In the Safe Spaces on Campus, No Jews Allowed, by Anthony Berteaux
When Arielle Mokhtarzadeh and Ben Rosenberg arrived at University of California, Berkeley on November 6 to attend the annual Students of Color Conference, they had no way of knowing that they would be leaving as victims of anti-Semitism.
The University of California Student Association’s “oldest and largest conference,” the Students of Color Conference (SOCC) has maintained a reputation for 27 years as being a “safe space” where students of color, as well as white progressive allies, can address and discuss issues of structural and cultural inequality on college campuses. Students who attend are encouraged to be cognizant of their language while exploring topics that directly affect students from marginalized communities: the school-to-prison pipeline, sexual violence, decreased funding to ethnic and LGBT studies departments, racially insensitive speech, and perhaps most importantly, a “disquieting trend” of hate crimes on university campuses statewide.
It was this disquieting, yet growing, trend of hate speech and crimes directed towards Jewish students within the UC system that spurred Mokhtarzadeh and Rosenberg, both Jewish sophomores at UCLA, to attend the conference. Their freshman year was punctuated by incidents of anti-Semitism that were both personal and met with national controversy. They were shocked during their first quarter in school, when students entered the Bruin Cafe to see the phrase “Hitler did nothing wrong” etched into a table. Months later, Mokhtarzadeh’s friend, Rachel Beyda, was temporarily denied a student government leadership position based solely on her Jewish identity, an event that made news nationwide. Throughout the year, they saw the school’s pro-Palestinian group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), issue criticism of Israel that overstepped into anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate. The campus was supposed to be their new home, their new safe space—so why didn’t they feel that way?
At the conference, progressive students and students of color—often themselves targets of hate, bigotry, and discrimination—were propagators of ancient hatreds against the Jewish people.
Mokhtarzadeh applied to the Students of Color Conference with the hope “of learning more about the experiences of communities of color at the UC… [and] sharing with those communities the experience of my own,” she told me. As an Iranian Jew, she believed her identity as both a religious and ethnic minority granted her a place to belong and thrive at the SOCC. Rosenberg (who requested a pseudonym so that he could speak freely about campus issues without fear of potential retaliation) said that growing up in the Bay Area had taught him to be an active member of social justice movements and progressive communities. “I was always encouraged to take initiative on issues and movements that didn’t directly affect me,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about the struggles that my fellow students were going through.”
But their experiences as Jewish students at the SOCC would soon inspire a rude awakening: the campus progressives who were fighting for justice on college campuses for students of color weren’t only ignoring anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish identity—they were sometimes the ones perpetuating it.
This was quickly made clear on the first day at a session called “Existence is Resistance,” hosted by leaders of UC San Diego’s SJP chapter. Students discussed the boycott of Israel as an issue of urgency for students of color. Rosenberg and Mokhtarzadeh told me that they originally had no intention to engage in dialogue about Israel at the conference, but they were horrified at how attacks on Israel soon devolved into attacks on the Jews. “The session went way beyond the boundaries of what was appropriate or truthful at the SOCC,” Rosenberg recalled.
For example, they said that Israel was poisoning the water that they sell into the West Bank, and raising the price by ten times. Any sane person knows that this is not true. They also said that when Jewish-American students go on Birthright trips, the Israeli government offers you money to live on a settlement. A number of things like that.
Rosenberg also stated that “There was also no mention of the Holocaust when talking about the history of Israel. They said that in the late 19th century, Jews decided to move into this land and take over it. They completely white-washed our history as a people.”
Mokhtarzadeh was also horrified by the rhetoric used during the session.
Over the course of what was probably no longer than an hour, my history was denied, the murder of my people was justified, and a movement whose sole purpose is the destruction of the Jewish homeland was glorified. Statements were made justifying the ruthless murder of innocent Israeli civilians, blatantly denying Jewish indigeneity in the land, and denying the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered. Why anyone in their right mind would accept these slanders as truths baffles me. But they did. These statements, and others, were met with endless snaps and cheers. I was taken aback.
At a conference facilitated by peers who they believed were fighting the righteous battle against racist speech and hate crimes, Mokhtarzadeh and Rosenberg heard anti-Semitic statements that were met with applause and approval—statements like “the state of Israel pays Jews to move to Israel to join the army and kill Palestinians” and even “you shouldn’t buy Ben and Jerry’s because they’re Jewish and have a shop in Israel.” But perhaps the most painful, and upsetting portion of SJP’s presentation was the section called “Intifada: Peaceful Uprising.”