An inflammatory poster equating Zionism with Nazism at the University of California's Riverside (UCR) campus has mobilized Jewish students and faculty, drawn strong condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and cautious responses from university officials.
The offensive poster appeared in a display case of UCR's sociology department in mid-October, prominently featuring photos of a Star of David and swastika, separated by an equal sign, and of an Israeli soldier pointing a rifle at a Palestinian woman.
To "explain" the Star of David/swastika "symbolism," the text noted that Israel was imposing a Nazi-like final solution on the Palestinians and that "Zionists believe that Israel is to be the land from which God's chosen people will rule over the rest of the world, in accordance with God's master plan."
The poster was the work of Debbi LeAnce, a 28-year-old senior, who leads a campus anti-war group, founded after Sept. 11, known as the Student Coalition for Peace and Human Rights, and, alternately, as the UCR Resistance.
A shocked Hanna Gershfeld, president of the campus Hillel chapter, turned for advice on counteraction to two sources, the ADL regional chapter in Los Angeles and UCR philosophy professor Howard Wettstein, faculty adviser to the Hillel group, which is currently without a director.
Wettstein said the attack came as a surprise because the campus, with a large number of Asian American and Latino students, is generally marked by a "pleasant, nonhostile environment."
ADL Director Amanda Susskind and Associate Director Alison Mayersohn turned first to UCR Chancellor France Cordova, asking her to condemn the hateful attack.
Cordova, who had been advised by counsel that the poster came under the free speech protection of the First Amendment, responded with a generalized statement, asking for a civil campus environment, but without mentioning the poster incident.
A follow-up letter by ADL elicited a further statement by Vice Chancellor James W. Sandoval, which also asked for respectful discourse, but did label the poster as "offensive and reprehensible."
At the same time, Robert Dynes, president of the statewide UC system, issued a statement to the board of regents, denouncing the poster as "reprehensible," but constitutionally protected.
Wettstein praised one high-level official, Patricia O'Brien, dean of humanities, arts and social sciences.
"She got it right away and was very supportive," he said.
By the end of October, the poster was removed, after the mandated two-week display limit had expired, but the controversy continued.
Last week, LeAnce and her student group announced a panel discussion at an off-campus coffee shop, which Gershfeld and seven other Hillel members decided to attend. Gershfeld asked for backup from StandWithUs, a grass-roots pro-Israel organization, which sent a three-person delegation, headed by Roz Rothstein, its executive director.
Gershfeld, a 20-year-old senior in political science, said that after an opening "rant" by LeAnce, the tone became calmer. Both she and Rothstein said they relished the opportunity to present the Israeli side to some 40 largely uncommitted and uninformed students, including a number of moderate Muslims.
Meanwhile, Wettstein was working with the UCR administration and fellow professors to organize an open forum to discuss the incident's underlying political, free speech and campus ramifications.
The Nov. 3 meeting drew some 150 faculty, students and staff, including the chancellor and top administrators. Wettstein and a moderate leader of the local Muslim community spoke, and although LeAnce presented her customary list of anti-Israel charges, Wettstein described the event as "positive."
A series of additional forums is planned for the future.
Although pained and angered by the poster, Wettstein felt it produced some positive results.
"The incident drew Jewish students and faculty together, and energized them," he said. "Despite their anger, they didn't become strident, stayed focused and kept their eyes on the ball.
"I was disappointed by some of my liberal and left-leaning colleagues, who are usually quick and loud to speak out against bigotry, but stayed silent in this case," he added. "But I was pleased by the student newspaper, which bluntly criticized the campus administration for not speaking out more forcefully."
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