Why are Jews the one minority group in America that doesn’t get to define what constitutes prejudice and hate against us?
This is the question that dozens of Jewish students, organizational leaders (including me) and community members rhetorically posed to the University of California, Irvine, student government during the Feb. 9 vote on the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
The student senate meeting, which included roughly two and a half hours of public comments, took place over Zoom while also being broadcast on the Associated Students UCI Facebook page. At the end of the meeting, the student senate voted to support BDS—by a margin of 19-3.
I’ve written before for JLife about the “Clear Moral Case Against BDS” (see February 2020), arguing that BDS resolutions, especially those brought by student governments, primarily hurt local Jewish students. Campuses that support BDS are more likely to have other anti-Jewish incidents, which only adds to a sense of discomfort Jewish and pro-Israel students can feel on today’s campuses.
But the fact that the entire Jewish community can stand united against an anti-Semitic resolution only to be repeatedly assured by non-Jews that the legislation isn’t anti-Semitic is indicative of a much wider problem than a simple double standard. Yes, it surely must be highlighted that no other minority community would have to put up with such a situation, but after spending several years as an educator on campus, I believe that the underlying problem is actually one of ignorance.
In the principle called Hanlon’s razor, the writer Robert Hanlon coined the phrase “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” This, I believe, is the true foundation of much of the anti-Zionist sentiment proliferating throughout campuses across the country. Students—yes even the vast majority of students who end up being pro-BDS—mean well and genuinely want the best for all involved. Yet, as those who study history know too well, good intentions mixed with bad facts usually beget disaster.
The majority of students on campus know nothing about Judaism, let alone the nuances of a 100-plus year conflict. They don’t know the 3000-plus years of Jewish history, the hundreds of thousands of pages of Jewish literature and rituals centered on Israel, or really anything else about Judaism.
To be frank, most people think that Judaism is simply Christianity minus Jesus plus a couple of rituals. One student senator who I had been in contact with after the vote immediately assured me that “As a student leader I will do everything I can to protect the Jewish right to practice their faith on campus.”
The problem, of course, is that most Jews don’t see themselves as practicing a “faith” called Judaism. Rather Judaism is a civilizational synthesis of a religion, ethnicity and peoplehood centered around the land of Israel.
Most Jews don’t have a serious understanding of Judaism, Jewish history and how/where Israel intersects. Surely, then, most non-Jews have no clue. The only real way to combat this phenomenon is proactive education. By the time anti-Semitic resolutions or incidents come to campus, it is already too late.
As Hillel, we can and will continue to fight against all forms of anti-Semitism on campus, but this is only the symptom of a much wider educational problem.
The best response, and one that I am proud that Hillel is engaged in on a daily basis, is proactive education.
Learning events, Jewish traditional gatherings, trips to Israel (for Jewish and non-Jewish students), and thousands of one-on-one conversations with students. It is this educational mission that will ensure the future success of the next generation of Jewish safety, leadership and ability to thrive.
DANIEL LEVINE is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine. He can be reached