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Jewish Journal

Awareness Week at UCLA Hit by Apathy

by Rona Ram

March 17, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Author Donna Rosethal.

Author Donna Rosethal.

Last week's anti-Semitism conference at UCLA had the potential to be powerful and mind-expanding -- except that almost no one showed up.

It wasn't just the general student population who didn't show.

Jews didn't show up either.

The numbers speak for themselves. Some 4,000 UCLA students identify themselves as Jewish. Yet the movie "Gentleman's Agreement" and the post-film discussion brought in roughly 20 students. And a workshop on curbing anti-Semitism drew only eight.

It wasn't the conference programming, which offered compelling events: Polish Holocaust survivor Bella Friedman told an emotional tale of suffering at the hands of Nazis. The week's events concluded with a hopeful look toward the future and toward Israel, featuring Donna Rosenthal telling tales from her book "The Israelis." Students were able to connect to Israel's existence to Jewish identity, and they addressed concerns that campus anti-Semitism is often masked as anti-Zionism.

Rosenthal underscored the transformation from Jewish despair in the Holocaust to Jewish hope in Israel with her discussion of the Nuremberg laws, which made anti-Semitism state policy in Nazi Germany.

"The same ancestral connection to Judaism that got you a one-way ticket to Auschwitz ... got you a one-way ticket to Israel," she said.

Although anti-Semitism was the main focus of the conference, organizers wanted to end on a hopeful note that stressed the importance of supporting Israel.

The Jewish Student Union (JSU) of UCLA sponsored Anti-Semitism Awareness Week. Rosenthal's appearance was co-sponsored by the campus Hillel.

Event organizers concluded that most Jewish students just don't feel threatened by anti-Semitism.

"We have it lucky, in this large Jewish community of Los Angeles, that we don't necessarily feel the anti-Semitism," said Deborah Greene, a fourth-year student who serves as JSU vice president.

In other words, the Los Angeles Jewish community -- the third largest outside Israel -- provides a strong and supportive environment, which creates apathy towards issues such as anti-Semitism, issues this conference attempted to address.

The UCLA campus itself has been the scene of "anti-Zionist" events with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism, including the staging of mock Israeli checkpoints and the placing of Nazi posters in dorms. Anti-Semitism at other campuses has involved vandalism targeting Jewish organizations and hate speech.

Yet students walked right by these events.

"Lots of people feel that anti-Semitism happens less now," said Andy Green, JSU president and a third-year student. "People ignore or neglect it. This hate still does exist, though it is easy to say that it is something of the past."

UCLA's college paper, The Daily Bruin, walked past, too -- electing to ignore the conference.

"Had there been a more overt act [of anti-Semitism] that really impacted the campus and added momentum," said editor Charles Proctor, the conference probably would've been covered. "[Anti-Semitism Awareness Week] just did not create a particularly excited reaction from the staff."

Such apathy is a danger in itself, said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA: "The greatest threat is not from without, but indifference from within."

That indifference was on full display this week at UCLA's anti-Semitism conference.

Rona Ram, a fourth-year student majoring in communications studies with a minor in Jewish studies, is president of Hillel at UCLA.

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