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UC Irvine students say politics behind removal of beloved faculty rabbi

“It was the highlight of my week,” a University of California student told JNS of Daniel Levine’s course on major Jewish texts.

Aerial view of a University of California, Irvine. Credit: Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock.
Aerial view of a University of California, Irvine. Credit: Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock.

For the past three years, it’s been tough to get a spot in Rabbi Daniel Levine’s course in major Jewish texts at the University of California, Irvine, which is a requirement for the Judaic studies minor at the public university.

“It was the most interactive class I’ve ever taken at UCI,” Nova Sari, a third-year student studying history with minors in computer science and Jewish studies, told JNS. “It was the highlight of my week.”

By all accounts, Levine received stellar evaluations from students and the course was “well-balanced,” they and the professor told JNS.

“I’ve had all sorts of people take my class, even Palestinians,” Levine told JNS. “The goal is for everyone to be comfortable, and a little bit uncomfortable. Regardless, there will be something that will challenge you in some way.”

It was news to the rabbi, who also serves as campus rabbi and senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, and to students when UC Irvine opted not to renew his contract, instead bringing in two outside hires.

Sari told JNS that students were shocked. “I honestly didn’t believe something like this could have happened, especially at UCI,” she said. “I didn’t think they’d go as low as this.”

Levine, however, told JNS that the news wasn’t that shocking to him.

“Jewish studies departments across the country, over the last generation, have been moving much more towards an anti-Israel activist lens, as opposed to a nuanced academic perspective,” he said.

UC Irvine’s School of Humanities and its history department stated that they were “delighted to announce a major expansion of the program with the appointment of two new tenure-track faculty,” and “given strong student interest, the history department will offer History 18A (Jewish texts) in the winter or spring quarter of 2025.”

The announcement devoted an entire subsequent paragraph to the course on Jewish texts, which it said the history department offered 10 times since 2007 with five faculty members and lecturers. “Not offering History 18A in fall 2024 is not a change in policy, and we are certainly not eliminating the course,” it stated.

Students and faculty at the university told JNS there is more to the story than the university is letting on.

‘It’s part of a disturbing trend’

Unlike at many other universities, where there might be a standalone Jewish studies department or at least a major, UC Irvine’s Judaic studies minor resides not in the Center for Judaic Studies on campus but in the history department.

Susan Morrissey, professor of history at the university and chair of the history department, is one of the signatories to an Oct. 24 “solidarity statement” in support of Palestinians.

“We hold the ongoing, 75-year occupation and settler colonial violence to blame for all violent struggle that is currently taking place on Palestinian lands. More specifically, we join a growing international chorus of voices holding the Zionist Israeli government accountable for the violence that we have witnessed over the last several days,” reads the letter. (Morrissey referred a query from JNS to the university.)

The statement also appeared to invoke a centuries-old antisemitic trope when it suggested that the university system protected Zionist students over Palestinian ones because it “privileges the protection of those communities that benefit from their multimillion-dollar military investments.”

One of the two scholars that UC Irvine hired to replace Levine is Rachel Smith, who is slated to take over the course next academic year. Smith holds a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, in addition to a master’s in Jewish history and education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, according to an archived version of the UC Irvine “update on Jewish studies.”

Rabbi Daniel Levine

Rabbi Daniel Levine (bottom left) and University of California, Irvine students. Credit: Courtesy.

The live page no longer names Smith. It also omits a paragraph that used to be on the page, which states that it is “deeply grateful to Rabbi Levine for his outstanding service and excellent teaching as a lecturer over these last three years as we transition into an expanded program.”

It went on to state that: “Our decision not to renew his contract is due to the successful search and appointment of two new tenure-track faculty members as well as the consequent review of departmental curricular needs and practices. We hope that students can continue to explore Jewish history and thought with Rabbi Levine through his many other professional activities and connections to UCI.”

Smith, the new hire, was a member of UCLA’s chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, according to a screenshot of the club website obtained by JNS. The professor also appears to be a signatory to a statement referring to the “genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israeli government with full material support from the U.S. and many European countries.” (JNS sought comment from Smith on the matter.)

Levine told JNS that Smith’s bias is clear and in line with the way that many professors use their positions of power for activist ends. “It’s part of a disturbing trend,” he said.

‘I was afraid of my windows being smashed’

Since the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7, many Jewish students, including those at UC Irvine, have felt unsafe on campus as antisemitic incidents have surged.

When an anti-Israel encampment came to UC Irvine, “it changed the atmosphere on campus,” Sari told JNS.

Mika Schreiman, a first-year student, told JNS that protesters in the tent encampments recognized and would surround her Jewish friends as they walked by. When a visibly Jewish student, associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, walked by the encampment on the way to class, protesters yelled yehud, yehud! (“Jew, Jew!”) at him, she said.

“I have an Israeli flag in my car,” Schreiman told JNS. “I had to call my roommate to take the flag out of it because I was afraid of my windows being smashed.”

Rabbi Daniel Levine
Rabbi Daniel Levine lectures at the University of California, Irvine. Credit: Courtesy.

‘Posters blaming us for something’

Other students echoed her fears, including Sari’s roommate Sami Ilan, a third-year student at UC Irvine who is studying psychology and biology, with a Jewish studies minor.

Ilan and fellow Jewish students received hateful messages, including being called “baby killers,” after Oct. 7, and lost many friends. She hid in a bathroom out of anxiety, but found that “even in the bathroom, you can’t have a moment of peace,” she said.

“A lot of students haven’t been able to heal because there are posters blaming us for something 7,000 miles away,” Ilan told JNS. “We can never heal.”

Students found Levine—and the campus Hillel that he helps run—a bright spot on campus.

“He’s always there when any of us have a problem,” said Sari, adding that he’s “the first person that people usually go to when they need to ask advice.”

“We weren’t just going to let Daniel take this lying down,” Schreiman told JNS of UC Irvine’s decision not to rehire Levine. (She came to UC Irvine because of Levine, who is friends with her hometown rabbi.)

Students who support Levine conducted research, wrote letters and organized online campaigns on his behalf. The students’ letter reached Morrisey, the history department chair, whose response was inadequate, students told JNS.

“Rabbi Levine did not create history 18A, which has been taught 10 times since 2007 by five different faculty and lecturers,” wrote Morrisey, adding that the minor in Judaic studies “is not well subscribed” and that just one person graduated with it from 2018 to 2022.

Sari, who serves as a student assistant to the department, told JNS that the statement is “manipulative” for two reasons.

At UC Irvine, students have to submit separate documentation, even after taking the required courses, to declare a minor, she said. Since many students don’t know that an extra step is required, their paperwork is often processed only after graduation.

And, Sari said, Levine built the current History 18A curriculum from scratch.

Levine told JNS that he designed the “current version of the course,” with “an eye towards providing a robust background in Jewish history through textual production.”

With Smith poised to take over the course, students told JNS they worry that she will bring outside biases to her teaching.

“The department that it’s going to become is very hostile and toxic,” Sari said. “There are no returning faculty in the Jewish studies department. It’s been entirely reformed.”

Roz Rothenstein, founder and CEO of StandWithUs, a nonprofit Israel education organization said that “university Jewish studies departments should reflect the broader Jewish community to the greatest extent possible. We have heard from many UC Irvine students who are concerned that the department on their campus not only doesn’t represent them but is hiring faculty who actively promote harmful political agendas. The vast majority of Jews see Israel as an important part of their identity and believe denying Israel’s right to exist is a form of antisemitism. UC Irvine’s Jewish studies faculty should reflect that reality if they want to be taken seriously.”

Still, Levine said that he remains optimistic. “As a scholar of Jewish history, we’ve been in far worse situations,” he told JNS. “We’ve overcome them.”

Students are asking the university either to make a Judaic studies department or at least move the program into a different department. (JNS sought comment from UC Irvine.)

Sari said she hopes the program can go back to the way it was, which made her fall in love with it. Some people enrolled in Judaic studies classes to fulfill general education requirements but stayed because they “felt so fulfilled,” she said. “That’s the Jewish studies I know.”

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