In the Safe Spaces on Campus, No Jews Allowed
College students have risen up to fight racism on campuses across the country. But it is often those very same students who subject Jewish students to anti-Semitism.
When Arielle Mokhtarzadeh and Ben Rosenberg arrived at University of California, Berkeley on November 6 to attend the annual Students of Color Conference, they had no way of knowing that they would be leaving as victims of anti-Semitism.
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 white-washed 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.”
Excluding Jews from the progressive movement for racial justice is not isolated to the Students of Color Conference. The recent surge of progressive activism on college campuses across the country has led to many debates on the merits of concepts like “microaggressions” and “safe spaces” in educational settings that should respect free speech and dialogue. Student uprisings against racial injustice and discrimination at Yale, the University of Missouri, and dozens of other universities have shown the power of students who have banded together against institutionalized racism in academia and the student body. But little has been said about how the idea of “intersectionality”—the idea that all struggles are connected and must be combatted by allies—has created a dubious bond between the progressive movement and pro-Palestinian activists who often engage in the same racist and discriminatory discourse they claim to fight. As a result of this alliance, progressive Jewish students are often subjected to a double-standard not applied to their peers—an Israel litmus test to prove their loyalties to social justice.
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 recordedtelling 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.
To understand the festering anti-Semitism within the progressive movement, it’s important to dissect how SJP and similar groups have co-opted and mobilized campus progressives to further a cause that is anything but progressive.
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
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