I am a University of California – Santa Cruz (UCSC) student of Jewish heritage and I feel it is important to share another perspective on the allegations of an anti-Semitic atmosphere on campus made in a June 2009 complaint that led to the launching of an investigation by the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office this week. While I wholeheartedly agree that accusations of discrimination against students based on religion, ethnicity, or anything else are extremely serious and should be responded to, I also categorically reject the argument raised in the complaint that speaking out on Israeli policy regarding the Palestinian people is tantamount to anti-Semitism.
Since 2009 I have been involved in a student-led Palestinian awareness group on campus. The focus of our group has always been to educate the student body about the well-documented human rights abuses that Palestinians (also a Semitic people) experience in the Occupied Territories, Israel, and refugee camps around the world, and to discuss their cultural heritage and struggle for self-determination. The 2009 complaint, however, described us as a group that “hates Israel”, has “anti-Semitic activities and messages”, and “calls for the destruction of the Jewish state”.
I cannot express how wrong and offensive I find this assessment of our work to be, especially given my identity as a Jewish student with my own unique relationship with and feelings towards the state of Israel. I also know that some of the Palestinian members of our organization are very upset that their desire to share the experiences of their families and people has resulted in their being labeled as anti-Semitic. Those who actually come to our meetings or interact with us face-to-face can see that spreading hatred towards the Jewish people has never been the goal of our organization, and I would like to note that we are not accused of anything other than putting on events that some people disagreed with on a political basis.
While there are certainly some who oppose our message, we are actually well respected among students, staff, and other organizations on campus for the educational, successful, and generally free events we put on for the student body. Since joining this organization, however, I have been harassed by some UCSC students and even a staff member from Hillel (the center for Jewish student life) for my choice to engage in my Jewish identity and speak out on these issues. Many of these incidents have been documented in complaints made to everyone from our group’s advisor to the Dean of Students, and I know that I am not the only student who has experienced something like this. I hope that any inquiry into the atmosphere on campus looks into these incidents as well.
I chose to involve myself in this organization because I believe that the well-documented human rights abuses against the Palestinian people are wrong and detrimental, not only to them, but to Israel, America, and the International Community as a whole. I am further motivated by the knowledge that as an American citizen my tax dollars finance the illegal military occupation of Palestinian land, and as a Jewish person this is being carried out in my name. I do not believe that speaking out about this makes me an anti-Semite, in fact I see it as an expression of Jewish values regarding social justice.
As I stated earlier, any incidents in which students are targeted for their religious or political beliefs should absolutely be condemned and responded to, but the complaint that prompted this investigation was also about the fact that groups like mine are even given the college sponsorship needed to put on our events. As a public institution the UC is legally obligated to uphold the rights outlined in the constitution, including the first amendment right to freedom of expression, for all of its students. It should be noted that there is a student group at UCSC that specifically advocates for Israel and they far outstrip my organization in terms of presence, frequency of events, and funding. There is also a group on campus (of which I am a member) that endeavors to bring students with varying perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict together for constructive dialogue for the purpose of easing tensions on campus.
While I cannot speak to every incident outlined in the complaint, it is my belief that by allowing a variety of campus organizations to put on events, the University has acted in accordance with both the law and it’s own policies regarding free speech. I have been to Israel before and found that a wide range of opinions on the conflict exist there. My only wish is that such debate be allowed to occur here at UCSC.