Any interview is nerve-wracking, especially when interviewing for a position in student government. It seemed to be going well for Rachel Beyda, a second-year economics major at UCLA, who was applying for a position in the Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), the main governing body of the campus.
Then this question was asked by Fabienne Roth, a general representative of USAC: “Given that you’re a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”
USAC rejected her selection after she spoke about her involvement with certain Jewish organizations. Immediately afterward, however, the decision was unanimously overturned after further discussion decided that being part of Jewish organizations was not a conflict of interest in joining student government.
This isn’t an isolated incident either, as Molly Horwitz, a Stanford student, was allegedly refused an endorsement from the Students of Color Coalition, after they asked her, “Given your Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?”
The way these statements were phrased displays the problematic rhetoric used in discussion of controversial political issues; specifically the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel. Instead of asking a question regarding her stance on divestment, the question debated Beyda’s ethnic heritage.
This is a large problem, which stems from both the supporters and the detractors of the BDS Movement, where Jewish culture is not treated separately from Zionism or the actions of the Israeli government. To assume a member from an ethnic community will have certain cultural biases is ignorant; to deny them a position in an organization for that reason is discriminatory.
If Roth asked Beyda if her role in Hillel at UCLA, who has openly opposed divestment, would have affected her bias, then the question would have been valid. Instead it directly questioned her cultural identity by singling her out as a “Jewish” student and her involvement in the “Jewish community,” which immediately implies that everyone in the community inherently opposes BDS and therefore supports alleged human rights abuses.
Roth’s question does not even reference divestment at all, yet heavily implies it. The lead, which states, “Given that you’re a Jewish student,” immediately implies that Jewish people are incapable of maintaining unbiased opinions, and therefore unable to accurately represent a student body.
Additionally the way that both questions were phrased brings a larger problem into the discussion of BDS, as it incorrectly identifies it as a Jewish issue. By bringing culture into the discussion, it hurts the movement by moving away from the promotion of human rights, into an implication that Jewish culture is inherently sympathetic to the human rights abuses that have occurred during the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Horwitz’s account is currently undergoing an investigation. The Stanford Daily published an op-ed entitled “Abusing the term anti-Semitism,” alleging that the question is perfectly valid. While the piece makes salient points about the incident, the author still navigates around the fact that the question implies that Horwitz’s Jewish identity is inherently opposed to divestment.
Had the coalition rejected Horwitz for her stance on divestment, it may have been valid; however, they should have left culture completely out of the issue. A person’s cultural background should not affect any student government’s decision in deciding their membership, nor should it influence their line of questioning.
BDS is a very controversial and contentious movement across academia, especially as it deals with human rights issues. When dealing with controversial topics, it is important to not single out an entire community based on their cultural identity, especially since it presupposes that their identity influences how they value human life. Many detractors of BDS immediately identify the movement as anti-Semitic, and if the rhetoric used directly accuses Jewish culture as responsible for the human rights abuses, then it hurts the cause’s integrity.
This line of thought that BDS is inherently opposed to Jewish ideals and values is incorrect, as Jewish scholars such as Noam Chomsky have been critical of Israel. David Lloyd, a UCR English professor, intelligently stated, “To suggest that criticism of Israel is identical with anti-Semitism is not only absurd, but in effect racist, since it pretends that all Jews must identify with that particular state.”
This thinking should permeate all lines of academia and discussions regarding the movement, as it identifies not against Jewish culture, but targeted toward corporations and the Israeli government. To imply that a government is entirely representative of an entire group of people across the world is not only ignorant but dangerous.