In a fraught campus political atmosphere, antisemitic bias and stereotyping can quickly turn conversations sour for Jewish students, making them feel unwelcome, harassed or left behind.
At UC Berkeley, college students who use antisemitic language may be doing so not out of malice but out of ignorance, according to Jewish studies and history professor Ethan Katz.
“They don’t know stereotypes about Jewish power and Jewish cabals and so on,” Katz explained. Once they become more educated about antisemitism, “they will possibly be less willing to say, ‘Jews have so much power,’” he added.
Pushing back against that ignorance is the intent behind a UC Berkeley program launched last year to educate students and staff about antisemitism. It recently received a large grant that will allow it to scale up its model.
Via an online course for incoming freshmen and in-person training for staff (before the pandemic), the program explores the history of antisemitism and introduces tropes that are all too familiar to Jews but not always perceived by others. It covers issues such as the racial elements of antisemitism, the ideas behind Jews as traitors, blood libel and white supremacy.
“It is an outline with questions about what is antisemitism,” Katz said. “What is the history of antisemitism? What are the key stereotypes?”
The training is not meant to shut down debate, but rather to raise awareness of what can derail it, especially with conversations about Israel possibly “more volatile than ever,” the history professor said.
“We see this as a potential model we can propose other universities to adopt,” said Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, a D.C.-based pro-Israel nonprofit that awarded the $25,000 grant. “It’s a very ambitious project.”
In recent years, a number of Jewish students at UC Berkeley have said they encountered antisemitic bias from fellow students.
At a 2019 student government meeting, a Jewish student’s complaints were dismissed as “Zionist tears” by a fellow student. At the same meeting, another student who had an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop was asked to leave. Earlier this year, a meeting deteriorated when pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates clashed over a photo display of Palestinian militants in a public space.
Each time, Jewish students said they felt their concerns were dismissed or their voices silenced because of their support for Israel, and in some cases simply for being Jewish.
“There are also people who say things about Israel who don’t know how it can resonate with antisemitic stereotypes,” Katz said.
Training faculty and staff is an important element of the program, Katz said, because unless they know what makes Jewish students feel unsafe, they won’t be able to understand their concerns or call out antisemitism when it shows up in their classrooms or on campus.
Elman thinks that’s crucial.
“We need these offices to understand that all of this is demoralizing to Jewish students, and creating risk, too,” she said.
In addition to the $25,000 grant, the Academic Engagement Network also gave a separate $4,000 microgrant to support a lecture in February by antisemitism expert Deborah Lipstadt. Elman said this is more than the organization usually gives and reflects how much it sees the Berkeley program as something that can be instituted at other schools.
The idea of creating a structure to educate students and staff about antisemitism came out of conversations Katz had with law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon and Berkeley Hillel Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman in spring 2019. Katz also pointed to the Chancellor’s Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate and the ongoing support of the current chancellor, Carol Christ. (Earlier this year she received an award from the S.F.-based JCRC for her role in improving Jewish life on campus.)
“She’s been enormously committed,” Katz said.
The initiative is coordinated by the Chancellor’s Committee, the Center for Jewish Studies, the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, Berkeley Hillel and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.
Although UC Berkeley regularly pops up in the news when students clash over Israel, Katz said a growing understanding and cooperation have flourished in recent years, keys to establishing the program.
Elman said cooperation between faculty and the administration makes Cal the perfect place to develop such a program. “The Berkeley model is the gold standard,” she said.
Katz said feedback from the in-person staff training (offices can opt in) has been positive, although sometimes he’s had to overcome a few worries.
“They come into the room assuming, or fearing, this is going to be all about Israel, or defensiveness about Israel,” he said.
But they leave with knowledge that can help defuse tensions around Israel and Judaism. The training is useful even for Jewish students, Katz said, giving them a vocabulary and reference points for calling out antisemitism — which they may have to do.
“That’s really hard, and we feel that that’s unfair, but that’s definitely the climate that they’re dealing with,” he said.