Jewish students at University of California campuses have always been good at organizing for issues pertaining to the collegiate Jewish experience.
For instance, in 2014, UC administrators announced that the system would be shortening the 2014-15 academic year’s winter break to allow fall quarter to begin after Rosh Hashanah. Jewish students, suddenly found themselves the targets of systemwide frustration. In one case, a Jewish sorority member at UC Santa Barbara was verbally abused and ostracized by her sisters for “causing” the shortened break. Shortly thereafter, Jewish UC campus activists mobilized to combat the new wave of anti-Semitism and the unfair calendar change.
Countless BDS resolutions have flown in and out of UC campus governance chambers with robust Jewish mobilization to oppose the bills. Where there is an “Apartheid Wall,” there is a pro-Israel group, made up largely of Jewish students, not too far away.
Because of the heavy leftward tilt that campus politics tend to have, Jews often find themselves with similar ideologies to their peers on domestic policy issues. The major difference is when the conversation focuses on Israel. While Israel advocacy is critically needed to combat de-legitimization and misinformation, the focus on “Jewish” issues has helped drive a wedge between Jewish students and their progressive peers. The divisions have not only kept Jewish students out of certain progressive circles on UC campuses but have made it harder for Jews to count on or be counted upon by other allies.
A quick inquiry on America’s favorite search engine shows that “Progressive Except for Palestine” (PEP) — a derogatory and misleading reference to Jews (usually) who are liberal on most issues, save for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — started seeing regular use around 2013. While there is most certainly a liberal argument for supporting Israel (not to mention, a pro-Israel argument for peace which can be construed as “liberal”), a major problem materializes when support for Israel becomes a litmus test for a person’s true value as a progressive. This, paired with the Model Minority Myth that Jews universally bring privilege to campuses, poses the problem that we cannot be taken seriously in minority and progressive circles.
This exclusion is a real shame, not only because it keeps our voices out of the conversation on important campus issues but also because of the spillover effect into generalizations about the “PEP” Jewish community. Too often are “Jewish” and “pro-Israel” used synonymously in advocacy circles, and the association suggests loss of credibility in fighting for meaningful campus change.
There may be too much of a silo-effect for Jewish advocacy. Only mobilizing against Divestment or Jewish-specific issues validates perceptions that Jewish students don’t really care about progressive issues.
Jewish students can’t change external perceptions or misunderstandings overnight. But we can take on bigger roles in advocating for seemingly non-controversial — at least among students — issues. Not only will this demonstrate the Jewish community’s potential as an ally in advocacy, but it will be an important first step in bridging existing divides.
Take the upcoming vote on a tuition increase — at press time, the UC Board of Regents was set to vote on an increase to 2018-2019 tuition for out-of-state students at their meeting this month and one for California residents next year. The increase would mark the second in two years and universally make it more challenging to obtain a quality public education in this state. Jewish students can, and should, be at the forefront of a major, systemwide issue, advocating on behalf of all students.
Those who mistakenly believe Jews only to be self-serving advocates are wrongly conflating disagreement on a single issue with ignorance for the others. The Israel-issues litmus test, which demands adherence to each of a given list of policy positions, limits dialogue and the free exchange of ideas when it rejects someone for daring to support nearly everything else on the list.
The experiences of the Jewish people is the experience of the “other.” Demonstrations for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, against police brutality and in favor of a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients all mirror different pieces of the Jewish experience. Support for these issues, in the abstract, should be a priority for progressive Jewish students — especially at a time where Divestment resolutions are not an active concern. While those issues have broader external implications, UC students should also be concerned about policies that threaten the accessibility, inclusion and affordability of a UC education.
The tuition increase vote poses an opportunity for Jewish students to lead our peers in advocacy and be at the forefront of a critical issue. Prior to last year’s hike, tuition levels had been stagnant for six years — unprecedented in the modern era. This was due, in part, to sustained lobbying efforts by dedicated student leaders.
“PEPs” deserve to be part of progressive conversations, despite having different views on Israel, but stepping up on other issues should not be a means to an end, namely acceptance in the community. Jewish students should strive to take on roles in systemwide leadership with no ulterior motive beyond wanting to affect change. Participation in not-explicitly-Jewish advocacy campaigns is driven by adherence to Jewish values. If this sort of advocacy ultimately demonstrates Jewish students’ value in progressive circles, it will be secondary to the value that fighting for justice has in itself.
The powers that be are never far from trying to enact new ways of abusing public university students. But that just means that we are never too far away from an opportunity to fight for what is right.