By Anthony Berteaux. Article originally posted on The Tower, Issue 35, February 2016.
The University of California Student Association’s “oldest and largest conference,” the Students of Color Conference (SOCC) has maintained a reputation for 27 years as being a “safe space” where students of color, as well as white progressive allies, can address and discuss issues of structural and cultural inequality on college campuses. Students who attend are encouraged to be cognizant of their language while exploring topics that directly affect students from marginalized communities: the school-to-prison pipeline, sexual violence, decreased funding to ethnic and LGBT studies departments, racially insensitive speech, and perhaps most importantly, a “disquieting trend” of hate crimes on university campuses statewide.
It was this disquieting, yet growing, trend of hate speech and crimes directed towards Jewish students within the UC system that spurred Mokhtarzadeh and Rosenberg, both Jewish sophomores at UCLA, to attend the conference. Their freshman year was punctuated by incidents of anti-Semitism that were both personal and met with national controversy. They were shocked during their first quarter in school, when students entered the Bruin Cafe to see the phrase “Hitler did nothing wrong” etched into a table. Months later, Mokhtarzadeh’s friend, Rachel Beyda, was temporarily denied a student government leadership position based solely on her Jewish identity, an event that made news nationwide. Throughout the year, they saw the school’s pro-Palestinian group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), issue criticism of Israel that overstepped into anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate. The campus was supposed to be their new home, their new safe space—so why didn’t they feel that way?
At the conference, progressive students and students of color—often themselves targets of hate, bigotry, and discrimination—were propagators of ancient hatreds against the Jewish people.
Mokhtarzadeh applied to the Students of Color Conference with the hope “of learning more about the experiences of communities of color at the UC… [and] sharing with those communities the experience of my own,” she told me. As an Iranian Jew, she believed her identity as both a religious and ethnic minority granted her a place to belong and thrive at the SOCC. Rosenberg (who requested a pseudonym so that he could speak freely about campus issues without fear of potential retaliation) said that growing up in the Bay Area had taught him to be an active member of social justice movements and progressive communities. “I was always encouraged to take initiative on issues and movements that didn’t directly affect me,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about the struggles that my fellow students were going through.”
But their experiences as Jewish students at the SOCC would soon inspire a rude awakening: the campus progressives who were fighting for justice on college campuses for students of color weren’t only ignoring anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish identity—they were sometimes the ones perpetuating it.
This was quickly made clear on the first day at a session called “Existence is Resistance,” hosted by leaders of UC San Diego’s SJP chapter. Students discussed the boycott of Israel as an issue of urgency for students of color. Rosenberg and Mokhtarzadeh told me that they originally had no intention to engage in dialogue about Israel at the conference, but they were horrified at how attacks on Israel soon devolved into attacks on the Jews. “The session went way beyond the boundaries of what was appropriate or truthful at the SOCC,” Rosenberg recalled.
For example, they said that Israel was poisoning the water that they sell into the West Bank, and raising the price by ten times. Any sane person knows that this is not true. They also said that when Jewish-American students go on Birthright trips, the Israeli government offers you money to live on a settlement. A number of things like that.
Rosenberg also stated that “there was also no mention of the Holocaust when talking about the history of Israel. They said that in the late 19th century, Jews decided to move into this land and take over it. They completely whitewashed our history as a people.”
Mokhtarzadeh was also horrified by the rhetoric used during the session.
Over the course of what was probably no longer than an hour, my history was denied, the murder of my people was justified, and a movement whose sole purpose is the destruction of the Jewish homeland was glorified. Statements were made justifying the ruthless murder of innocent Israeli civilians, blatantly denying Jewish indigeneity in the land, and denying the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered. Why anyone in their right mind would accept these slanders as truths baffles me. But they did. These statements, and others, were met with endless snaps and cheers. I was taken aback.
At a conference facilitated by peers who they believed were fighting the righteous battle against racist speech and hate crimes, Mokhtarzadeh and Rosenberg heard anti-Semitic statements that were met with applause and approval—statements like “the state of Israel pays Jews to move to Israel to join the army and kill Palestinians,” and even “you shouldn’t buy Ben and Jerry’s because they’re Jewish and have a shop in Israel.” But perhaps the most painful, and upsetting portion of SJP’s presentation was the section called “Intifada: Peaceful Uprising.”
Mokhtarzadeh, a proud Zionist, raised her hand to protest, but it was too late. The whole room—representing a diverse cross-section of progressive activists and students of color—was holding hands, embraced in each other’s support and calling out “Free, free Palestine!”
They walked out, Mokhtarzadeh on the verge of tears. Rosenberg tried to reflect on what he had heard and experienced. “It wasn’t even just about that session,” he confessed.
It was a prevailing sentiment that I felt at the conference and in the progressive community, that because I am Jewish, I cannot be an activist who supports Black Lives Matter or the LGBTQ community. When I heard that among my peers that “the Jews are oppressors and murderers—How can you care about students of color on campus when they’re murdering our people abroad?”—it quickly dawned on me that it wasn’t that they don’t like us because we’re pro-Israel—they don’t like us because we’re Jews. We were targeted. It’s such a shame that the SOCC solidified and supported this belief of mine.
It was, ironically, in a safe space intended to protect students from discrimination and bigotry in which their Jewish identity was marginalized, ostracized, and politicized. And it was the progressive students and students of color—often themselves targets of hate, bigotry, and discrimination—who were the propagators of ancient hatreds against the Jewish people.
Mokhtarzadeh still painfully remembers that weekend. “I was made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted in a space that was meant to be inclusive and safe,” she said. “It was in that moment, during that conference, that I realized that every identity and every intersection of identity was to be welcomed and championed in progressive spaces—except mine.”
This is something Rosenberg knows all too well as a progressive at UCLA. “It’s becoming increasingly aware to me that, regardless of my views on Israel, people are viewing being a Jew and being a social justice activist as being mutually exclusive,” he said. “The conversation surrounding Israel on campus has turned into a conversation about Jews. Even if Jewish students care about social justice issues, they can’t participate.”
Progressive Jews continue to support anti-racism groups like Black Lives Matter, but when they are the ones subjected to racist rhetoric, Jewish students are often left to fend for themselves.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Aryeh Weinberg, director of research at Be’Chol Lashon, a nonprofit that advocates for racial diversity in the Jewish community, shared research showing that progressive Jewish students feel like they have to hide their Jewish identity in order to belong in these movements. Such was the case of Michael Stephenson, a Jewish sophomore at the University of Missouri who participated in the racial justice protests last fall, and yet felt his Jewish identity undercut his “social justice” credibility. He told The Jewish Week that there were countless moments when his social justice cred was questioned, including statements that “bordered on anti-Semitism.” A rabbi who attended a Black Lives Matter meeting was deemed a “true terrorist” for donating funds to Israel; some activists tried to justify the recent wave of Palestinian stabbings of Jews in Israel. Stephenson is still a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, but, he said, “it’s started to feel like Jewish lives don’t matter.”
While the effectiveness of campus protests is worthy of debate, it should remain undeniable—and undeniably troubling—that the progressive college movement, and specifically pro-Palestinian groups within it, have pushed anti-Semitic rhetoric in the name of progressive values. For example, the SJP chapter at Northeastern University likes to fashion itself a progressive organization, but in 2012 the school’s SJP advisor was recorded telling members to be proud to be called an anti-Semite—to wear it as a “sign of distinction. This proves that I’m working for the right side, the just cause.”
The ramifications of ignoring the normalization of anti-Semitism cannot be understated: The most recent FBI hate crime report found that 58.2 percent of hate crimes motivated by religious bias were targeted at Jews. Jews make up 2.2 percent of the American population, so the FBI’s statistics make it clear that Jews are the most disproportionately attacked religious group in America. It should be troubling to everyone that an SJP member at Temple University physically assaulted a pro-Israel Jewish student two years ago, calling him “kike” and “Zionist baby killer.” But it should be far more troubling that the SJP chapter at Temple (like all SJP chapters) promotes itself as a progressive organization, claiming solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Brennan Thorpe, a pro-Israel student at Portland State University, told me how the pro-Palestinian movement has used “intersectionality” to co-opt the struggles of marginalized communities and promote themselves as a progressive movement.
The [university] administration is very progressive and liberal, and understands anti-Semitism, but most of the hate comes from the student body, especially the pro-Palestinian people. They tie the Palestinian cause to environmental issues, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and pretty much all progressive causes. And, while they pursue these progressive causes, they also say that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist and Jews don’t deserve a state, even though they admitted they had no problem with any of the other modern nation states that have a particular ethnic identity. It’s frustrating because it’s a cultural trend in the student body that I feel like we can’t stop.
It may not surprise you that Students for Justice in Palestine was founded at UC Berkeley, the self-proclaimed apex of progressive activism. But anti-Israel co-option of progressive causes dates as far back as 1959, when the General Union of Palestinian Students was founded in Egypt. Supportive of anti-Israel terrorist groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the GUPS saw a need to create a unified plan and message for student activists. It released a statement calling for students to channel their activism into supporting the “Armed Struggle” and fighting Israel from abroad. It is in this statement that the first mention of alliance with progressives is mentioned, as Ido Zelkovitz recounted in Students and Resistance in Palestine: Books, Guns and Politics.
GUPS members located outside of the Arab countries would be called upon to join forces with other local progressives sympathetic to the Palestinian revolution. Members in the Palestinian diaspora would be encouraged to cooperate with the progressive political forces in their host countries to counter official Zionist activities, lectures and movie screenings.
When the GUPS established a chapter at San Francisco State University in 1973, it organized accordingly, focusing its mission on “social justice” while simultaneously supporting Palestinian liberation through armed struggle. The GUPS at SFSU strategically gained support from progressive activists during an era when San Francisco was embracing and propelling radical identity politics and progressive activism. For the GUPS, San Francisco would serve as a launching point for spreading support for the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel cause in the American progressive community.
This coincided with the growing sympathy that the American New Left—an anti-war, anti-establishment political movement which gained steam in the 1960s and ‘70s—had for the Palestinian cause. Until the late ‘60s, the American New Left had very little concern for Middle Eastern affairs. While people like Noam Chomsky and organizations such as the Young Socialist Alliance were critical of Israeli policy, they failed to reach and resonate with the larger movement.
The Six-Day War in 1967 was a critical turning point in how the American New Left viewed Israel—and in turn, Jews. This change was largely spurred by the Left-aligned radical Black Power movement, which gradually grew to view Arabs in the region as an oppressed Third World people—and therefore Jews as oppressive, white “imperialists.” They subsequently came to express sentiments about Jews that were blatantly anti-Semitic. After the war, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a black civil rights organization, published a cartoon in its newsletter depicting a hand with a Star of David marked with a dollar sign, holding a noose hung on the neck of black activist and boxing champion Muhammad Ali. SNCC had been a widely influential student group during the Civil Rights movement, inspiring the New Left with its grassroots approach to community outreach. But growing identification with the Arab world had turned SNCC into a hostile and even anti-Semitic place for progressive Jews. Dotty Miller, a Jewish graduate student who worked in the SNCC offices in Atlanta, recounted details of an anti-Semitic incident that could easily have happened today.
[Someone] came into the SNCC office and began denouncing the presence of Jews in the civil rights movement. “The only wrong thing that Hitler did was that he didn’t burn up all the Jews,” [he] said.
During the ‘70s, the aggressive anti-Semitism prevalent in SNCC, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panthers affected the closely-aligned New Left movement, and subsequently alienated progressive Jewish supporters. Progressives within the New Left movement started perceiving Jews as “white”—a category of “other” that excluded Jews from a movement that was increasingly focused on identity politics. This perception materialized during a controversy at the University of Washington in 1990, when Jewish groups fought for classes focused on anti-Semitism and Jewish identity to be included in the ethnic studies graduation requirement—a requirement that was “deemed necessary in order to combat racism and to sensitize students to the problems of discrimination and oppression.” Minority faculty and student groups vehemently opposed the inclusion of these courses, on the basis that “Jews were not a people of color” and therefore could not understand institutionalized oppression. One ethnic studies professor was recorded during the debate saying that he could not “accept the inclusion of Jews and anti-Semitism in the proposed ethnic studies curriculum unless other Semitic people, especially Palestinian Arabs, were also included.” Another ethnic studies professor argued that Jews could not necessarily be victims of anti-Semitic hate because they weren’t of Semitic descent. She argued that “anti-Semitism was historically not as much as a problem as white racism.”
But, as Bazian’s influence and support for anti-Israel causes grew, so did reports of anti-Semitic incidents. During the early ‘90s, Jewish students reported that Bazian’s advocacy was cultivating a climate of anti-Semitism. Bazian notoriously blocked the appointment of a pro-Israel Jewish student to SFSU’s Student Judicial Council because the student’s support for Israel defined him as an unequivocal “racist.” When Jewish students spoke out about Bazian’s anti-Semitic actions, he attacked the offices of the student newspaper for being a “haven for Jewish spies.” In 1999, the Detroit News reported that Bazian endorsed a passage of the Qur’an that advocated violence against Jews: “The Day of Judgment will not happen until the trees and stones will say, ‘Oh Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’” (Bazian later denied having done so.) And after 79 SJP members were arrested in 2002 for illegally occupying UC Berkeley’s Wheeler building (a protest that coincided with the Holocaust Day of Remembrance), Bazian organized a counter-demonstration to protest the arrests. Playing on old anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish power and money, Bazian allegedly pointed towards donor names engraved on school buildings and said, “Take a look at the type of names on the buildings around campus—Haas, Zellerbach—and decide who controls this university.”
Today, discussions of racial “microaggressions” have been especially prevalent on American college campuses—and have been weaponized by SJP to both perpetuate anti-Semitism and ostracize Jewish students from discussions of Israel. Microaggressions, as defined by a guide circulated by University of California president Janet Napolitano, are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” The guide notes that context is key in understanding if a microaggressive statement was intended to negatively malign a student. For example, telling an Asian-American student that they “speak English very well” can be construed as a racial microaggression because it implies that Americans who “look different or are named differently from the dominant culture are assumed to be foreign-born.”
The recent surge in progressive activism on college campuses has seen students actively combatting racial microaggressions in the classroom and the student body. The passion that rose from the University of Missouri protests ignited similar racial justice protests across the country, and SJP chapters have been at the forefront of opposing microaggressions against racial minorities. In response to events in Missouri, a coalition of 15 SJP chapters signed a statement that harshly condemned anti-black microaggressions; 26 SJP chapters in the Midwest signed a statement against anti-black microaggressions and institutionalized racism within higher education.
These signatures and statements may seem sincere when viewed at face value, but when I asked Hannah Smith, an African-American Jewish student at Clark University, about her experiences with racial microaggressions, she challenged the notion that SJP members truly cared about or understood the issue. She said that their alliances with the Black Student Union have led to both anti-Semitic and anti-black microaggressions against her. “Usually, they [SJP] assume that since I’m black, that I can’t be Jewish,” she said. “They usually ask me if I’m adopted, and if they know that Jews can be colors other than white, they ask me if I’m Ethiopian.”
But what troubled Smith more was the effect that SJP has had on her black peers at Clark, and how it has prompted them to propagate anti-Semitic microaggressions towards her.
Many black students have told me that they see me as less black, not because my mom is white, but because she and I are Jewish. I do not think that my peers think that anti-Semitism exists at a PWI [predominantly white institution] that is 33 percent Jewish, but it’s actually really bad. Most people think that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist and is only a religion issue, not anything having to do with appearance. But, I can attest personally that this isn’t true.
SJP and affiliated individuals, while claiming to fight microaggressions on behalf of people of all backgrounds, have often been responsible for perpetuating anti-Semitic microaggressions against Jewish students. Dr. Lewis Z. Schlosser, then of Seton Hall University, gave a presentation at NYU’s Berman Jewish Policy Archive in 2008 about microaggressions faced by American Jews. He proposed that in a Jewish context, microaggressions can take the form of:
● Assumptions of Jewish wealth, power, control or intelligence;
● Exclusion or failing to acknowledge people’s marginalized identities;
● Jews being depicted as traitors because of assumed allegiance to Israel;
● Invisibility of Jewish identity (“You don’t look Jewish, Jews are not a minority because they are not a POC, Jews have white privilege and do not suffer from institutionalized discrimination or oppression”);
● Jews not being seen as an ethnic minority group;
● Denial of anti-Semitism or Jewish persecution;
● Denial of the Holocaust;
● Statements such as “I’m not anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends”;
● Holocaust/Hitler analogies.
One need not look far to realize that anti-Israel activists on college campuses are frequently responsible for propagating anti-Semitic microaggressions against Jews when discussing boycotting or divesting from Israel. A recent example occurred at UC Santa Cruz, when Jewish student Daniel Bernstein, an elected representative on his college council, received a message from the SJP-aligned chair of the student council instructing him to abstain from a vote on divestment from Israel because he was elected with a “Jewish agenda.” I asked Bernstein about his initial reaction to the request:
I was literally in awe. Just the phrase “Jewish agenda” is so volatile and anti-Semitic. To think that my own council members think that I am unable to uphold their beliefs and ideals in the greater student assembly because I am Jewish is beyond anything I ever thought would be told to me.
In an impassioned Facebook post, Bernstein expressed his outrage at this display of blatant anti-Semitism and drew parallels with a similar case at UCLA, where Rachel Beyda was rejected from serving a position from the Student Council’s judicial board after being asked, “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” (The council’s ruling was later overturned).
In Beyda’s case, her Jewish identity acted as a “conflict of interest,” which would, apparently, bias her decisions in discussions of Israel. These assumptions of Jewish loyalty to Israel are notorious anti-Semitic microaggressions, and it comes as no surprise that the four Undergraduate Student Association Council representatives who questioned Beyda’s eligibility were all supporters of SJP and were instrumental in endorsing and passing an anti-Israel divestment resolution at UCLA.
This does not even begin to scrape the tip of the iceberg of SJP’s anti-Semitic statements, which it seems to spread with little consequence. Jews have been called “baby killers” and told to “wipe the blood off their boots.” Northeastern’s SJP chapter was so persistent in their anti-Semitic harassment—from defacing the statue of a Jewish donor to disrupting Holocaust awareness events—that the university was forced to temporarily suspend the organization in 2014. The SJP chapter at Vassar College even tweeted Nazi propaganda from 1944.
When these events happen, there are no outcries from the progressive community about the prevalence of microaggressions. Tyler Fredricks, a student at Duke, has noticed the variation in responses from the SJP-aligned progressive crowd when instances of anti-Semitism occur.
When someone wrote “No n*****s, whites only” on a Black Lives Matter flyer, the Duke community held a march where over a hundred students marched and rallied in support. They did the same thing when someone wrote a homophobic slur in the dorms. When someone wrote anti-Semitic comments on a Duke Friends of Israel flyer, there was no march, rally, or campus outrage.
Perhaps more interesting than the lack of response from progressive allies of anti-Israel activists are the responses from SJP itself when these acts occur. Often, when SJP is documented to be responsible for anti-Semitic speech or actions, their responses can sound a lot like what happened after the assault of the Jewish pro-Israel student at Temple, when SJP released a statement on Facebook denying allegations of anti-Semitism.
SJP Temple in particular has Jewish members and allies it cherishes and cannot risk alienating because of their sincere and invaluable support for Palestine. SJP has collaborated with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) on numerous instances in organizing protests for Gaza among other events.
The president of SJP Temple went on to explain to the student newspaper that the group couldn’t be anti-Semitic because they had Jewish members. Using token Jewish members as a defense against allegations of anti-Semitism is not unique to Temple University. In fact, statements from SJP chapters at UC Berkeley, Pitzer College, and Tufts University (among many others) have used Jewish members, and alliances with fringe anti-Israel Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, to give the impression that they cannot be anti-Semitic because they have Jewish allies. Ironically enough, this defense is itself an anti-Semitic microaggression as defined by Schlosser’s presentation. Statements such as “I’m not anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends” are just as much microaggressions against Jews as statements such as “I’m not racist, I have black friends” are to African-Americans. Even in their apologies, SJP manages to propagate microaggressions in the name of progressive values.
While campus progressives righteously fight all forms of bigotry that exist on college campuses, their “intersectional” alliances with pro-Palestinian movements have mobilized them to regurgitate anti-Semitic rhetoric. If incidents of anti-Semitism at LGBTQ conventions and Black Lives Matters meetings should tell us anything, it’s that SJP’s blind spot for anti-Semitism has nested itself well within the progressive community. This has made Jews of all ages question their place within higher education. “Jewish students and their parents are intensely apprehensive and insecure about this movement,” Mark Yudof, the former president of the University of California system, told The New York Times. “I hear it all the time: Where can I send my kids that will be safe for them as Jews?” Two more questions come to mind: If the progressives who have fought against racial injustice and bigotry for so long eventually become the ones who perpetuate it, who will remain to call them out? At this rate, if anti-Semitism is normalized through the efforts of the rising progressive movements on college campuses, what will the future look like for Jewish college students?
Bernstein, the student government representative at UC Santa Cruz accused of a “Jewish agenda,” was just as resolute.
When faced with racist events and structures, activists feel compelled to work to change the status quo. One method that students are increasingly taking to speak out about on-campus anti-Semitism—particularly coming from anti-Israel groups and aligned progressive activists—is drafting student government resolutions condemning anti-Semitism. In 2015, six schools passed such statements, which include the State Department’s definition that the demonization, delegitimization, and holding of double standards towards Israel was also anti-Semitic. As the statement passed at the University of Nevada, Reno noted in its preamble: “Whereas, anti-Semitism is a growing trend on college campuses; Whereas, anti-Semitic actions are correlated with movements to boycott, divest, and sanction against Israel.”
Progressive outreach is also imperative. The issue is systemic, and so the solution must also be systemic. This means making the progressive community understand the ramifications of anti-Semitic speech. Engaging this audience—through trips to Israel, visits to Holocaust museums, and even simply interacting with Jewish students—can help change the narrative. To be a social justice activist is to speak up against injustice despite popular opinion, and to be silent is to be complicit in acts of hate. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
Mokhtarzadeh will not remain silent. She said she wanted to share her story so that students, Jewish or Gentile, will realize the magnitude of the issue and speak out against anti-Semitism just like they would against any other form of hatred or bigotry.
“I share my story,” she told me, “not for the sake of gaining your sympathy, I don’t need it—but for the sake of inspiring those who have also been subjected to anti-Semitism, and other forms of identity-based hatred, and empowering them to define their experiences instead of allowing their experiences to define them.”