The president of the University of California and leaders of a dozen prominent American Jewish organizations are in an unusual public dispute about the extent of anti-Semitism on UC campuses and the university’s response to it.
In a letter to UC President Mark G. Yudof, such groups as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the national governing bodies of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism have criticized the university’s reaction to anti-Semitic acts on UC campuses as too weak. The letter, sent June 28, cited what it said were increasing incidents of swastika graffiti and anti-Israel speakers who use anti-Semitic language, and alleged that many Jewish UC students feel “an environment of harassment and intimidation.”
The Jewish leaders, with support from 700 UC students who signed an online petition, said that a new UC committee formed to study issues of racial and religious bias will not adequately address the Jewish students’ concerns. They called for “an explicit focus on anti-Semitism” and for UC administrators to condemn more strongly actions and speakers who they said have demonized Jews and Israel.
In a response released Tuesday, Yudof said he was disturbed by any anti-Semitic acts at UC and promised to “do everything in my power to protect Jewish and all other students from threats or actions of intolerance.” But he also criticized the Jewish groups’ letter as “a dishearteningly ill-informed rush to judgment against our ongoing responses to troubling incidents that have taken place on some of our campuses.”
Yudof, who is Jewish and whose wife, Judy, is the former lay president of Conservative Judaism in North America, also wrote that the Jewish groups may have based their concerns on an unreliable sampling of student opinion. Most Jewish UC students’ “perspectives are more mixed than you suggest,” he wrote.
The UC president said he was disappointed that the letter writers seemed to have dismissed the new UC Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion as destined to fail, and he urged them to support its work.
The panel, which met for the first time last week, was created after several controversial incidents over the last school year. Those included an off-campus “Compton Cookout” party by UC San Diego students that mocked Black History Month, and the spray-painting and carving of swastikas at several locations on the UC Davis campus, including the dorm room door of a Jewish student.
Some Jewish leaders have complained that UC administrators seemed to be more upset by the UC San Diego incident than the swastikas. UC officials have denied this.
The Jewish groups’ letter to Yudof was sent two weeks after UC Irvine announced that it would suspend campus privileges of its Muslim Student Union for a year after members of the group repeatedly disrupted a February speech by an Israeli diplomat. Some Jewish groups were pleased with the decision and said they hoped the university would take action if protests against Israel take on a tone that threatens Jews.
Yudof declined to comment Tuesday on his letter, preferring to let it speak for itself, according to a UC spokesman.
However, several authors of the original letter said they were disappointed with Yudof’s response. The signatories included leaders of such groups as Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Stand with Us, the Zionist Organization of America and several UC professors and lecturers.
Rabbi Aron Hier, director of campus outreach for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Yudof has evident personal empathy for Jewish concerns and that Jewish groups will work with him and the UC campus climate council. But Hier said he wished Yudof had addressed the groups’ request that anti-Semitism be studied and condemned separately. “This can’t be placed in some collective box of racism and intolerance in general,” he said.
Joel Baker, executive director of Conservative Judaism’s Pacific Southwest region, described Yudof’s letter as “a little harsh and a little dismissive.” Baker said he thought Yudof was trying to do a good job but that he needed to deal more directly with the Jewish community’s concerns. Even if fears of anti-Semitism on UC campuses turn out not to be matched by reality, Baker said perceptions remain important.