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‘In fight of our lifetimes,’ say Jewish leaders at JPAC

“We are in the fight of our lifetimes,” said Rabbi Noah Farkas, who leads the Jewish Federation Los Angeles. “It’s going to take all of us.”

The Jewish Political Affairs Committee of California’s Capital Summit in Sacramento, Calif., on May 15, 2024. Photo by Izzy Salant.
The Jewish Political Affairs Committee of California’s Capital Summit in Sacramento, Calif., on May 15, 2024. Photo by Izzy Salant.

Danielle Levin has hidden her Judaica necklace at Occidental College in Los Angeles and has opted at times to attend classes online for her safety. She isn’t the only Jewish student at the private liberal arts school who has done that, she told the audience at the Jewish Political Affairs Committee of California’s Capital Summit in Sacramento, Calif.

“A lot of students don’t understand the antisemitic rhetoric,” said Levin, vice president of finance at the Associated Students of Occidental College, the school’s student government. “I would like to believe a lot of people aren’t antisemitic but have been swept up. A lot of people are just joining in, they may not have the broader context.”

Levin spoke on a panel on May 15 about balancing free speech and hate speech with Steve Glazer, a Democratic California state senator; Robert Trestan, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s West division; and Gregg Drinkwater, program director of the Antisemitism Education Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We are in the fight of our lifetimes,” said Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation Los Angeles, who moderated the 50-minute panel that drew about 200 attendees. “It’s going to take all of us.”

The Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint on against Occidental, citing as its basis the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

Trestan of the ADL told the audience that the nonprofit was able to do so because of the executive order that former President Donald Trump signed in 2019 and which U.S. President Joe Biden has continued to use to evaluate complaints under Title VI  of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on shared ancestry.

Glazer, the state senator, told attendees that he proposed SB1287 in the California Senate—to require colleges to strengthen their codes of conduct and to add new procedures to address harassment and intimidation—in the wake of the testimony of university presidents before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last year.

He specified, in particular, the response of Claudine Gay, who has since stepped down as president of Harvard University, to a question about whether calling for genocide violated the Ivy League school’s code of conduct.

“It depends on the context,” Gay told the House committee.

In response to a question from the audience, Glazer called the recent decision of the president of Sonoma State University to capitulate to demands of anti-Israel encampment protesters “BDS-like concessions.” (BDS refers to the movement to boycott Israel.)

Trestan said that many of the protests and encampments could have been avoided if the schools had established firm policies early on, citing examples of those that “cracked down on Oct. 8,” including Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire.

Dartmouth’s encampment was removed in a matter of hours, and police arrested protesters seeking to set an encampment up at UNH. Neither school had interruptions during its commencement.

“There are rules for how students should behave on campus,” Trestan said.

Panelists also discussed the Jewish response to the protests.

“What is not okay for us as a Jewish community to fight antisemitism, so that we don’t lose who we are as human beings?” Farkas asked.

He shared an anecdote of the Jewish counter-protesters at the University of California, Los Angeles, who were violent towards the encampment.

The panelists agreed that violence wasn’t the right response. Said Trestan: “It’s OK to say we’re Zionists, and we respect Palestinian life.”

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