Last night, Chancellor George Blumenthal of the University of California at Santa Cruz sent a chilling e-mail to the UCSC community, in which he says,
On college campuses across the country, students are engaged in challenging but necessary conversations with administrators about race, religion, ethnicity, and identity . . .
In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.
I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus . . .
I am convening my Chancellor’s Diversity Advisory Council to discuss the climate for Jewish students on campus. The council has advocated for African American students, LGBT students, and the disabled members of our community, among others, and I want to be sure our campus community welcomes and supports Jewish students, faculty, and staff. I will share my thoughts about that conversation as it unfolds.
Universities are microcosms of our complex, diverse global society. With so many differences, the opportunities for division are endless. Instead, let us make the conscious choice to seek common ground, to forge understanding, and to cultivate compassion. By doing so, we will model the way for the world-a laudable and fitting goal for UC Santa Cruz.
As a Black, Jewish alumna of UC Santa Cruz — of in fact the very same department that Chancellor Blumenthal is a member of, the astronomy department which has already been mired in controversy this year over an incident of racism — I cannot condemn this email more strongly.
Chancellor Blumenthal at best is confused. Having to deal with people who peacefully exercise free speech and assembly on a public university campus in opposition to a political and ideological position which some but not all Jews subscribe to and which is hegemonic within American society is nothing like having to deal with the police and vigilantes randomly killing you and with being traditionally and continuously marginalized in educational spaces. While there is a legacy in the United States of excluding Jews from universities, notably with quotas at Ivy Leagues, today white Jews are neither underrepresented in academia nor are they victims of structural and institutional violence that is predicated on the idea that they are less than human and culturally deficient.
That experience is now reserved for people of color, especially Black and brown people and/or anyone who is identifiably Muslim.
Chancellor Blumenthal’s e-mail is an insult to Palestinians and to Black Jews like me who don’t have the privileges that white Jews have both here in the United States and in Israel. It is also an insult to Jews (Black and otherwise) like me who support BDS, oppose Israel’s vicious occupation of Palestine, and condemn Israel’s internal Jim Crow-like apartheid policies toward Palestinians as well as African refugees and migrants.
But perhaps most importantly, Chancellor Blumenthal’s e-mail is an insult to Black students, not just on his campus but around the country. He used the work of those Black students, some of whom have been involved in pushing BDS at UCSC and elsewhere, to try to send a chilling and silencing message about debate on Palestine. In effect, he suggested that if we want to talk about Black death, we have to shut up about Palestinian death.
To that I say no. Because Palestinians were tweeting to Black folks in Ferguson about how to combat the effects of tear gas. Because Black folks know what it means to have our neighborhoods occupied by a militarized force that can murder one of us at any moment. Because Black folks on the south side of Chicago know what it is like to not have access to the right emergency services. Because Black folks in Detroit know what it is like to be denied access to running water. Because Black folks know what it is like to be subject to segregated, separate and unequal K-12 and university access.
Black American and Palestinian experiences surely have some differences. But they have many similarities, and because of that, I refuse to compromise on talking about Palestinian death in order to safely discuss Black death and the need for safety for Black people.
To the student leaders at UCSC who are acting with an anti-racist conscience by supporting BDS, I say: keep going. You are on the right side of history, and the history books will remember you for it.
To the students who oppose BDS, I say: that is your right, but to conflate BDS with anti-Semitism is illogical and frankly, anti-Jewish. The State of Israel may claim to represent and speak for all Jews and all of Judaism, but it does not. We are not one monolith on the subject of Zionism and what Israel represents. One Zionist does not speak for all Jews. The Judaism that I practice teaches me that violent Zionism is antithetical to Jewish ethics. Furthermore, BDS is a targeted action that focuses on Israeli institutions — not individuals — which are complicit in the violent occupation of Palestine, an occupation that helps grow extremists and ultimately promotes anti-Jewish terrorism.
While I welcome disagreement on this subject, Chancellor Blumenthal and your supporters, I must say in unequivocal terms that it is disingenuous to state that a boycott of institutions creates a hostile climate for individuals. And it is racist to compare this to the experiences of non-Jewish and Jewish students of color who are fighting the latest battle in a centuries-long struggle for equality.
It is deeply inappropriate for a white person, especially a leader of a diverse campus like UC Santa Cruz, to use the struggles of Black people as a vehicle to attack pro-Palestine activists. It is not for white people to arbitrate what Palestine means to Black America. It is not for white people to use Black Americans to silence Palestinians and their allies. We are not tools. Our movements are not your tools. We are people, and our movements are for us.
Finally, it is disheartening, as a member of the astronomy community, to watch yet again as a white astronomer makes clear that protecting a group of people that is largely white comes first.
About the Author
Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: #BlackandSTEM theoretical astro|physicist http://www.linkedin.com/in/chandaprescodweinstein / http://cprescodweinstein.com