As we send our daughters and sons off to a new year of college, are they entering an environment that is friendly to Jews? Is their college a place where they can be who they are Jewishly? Is what they bring from their cultural and political backgrounds welcomed as part of the campus discussion?
Here in California, where according to Reform Judaism magazine’s “Insider’s Guide to Jewish Life” the state has four campuses– Cal State University Northridge at 18, UC Santa Barbara at 27, UC Los Angeles, at 28, and UC Santa Cruz, at 29–in the top 30 public colleges and universities Jews choose, how Jewish students are treated on campus has become an issue.
California’s Jewish taxpayers–this taxpayer included–have been solid supporters of both the University and State University systems, but the passage in August of 2012 of California State Assembly bill HR-35, titled “Relative to Anti-Semitism,” has brought so many issues to light that I think that support may now need to viewed with fresh eyes.
Both my wife and I, and one of our sons, as well as several other relatives are graduates, even recent graduates, and followers of the system, and still much of what I found detailed in the bill caught me unaware.
Of gut tightening concern in the resolution were the examples over the last decade of what some Jewish students on public postsecondary education institution campuses in California had experienced, such as, “Physical aggression, harassment, and intimidation by members of student or community groups in student-sponsored protests and rallies held on campus.”
Also cited were: speakers, films, and exhibits sponsored by student, faculty, and community groups that engage in anti-Semitic discourse–that portray Israel as guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide, swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti in residential halls, the demonizing of Israel, campus support for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and suppression of free speech that supports Israel’s point of view.
The bill goes on to urge “Both the University of California and the California State University to take additional actions to confront anti-Semitism on its campuses,” as well as stating that “anti-Semitic activity will not be tolerated in the classroom or on campus, and that no public resources will be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or any intolerant agitation.”
Considered side-by-side with a recent report issued by the University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact-Finding Team about the campus climate toward Jews, I wondered what was happening to a system that I had always found stimulating, affordable, and equally accepting of all students.
To find out, I contacted Aryeh Weinberg, Director of Research for the Institute of Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, who had written a recent article outlining some of the recent attempts to stem campus anti-Semitism.
“The issue has been building up for ten years,” Weinberg, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2002, told me.
Recently, Weinberg has been running focus groups with Jewish bay area college students, and he has found that overall there is “a prevailing feeling of isolation on campus,” especially for those who want to express themselves as Zionists.”
According to Weinberg, Jewish students are also worried that certain faculty members might affect their grades.
He detects “self-censorship going on,” with students sensitive to being identified as Jewish, especially if they are involved with social justice movements. He finds that in those groups, pro-Palestinian students attempt to marginalize and push out those students who are Jewish.
Jewish students come to school, and as concerns Israel, are told they have been “indoctrinated and brainwashed,” said Weinberg.
Weinberg also felt from his research that many Jewish students, especially those who are not involved in campus politics are still mostly able to brush the hostility off.
In July of this year, it should be noted, a lawsuit accusing Berkeley and the UC system of failing to mitigate a climate of hostility against Jewish students was settled with the rather vague agreement the university will consider potential changes of its policies.
Still when it comes to Israel, Weinberg observed that “There is a denial of the fundamental right to Jewish self-determination,” he said.
I was also curious how the perceived changes in the campus environment might potentially effect Jewish UC enrollment.
According to Weinberg, the campus climate towards Israel and Jewish students has become a factor, “There is a growing awareness of Jewish parents,” he said.
“Whatever is going on, whether it’s anti-Semitism or not, it has certainly lowered the norm for tolerance of Jews,” commented Weinberg.