Fall quarter recently began on University of California campuses, and some groups are gearing up for what they believe will be a renewed “assault” on Jewish students. I often receive emails from Jewish parents asking me whether it is safe to send their child to U.C. Davis. My response? It is 100 percent safe for Jewish students.
In the spring quarter of 2015, the student senate passed a motion in favor of sanctions and divestment from Israel, basically BDS without the B (boycott). Passions on all sides were very high during and after the vote. The day after the motion passed, all students and faculty received an email from our now former chancellor stating that the student senate vote would have no effect on any funds controlled by the university. Though the students in favor of sanctions and divestment apparently knew that the vote was symbolic, never before had an administrator basically nullified a student senate vote.
The email further fanned the flames. A day or two later, swastikas were painted on a wall of the Jewish fraternity in the middle of the night, an anti-Semitic hate crime. We can’t know whether the vote was related to the swastikas because the perpetrator was never caught.
During that same quarter, history professor Susan Miller was teaching her course on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Due to these recent events, her students decided to hold a public forum. Six of her students presented their research on a topic related to the twin hatreds of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Over 300 students attended and many more could not get in. The presenters were thoughtful, and the Q&A demonstrated that students are eager to engage with each other respectfully about these contentious topics.
I was moved when an Egyptian-born student presenter active in the BDS movement spoke about how upset he was when he heard about the swastikas at the Jewish fraternity; his first instinct was to go help erase them. He also mentioned how much he appreciated the solidarity of Jewish students who came to a vigil after three Muslim university students were murdered in North Carolina. This student has a nuanced understanding of the difference between struggling against Israeli occupation and anti-Semitism — a distinction about which there is, unfortunately, ignorance on both sides.
During my 26 years at U.C. Davis, there have been about five hate crimes against Jews, all of them property crimes that occurred in the middle of the night; none of the perpetrators has ever been caught. We must insist that hate crimes be investigated and that the responsible parties face appropriate consequences. While these acts are reprehensible, it is important to acknowledge that never has a student been assaulted because he or she is Jewish and none of these property crimes could have hurt anyone physically. To put this into perspective, if I had a daughter, I would be very concerned about sending her to any and all college campuses because of sexual assault. But no student has to be fearful on campus simply because he or she is a Jew.
The 2014 Campus Climate Survey was sent to all students at U.C. Davis. Well over 90 percent of Jewish students reported feeling comfortable in their classes, their departments and with the overall campus climate. Indeed, the vast majority of Jewish students at U.C. Davis feel safe and respected. And of course, we must attend to those who do not.
Knowledge can be powerful, and a strong Jewish studies presence is essential to educate all students about the history of Israel and the current conflict. Our Jewish Studies program offers more than 20 classes each year in a vast range of disciplines, with multiple courses annually about Israel in the departments of History and Political Science, and this year, in the Science, Technology and Society Program. Although students in these courses, including Jewish students, have divergent views, exchanges are always respectful. Our classrooms constitute an important site where young people from all backgrounds are engaging in a civil dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yes, pro-Palestinian students disrupted an Israeli speaker last spring at a student-run event, with several minutes of chanting and unfurling a banner. They departed and the speaker proceeded to give his full talk. Some find this kind of nonviolent protest merely annoying, while others find it unacceptable — but regardless, it is legal under the First Amendment.
We must be vigilant and condemn anti-Semitism when it occurs. However, the picture drawn by self-appointed Jewish watchdog groups about the campus environment for Jewish students at U.C. Davis has whipped up fears with little basis in reality. I welcome the new Jewish students in the Class of 2020 and hope that they will take at least one of our courses on Israel. To their parents: They will be fine!
Diane L. Wolf is a professor of sociology and the director of the Jewish Studies Program at U.C. Davis. She is a native San Franciscan.