The show's over

May 30, 2006

In News



It’s a good time to be a Jewish student at an American college. So said Jewish leaders who gathered here Monday and declared that a golden age of Jewishness on campuses — and not the apocalypse of anti-Semitism — is upon us.

At the first university summit sponsored by Hillel, a national organization for Jewish student life, members of prominent Jewish groups did not deny that incidents of anti-Semitism have taken place in higher education. They lamented what they called bias against Israel in Middle East-studies programs and cited last year’s controversy at Columbia University, where professors of Middle East studies were accused of intimidating pro-Israel students. They also advocated the creation of Israel-studies programs to give students a more balanced view of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But they also lauded the rise of Jewish-studies programs and the number of Jewish students who support and want to learn about Israel.

“The troubling question for me,” said Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of the Hillel chapter at the University of California at Los Angeles, is “why can’t we hear the good news? Why are many Jews hysterical? We seem to be junkies for anti-Semitism.”

“Our Jewish knowledge is quite meager,” he continued. “Our positive experiences are so rare that we rely on anti-Semitism to sustain our Jewishness.”

He acknowledged that anti-Semitism does exist on campuses but reminded the 40 or so people who attended this session in a hotel conference room here that campuses are experiencing a “golden age” of Jewishness, with a significant number of Hillel chapters, university presidents and professors who are not only Jewish but identify themselves as such, and a plethora of Jewish periodicals and books published by university presses. Jewish intellectual activity, he said, is “celebrated and embraced.”

At UCLA last year, three students from the university’s Hillel chapter were elected to the student-government association, Mr. Seidler-Feller said. And university administrators regularly contact him about scheduling examinations so they do not conflict with Jewish holidays. When the university’s law school had to schedule graduation on a Friday, administrators moved the ceremony an hour earlier so Jewish parents who observe the Sabbath could drive home in time for it, he said.

Still, he said, many people focus only on the negative, including his own mother. When Mr. Seidler-Feller took a college tour with his son last year, and he told his mother that his son was considering applying to Columbia, he recalled that she immediately cried, “Columbia — a house of anti-Semitism!”

“That’s the impression she has living in Brooklyn,” he said. That the university has a rich Jewish life, including a Jewish-studies program, never dawned on her, he said.

When a donor approached two Jewish students wearing yarmulkes at UCLA, Mr. Seidler-Feller told the audience, the donor asked them how bad the anti-Semitism was on the campus. The students, Mr. Seidler-Feller said, were confused. “What anti-Semitism are you talking about?” they said.

Jonathan Kessler, leadership-development director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group commonly known as Aipac, echoed Mr. Seidler-Feller’s comments. He told the audience that it was a “glorious time” not only for Jewish student life on campuses, but for the pro-Israel student movement as well. He said that 1,200 college students, Jews and non-Jews, from 350 campuses and all 50 states had attended Aipac’s national conference, in Washington in March. Of those 1,200 students, 120 were elected presidents of their student-government associations, he said, and only 20 of them were in fact Jewish.

For the third time in four years, students at the University of California at Berkeley, he said, elected not only a Jewish student as student-government president, but a Zionist and an Aipac supporter to boot. Mr. Kessler also noted that both the College Democrats and College Republicans there had passed pro-Israel resolutions.

Speakers at the conference acknowledged that some campuses have experienced more clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students than others.

Robert A. Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University, explained how he has dealt with such conflicts. “Presidents have a significant responsibility to ensure that there is a culture of tolerance and support on the campuses,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that presidents decide for themselves what is free speech and what is hate speech.” But it’s “important for presidents to respond to hate speech as it occurs.”

For example, he said, when a student group invited Khalid Abdul Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam, to speak on the campus, in 1997, university administrators knew in advance what he was going to say. So when the students who attended Mr. Mohammed’s talk left the lecture hall, they were given a letter from Mr. Corrigan explaining why he personally rejected the fiery cleric’s “hate-filled speech.”

“Presidents have got to be prepared to respond immediately when there is a breach of civility,” he said.

Two years after the second Palestinian uprising began in 2000, San Francisco State experienced such a breach. The campus police were called in during a confrontation between students who supported Israel and Arab-American students, Mr. Corrigan said. He said he immediately sent out a message responding to the clash. “Maybe it was too harsh in regard to Palestinian students,” he said, without elaborating.

Mr. Corrigan was referring to a clash that took place between Jewish and Palestinian students on the campus in May 2002 (The Chronicle, May 24, 2002), in which university administrators doled out harsher punishments to the General Union of Palestine Students, because, as a spokeswoman for the university told the Los Angeles Times, the group’s members had interfered with the pro-Israel rally and used racial and ethnic epithets, among other offenses. The university had put the group on probation for one year, stopped its financial contributions, and taken down its Web site.

Mr. Corrigan said that he followed up that incident with other events that allowed for dialogue on the campus. “The community got involved,” he said. Arab-American and Jewish parents talked about what had happened, he said. And at a commencement ceremony, an imam and a rabbi gave the invocation in alternating sentences, he said.

As educational institutions, universities need to turn such situations into teachable moments, “and we do,” Mr. Corrigan said. “We try desperately to take an incident that has gone beyond the pale and bring it back to some level of educational context.”

In the past, he said, his university did not do that that. “For a long, long time,” he said, “people were asleep at the switch.”