UCLA's Troubling Question for Jewish Students Everywhere

The case of a woman whose impartiality was questioned by a judicial board illustrates how anti-Semitism works on campus today.

“Given that you are a woman and very active in the female community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

“Given that you are black and very active in the black community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

“Given that you are gay and very active in the gay community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

It seems obvious that any of these questions would be repudiated on almost any college campus, or in any polite company. Yet somehow, a few UCLA students thought the following was an appropriate question for a nominee for the student Judicial Board: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

Ultimately, Rachel Beyda, a sophomore, was confirmed to the role. But the line of questioning has sparked a conversation about anti-Semitism at UCLA and on college campuses more broadly. (The story's path—from the student-run Daily Bruin to Jewish outlets, then on to conservative blogs and finally, on Friday, The New York Times, is an interesting case study in how a story becomes a national headline.)

Members were apparently concerned that Beyda, who is also a member of campus Hillel and a Jewish sorority, would not be able to rule impartially on issues before the board. Of course, there are many possible identities that could be involved in issues before the board, but Judaism was particularly close to members' minds because Beyda's nomination came not long after a bruising campus debate about "BDS," or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a push to get universities to isolate Israel. UCLA's student government eventually approved a non-binding resolution calling on the university to divest from a list of companies it said was complicit in the occupation of the West Bank.

Students debated Beyda's nomination for some 40 minutes on February 10. Reading the minutes, one can track the students wrestling with the impropriety of the question, and at the end, Beyda was confirmed unanimously. She has declined to speak to media outlets, including The Atlantic, citing her role in student government. But following the meeting, a friend of Beyda's wrote to the Bruin, calling on members of the Judicial Board to apologize. Two days later, their apology appeared in the paper. UCLA's chancellor also condemned the tenor of the discussion, and The Times quoted campus Jewish leaders rattled by the conversation and worried about anti-Semitism on campus.

Others, while appalled by the line of questioning, were more sanguine, saying UCLA doesn't feel like an anti-Semitic environment. (UCLA was not among the top 30 public universities in Jewish population in 2014, according to Hillel International, but it was in 2013.)

"I looked at what the students actually discussed, and my opinion of this is that it started off as a really irresponsible and certainly anti-Semitic question, but ended up in a very different place—it ended up as a learning opportunity and a growth opportunity," said a professor, Todd Presner, who directs UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies. "In a small way, that’s what education is about. We should be pretty proud of that!"

Outside of Westwood, it's depressingly easy to find evidence of anecdotal anti-Semitism at U.S. colleges and universities, but hard to find specific evidence. In February, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College released a report based on a survey of more than 1,000 Jewish students nationwide. Kosmin and Keysar note that in a 2013 Pew survey, American Jews ages 18 to 29 were far more likely to report being called offensive names than older Jews. But the researchers were still surprised by the results. A majority—54 percent—of respondents said they had been subject to or had witnessed anti-Semitism on campus—though that number could include a range of potential experiences, from overt bigotry to microaggressions.

In some ways, Beyda's experience perfectly fits what Kosmin and Keysar's survey found. Women are more likely than men to report experiencing anti-Semitism (and not, as is historically more common, Orthodox men, who wear visible symbols of religion). Public universities see more discrimination than private ones.

There are two other, essential ways it fits into a pattern with other recent anti-Semitic incidents. First, the students who questioned Beyda's suitability aren't avowed anti-Semites; they didn't seem to immediately realize the ramifications of their comments; and they appeared genuinely anguished over what happened. The concept that people can be repulsed by anti-Semitism as an abstract idea and yet feel personally prejudiced toward Jews is not new, and few Americans will admit to being racist, even as racism remains an obvious problem in American society. Perhaps what's salient here is that anti-Semitism, like racism, is as much or more a pattern of behavior than it's an individual belief.

"It's not animus, it’s ignorance," Kosmin said, arguing that part of the problem is a blind spot in the complex of political correctness. "The message has gone out [on campuses] that certain types of victimization, or victims, are privileged. The young people have picked up that Jews aren't on the list of protected species." One reason for that is assimilation: "The Jewish community is regarded as part of the privileged white community," just as other ethnic groups have become part of an undifferentiated white mass.

Second, the conflation of Jews with Israel seems to be an element of many cases. Some, though of course not all, opposition to Israeli policies is tinged with or rooted in anti-Semitism, but opposition to Israeli policies can also flow in the other direction, transforming into anti-Semitism. That's particularly dangerous for American Jews in an environment where opposition to Israeli policy seems to be growing, especially on campuses. Jewish students find themselves called on to defend a government they may feel very little connection to, or may simply be associated with, as happened to Rachel Beyda.

Kosmin noted that the words used to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the media can unintentionally encourage this—like referring to those building in the West Bank as "Jewish settlers." "Aren’t they Israeli settlers?" Kosmin asked. "You don’t talk about Muslim militants—you talk about Palestinian militants."

Still, the end result of the Beyda vote might serve as reason for hope. "One learns to become an anti-Semite. One learns to become a racist," Presner said. "One can also unlearn these things." If he's right, the UCLA Judicial Board's hearing might be a 40-minute seminar on how that can work.