschmann hopes the next generation of Jewish students will be ready for anything.

“We have a lot of education to do,” he says. “Students come on campus unprepared to deal with anti-Israel agitation. It’s very important that the Jewish community focus on educating Jewish kids early.”

on the cover
photo/ari polsky
U.C. Davis students Hunter Launer and Roxanna Donay

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.