June 7, 2001
Opposing Hate at UCLA
This year's annual Anti-Zionism Week on the UCLA campus saw some of the usual rhetoric: "Zionist oppressors. Israel is an apartheid state. Jewish racism is killing Arabs. Palestinian refugee camps equal Nazi concentration camps."
It was this last slogan, written on a sign adorned with a swastika, that caused Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, a die-hard peacenik, to confront the protester and rip up the sign.
"I see that analogy as vile incitement," said Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel. "The symbol represents such evil, and the purpose is not just to provoke but to justify -- if you're a Nazi, then you have to be eradicated."
The placard was held during a so-called Human Rights Rally that was part of Anti-Zionism Week at UCLA (May 20-27), sponsored by the Muslim Students Association (MSA), a university-funded group.
The slogans are typical of the level of distortions and invective used to rile up students against not just Israeli occupation, but against Israel itself.
"Their goal is to condemn and denigrate and not to engage in dialogue. They don't grant Israel legitimacy," Seidler-Feller said. "They are not our partners and have made it clear that they don't want to be our partners."
Seidler-Feller says that is particularly painful, since he believes the most vocal and powerful students in the MSA, as in many campus ethnic organizations, represent a fringe element, drowning out the more moderate voices.
For decades, it has been the radical voices that have defined campus politics, leaving Jewish students to deal with rhetoric that would be unconscionable to the larger multiethnic Los Angeles.
"What occurs on campus in terms of program and speakers is so fringe that we students on campus are dealing with a different Palestinian-Israeli issue than the general community," said Adam Rosenthal, a graduating senior who served this year as president of Hillel. "It's much more visceral and painful, and more counterproductive."
Rosenthal has been involved in the Coalition for Peaceful Coexistence, a group of Muslim and Jewish students that co-sponsors dialogues and programs. Recently, they held a Peace Tent, an open forum for students to discuss the issues, using the premise that both Jews and Palestinians have legitimate claims that need to be reconciled.
Hillel has also sponsored several standing-room-only lectures on the conflict, and Seidler-Feller coordinated a Voices of Peace course, where Muslim and Jewish students heard speakers from both sides.
But for some students, these efforts are drowned out by the much louder voices of the activist students who regularly write op-ed pieces and hold programs that delegitimize Israel's right to exist.
"This anti-Semitic force is disguised by a mask of condemning Zionism, and the entire UCLA campus buys into this," said Jennifer Dekel, a second-year student who helped found Bruin PAC, a pro-Israel group on campus.
Rachel Petru, West Coast field organizer for AIPAC, says the activity at UCLA is hardly isolated. Every May sees an onslaught of anti-Israel programming on campuses throughout the region and the country.
"We see it popping up everywhere. It's the same format and program and ideas," Petru said. Along with academics to back up accusations, the groups set up publicity stunts like mock graveyards or checkpoints through which students must pass.
Petru says the key is for students to undo the distortions and educate the campus.
AIPAC, along with the Israeli Consulate and some private leaders, were among some of the groups that Dekel turned to when she and other students organized a counter-protest to Anti-Zionism Week.
While the MSA hosted speakers, held rallies and displayed and distributed propaganda material, pro-Israel students stood opposite them handing out fliers and booklets and discussing the issues with students. At the rally, members of Bruin PAC held up a 15-by-8-foot banner that read "Israel wants peace. We have no partner."
Rosenthal says the counter-protest and educational efforts were welcomed by Jewish students.
"I'd say there is a general fear among Jewish students that we ourselves aren't educated enough on the issues and that the anti-Israel students know the issues at hand -- though what they know is wrong or antiquated or often absurd. But at least they are able to engage in debate, and Jewish students aren't, out of sheer ignorance," Rosenthal says.
Seidler-Feller believes this year's annual anti-Zionist week was not as big as some feared.
"I found it to be one of the weakest efforts in the past 10 or 20 years.... There was not a lot of creative energy," Seidler-Feller said. On the other hand, he said, "the Jewish students demonstrated in a very powerful and responsive and responsible way and asserted their position loudly and clearly."
Students were forced to make a similar showing a few weeks before when MSA brought to UCLA's student government a resolution condemning Israel's violation of human rights.
After 80 Jewish student packed the meeting, presenting their opposition with intense emotion, the resolution was unanimously voted down.
But a week later, that resolution showed up as an ad in the Daily Bruin, sponsored by MSA and coalition of minority student groups, including the African Students Union, the Latino group and the Asian group.
While this powerful minority coalition also holds considerable sway in student government, Seidler-Feller cautioned against finding too much to be angry about and against letting those who vilify Jews define the agenda.
"Students need to never lose sight of the ultimate goal of the Jewish community on campus -- to create an environment where Jews can affirm their Jewishness and not fall into the trap of generalizing from this experience that UCLA is an uncomfortable place for Jewish students or that UCLA is rife with anti-Semitism," he said. "We need to recognize the importance of constructing celebratory experiences that take precedence over a Jewishness that is driven by fighting against others."