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Getting Past the Issue of Being Jewish

On 5 March 2015 the New York Times (NYT) carried a front page story about a second-year student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) named Rachel Beyda. Ms. Beyda, who is Jewish, was seeking appointment as a member on the university’s Judicial Board – a student committee that considers judicial questions in reference to the activities of student government.

As the story goes, Ms. Beyda’s application was originally rejected because a majority of the board felt that her association with organizations such as Hillel, a group that uncritically supports Israel’s apartheid-style culture and maintains anti-democratic rules and procedures of its own, would represent a conflict of interest and result in possible bias on her part. Given the tension on many campuses, including UCLA, between those who support and oppose Israeli policies and behavior – tensions which occasionally result in student organizations being disciplined – it was not an unreasonable assumption. Unfortunately, the student board members who questioned Ms. Beyda’s affiliations made it appear that their concerns flowed from her religion and ethnicity.

Then “at the prodding of a faculty adviser … who pointed out that belonging to Jewish organizations was not a conflict of interest, the students [on the board] revisited the issue and unanimously put her [Beyda] on the board.”

Of course, the story does not end there. According to the NYT, the episode has “set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated” and served to “spotlight what appears to be a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews on many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel.”

The Los Angeles-area Zionists have had a field day blowing the incident out of all proportions. For instance, Rabbi Aaron Lerner, “the incoming executive director of the Hillel chapter at U.C.L.A.” told the NYT, “we don’t like to wave the flag of anti-Semitism, but this is different. This is bigotry. This is discriminating against someone because of their identity.” At least on one point Lerner is wrong. Hillel does “wave the flag of anti-Semitism.” After all, Hillel maintains that “Israel is a core element of Jewish life and the gateway to Jewish identity.” The organization follows the Zionist line that those who strongly oppose Israel, oppose the Jews and Judaism per se.

Lerner’s charge of “bigotry” is harder to evaluate without seeing the recorded video of the board meeting (which has been removed from YouTube.) However, in a letter to the campus newspaper, the students who originally voted against Ms. Beyda apologized for the tack they had taken in their questioning of her.

The NYT goes on to air the opinions of Rabbi John L. Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who called the board incident “insidious”;  Avinoam Baral, the president of student council, who said the board was unfairly suggesting Beyda might have “divided loyalties”; and Natalie Charney, student president of the UCLA chapter of Hillel who complained that this was all the result of an “overall climate of targeting Israel” that has led to the “targeting of Jewish students.” Well, no one can accuse the New York Times of putting forth a balanced interpretation of events.

What is the Real Issue?

There is certainly something upsetting about this incident. It might very well be that the recent acrimonious struggle that resulted in the UCLA student government endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel set the scene for a less than sensitive approach to Ms. Beyda’s application to the Judicial Board. Nonetheless, the incident and its repercussions tell us that those who oppose Israeli behavior have to be careful not to fall into the Zionist trap of assuming, or even inferring, that Israel is identical with the Jewish people and that individual Jews cannot do other than support the Zionist state. This is simply not true.

It seems to me that the mistake the board members made was to focus on Ms. Beyda’s membership in “Jewish” organizations. We can infer that from the faculty adviser’s intervention as described above. If those objecting to her application had thought the issue through, they would have realized that the real problem is not membership in organizations that are Jewish, but rather membership in organizations that support institutional racism and oppression. Focusing on the latter points allows one to get past the issue of being Jewish. After all, there should be a problem if an applicant belonged to any such organization, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, communist, or even pseudo-democratic.

In the United States we may be approaching a tipping point in the struggle against Zionist racism and Israeli oppression. As such it is extremely important that those involved in this struggle express their feelings in a way that clearly maintains a separation between what is objected to and Jews generally. The struggle is against racism, discrimination, oppression, occupation and illegal colonization because they are evils no matter who perpetrates them. The Israeli case has to be prioritized because Israel and its Zionist allies have bought and bullied our own government and political parties in a corrupting manner.

Expressed in this way, anyone who applied for the UCLA Judicial Board, regardless of religion or ethnicity, might properly be asked about their attitude toward such issues.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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