LOS ANGELES — It seemed like routine business for the student council at the University of California, Los Angeles: confirming the nomination of Rachel Beyda, a second-year economics major who wants to be a lawyer someday, to the council’s Judicial Board.
Until it came time for questions.
“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,” Fabienne Roth, a member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, began, looking at Beyda at the other end of the room, “how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”
For the next 40 minutes, after Beyda was dispatched from the room, the council tangled in a debate about whether her faith and affiliation with Jewish organizations, including her sorority and Hillel, a popular student group, meant she would be biased in dealing with sensitive governance questions that come before the board, which is the campus equivalent of the Supreme Court. The discussion, recorded in written minutes and captured on video, seemed to echo the kind of questions, prejudices and tropes — particularly about divided loyalties — that have plagued Jews across the globe for centuries, students and Jewish leaders said.
The council, in a meeting that took place on Feb. 10, voted first to reject Beyda’s nomination, with four of its seven members against her. Then, at the prodding of a faculty adviser there who pointed out that belonging to Jewish organizations was not a conflict of interest, the students revisited the question and unanimously put her on the board.
A wider debate
But in the weeks since, that uncomfortable debate has upended this campus of 29,600 students that has long been central to the identity of Los Angeles. It has set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated, particularly in comparison with other groups that are more typically viewed as victims of discrimination, such as African-Americans and gays and lesbians.
The session — a complete recording of which has been removed from YouTube — has served to spotlight what appears to be a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews at many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel. This is one of many campuses where the student council passed, on a second try and after fierce debate, a resolution supporting the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at punishing Israel.
“We don’t like to wave the flag of anti-Semitism, but this is different,” Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the incoming executive director of the Hillel chapter at UCLA, said of the vote against Beyda. “This is bigotry. This is discriminating against someone because of their identity.”
Reports of anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish sentiment have been on the rise across the country in recent years, especially directed at younger Jews, researchers said. Barry Kosmin, a Trinity College researcher and a co-author of a study issued last month that found extensive examples of anti-Semitism directed at college students, said he had not come across anything as striking as what happened at UCLA.
“It’s egregious and startling,” Kosmin said. “If they had used this with any other group — sexual, racial, any kind of identity group — they would have realized it was illegal.”
Beyda, 20, who is from Cupertino, California, and is president-elect of the Jewish sorority Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi, said she did not want to comment on her confirmation hearing because of her role on the Judicial Board, whose duties include hearing challenges to the constitutionality of actions of the council.
“As a member of the Judicial Board, I do not feel it is appropriate for me to comment on the actions of UCLA’s elected student government,” she said by email.
The four students who opposed her wrote a letter of apology to the campus newspaper, the Daily Bruin. “Our intentions were never to attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people,” they wrote. “It is our responsibility as elected officials to maintain a position of fairness, exercise justness, and represent the Bruin community to the best of our abilities, and we are truly sorry for any words used during this meeting that suggested otherwise.”
Roth, in an email Thursday evening, expressed distress about the episode. “I have already apologized profusely for what happened during our council meeting and I deeply regret how I phrased my questions to Rachel,” she said.
‘A teaching moment’
The university’s chancellor, Gene Block, issued a statement denouncing the attacks on Beyda. “To assume that every member of a group can’t be impartial or is motivated by hatred is intellectually and morally unacceptable,” he said. “When hurtful stereotypes — of any group — are wielded to delegitimize others, we are all debased.”
In an interview on Thursday, Block said he viewed this as “a teaching moment. These are students that are learning about governance. I think they all learned about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The campus has come together on this.”
Yet some Jewish leaders here questioned whether Block or the students appreciated the meaning of the event. John Rosove, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said the incident “reflects something deeper, more troubling, insidious, and pervasive not just at UCLA but on college campuses nationwide.”
“I am not one who sees anti-Semites lurking under every bed,” he wrote in his blog. “I am not a fear-monger. I do not believe that all criticism of Jews or the state of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic.”
“Yet,” he said, “our inability to use the term anti-Semitism when it concerns Jews, when we don’t have a problem calling other forms of ethnic and religious bigotry what it is, raises disturbing questions about prevalent attitudes towards Jews, Judaism, Zionism, and the state of Israel.”
The president of the student council, Avinoam Baral, who had nominated Beyda, appeared stunned at the turn of questioning at the session and sought at first to rule Roth’s question out of order. “I don’t feel that’s an appropriate question,” he said.
In an interview, Baral, who is Jewish, said he “related personally to what Rachel was going through.”
“It’s very problematic to me that students would feel that it was appropriate to ask that kind of questions, especially given the long cultural history of Jews,” he said. “We’ve been questioned all of our history: Are Jews loyal citizens, don’t they have divided loyalties? All of these anti-Semitic tropes.”
The boycott resolution, and the battle it set off here, was not explicitly mentioned but was described by her and others as setting the subtext for the episode.
“The overall culture of targeting Israel led to targeting Jewish students,” said Natalie Charney, student president of the UCLA chapter of Hillel. “People say that being anti-Israel is not the same as being anti-Semitic. The problem is the anti-Israel culture in which we are singling out only the Jewish state creates an environment where it’s OK to single out Jewish students.”