Friday, May 06, 2016

The State of the UC Jews

Haaretz has a truly wonderful article on the state of Jews on UC campuses. It really gets the situation right, as far as I'm concerned -- avoiding tired cliches of either extreme panic or derisive brush off. There's a middle ground between histrionic calls not to send Jewish kids to Irvine, and snide dismissal that anti-Semitism on campus is not a problem "worth discussing."

The basic mood one gets from the piece is pretty straightforward: First of all, the vast majority of the time, Jewish students are fine on UC campuses. It's not a warzone. We're not under siege. We're not terrified that someone will find out we're Jewish and bash our head into a wall. Yes, there are occasional flare-ups of true nastiness. But the vast majority of the time, we're students, doing student things, and it's pretty unremarkable.

What is true, though, is that there is just that bit of hesitation in being openly -- or too openly -- Jewish. I alluded to this in my reflection on wearing Hebrew letters in Berkeley last year. It's not that if you wear a Jewish t-shirt something bad will happen to you. The vast majority of the time, nothing bad will happen to you. But there's that nagging worry in the back of your head that it might, that there is that little bit of heightened risk and provocation in being "out" in that way, which doesn't happen if you just put on a Minnesota Wild t-shirt inside.

In other words, there's a sense that open Jewishness at UC requires work, that if one decides to be Jewish in any active way you can't just be Jewish but you might have to expend energy -- sometimes quite a bit of energy -- justifying it. And clearly, that's more true in some circles than others; it was quite clear that many Jews didn't feel comfortable articulating a conventional set of Jewish views on our history or our oppression in many leftist circles. So many people just don't. They cover (to use Kenji Yoshino's wonderful concept) their Jewishness.

The Haaretz article mostly spoke to undergraduates, and I've been both a graduate student and a faculty member. So obviously my perspective is different. But I think we're mostly in accord, and that accord is that ... it's complicated. The baseline is just like that of the undergraduates -- the vast majority of the time, I don't feel remotely awkward being a Jew in my department. I've had discussions about Jewish issues and anti-Semitism that I thought have been thoughtful, stimulating and productive. I couldn't ask for a better group of colleagues.

And beyond that baseline, it's a patchwork. On the one hand, I don't have the slightest bit of confidence that, if something bad to happen to me that related to my study of contemporary anti-Semitism, my union would have my back. My sense is that they are rhetorically committed to opposing anti-Semitism but are deeply suspicious of it in practice; having entirely bought into the notion that its mostly a ginned-up attempt at "silencing" criticism of Israel. So it seems that their instinctive reaction, upon hearing a request to fight anti-Semitism, is to assume the caller is an ideological enemy and that the call has been made in bad faith; everyone is innocent until proven Nazi. One could say it is more "anti-anti-anti-Semitic" than it is "anti-Semitic".  And it stinks that I don't feel like I can rely on my own union that way.

On the other hand, I'm friends with both the union stewards in my department, and I've periodically communicated my sentiments to them. They've been receptive and affirming, though generally non-committal (there's not much they can do or promise anyway, particularly about non-specified future conjectures). But it's not like they were hostile or dismissive. They didn't shun or ostracize me. If something bad did happen to me that related to anti-Semitism, I'd feel comfortable going to them, and at the same time I'd be pretty sure they'd be able to do nothing for me. Patchwork.

Likewise in classroom settings. Have I caught myself self-censoring? Yes, it has happened. I thought about using BDS as an example of what Weber had in mind regarding persons who let their "ethics of conviction" run roughshod over their "ethics of responsibility". but I ultimately couldn't bring myself to do it in a room full of critical theorists. But in other classes, I've felt freer -- free enough to speak, anyway, if not free from that twinge of hesitation. And two of my seminar papers have explicitly and sympathetically addressed Zionism, and I have no concerns that they'll be fairly and charitably evaluated by the two (quite-left-of-center) professors who received them.

So it's a mix. It's mostly fine. There are areas of genuine concern. One need not blow them out of proportion to realize that they have proportions, meaning, and impact.

1 comment:

Binyamin Arazi said...

There's a pay wall at Ha'aretz, argh.