When white nationalist, anti-Semitic incidents happen at UC Davis, they do not occur in a vacuum
UC Davis has been repeatedly targeted by white supremacist groups during the last year. White supremacist and anti-Semitic fliers were posted on campus in October 2018 and October 2019.
These actions reflect a concerted effort on the part of such organizations to disseminate their views following the fatal Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report cited “a 9 percent increase” in on-campus anti-Semitic incidents between 2017 and 2018, according to Inside Higher Ed. In the U.S. overall, there was a 182% increase in the distribution of white supremacist propaganda between 2017 and 2018.
While UC Davis in particular ranks as a university with higher instances of anti-Semitism, these incidents also reflect a growing national trend of white supremacists targeting college campuses. The propaganda generally include “fliers, stickers, banners, and posters” expressing “racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamaphobic views,” said an ADL report. Due to “public backlash” and “negative media coverage,” the report suggests white supremacists have sought to “maximize media and online attention, while limiting the risk of individual exposure.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) currently deems the “alt-right” as “white nationalism’s most recent formation,” in part instigated during the controversial election of Donald Trump as president. The alt-right is thought to be increasingly “porous,” which “allows for the inclusion of more radical elements, including a suite of Neo-Nazi organizations.” The failure of a second Unite the Right Rally and the angry reaction to Richard Spencer’s speeches on college campuses in 2017 and 2018 demonstrate the movement’s increasing desperation and inability to recoup lost ground after the events in Charlottesville.
Today’s alt-right and white nationalist movement has the same roots as previous anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and racist movements. As noted by extremism expert Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, in a phone interview, “the American hate movement is rooted in hatred of Jewish people and people of color.”
Still, UC Davis’s history of anti-Semitism emerged well before the events in Charlottesville. In 2015, swastikas were painted on the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi’s house. In 2016, university printers received anti-Semitic fliers from The Daily Stormer and in 2017, a sermon given at the Islamic Center of Davis allegedly called for the annihiliation of the Jews.
“Identity Evropa [also known as the American Identity Movement] distributed flyers and stickers at the University of California at Davis,” according to an April 2018 ADL report mapping anti-Semitic incidents nationwide. “One flyer read ‘Action. Leadership. Identity,’ and another advertised a book called ‘White Identity’ with the message, ‘Your professor is scared of this book.’”
Locally, in May 2018, the Road to Power organization “issued anti-Semitic robocalls on behalf of neo-Nazi Patrick Little that claimed Senator Dianne Feinstein was a dual-citizen of Israel and accused Feinstein of killing American children by sending billions of dollars to Israel. The call also said that Little was ‘going to get rid of all the nation-wrecking Jews from our country.’”
In October 2018, the Daily Stormer distributed fliers throughout campus blaming prominent Jewish public figures, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, for the controversy surrounding the nomination of now Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Additionally, in October 2019, the American Identity Movement again posted fliers on campus.
UC Davis is not the only campus that has been targeted: incidents of bigotry have occurred at UC Berkeley and UCLA in previous years as well. At UC Berkeley, anti-Semitic graffiti was discovered on a bathroom wall, and in some instances, members of the student body, rather than outside organizations, have been the perpetrators of anti-Semitic rhetoric. For example, political assumptions have been made about students simply because they are Jewish.
At UCLA, when then-undergraduate Rachel Beyda was confirmed into the student council’s judicial board, she was asked whether she would be able to maintain an “unbiased view” of campus matters due to her activities in Jewish organizations, according to The New York Times. When she left the room, the council debated whether her membership in a Jewish sorority and her participation in Hillel would interfere with her ability to handle governance questions impartially.
The controversial session was posted on YouTube and later removed. The council initially rejected her nomination in a 4-4 vote, and then accepted her and apologized following faculty intervention with a 9-0 vote. Jewish community leaders condemned the council’s initial behavior. Roughly a year later, perhaps in response to these concerns, the UC Board of Regents authored a resolution stating that, “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
Sascha Recht, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major who is involved with several Jewish organizations on campus, described her reaction to the fliers found at UC Davis over the past couple years.
“I have to say, it’s very disheartening,” Recht said. “I’m proud that [the Jewish community on campus] is very proactive, we see this and we immediately think about what we can do to get it removed — our response is very quick and very precise — but those are not the kind of images you want to see, you don’t want to condone hate in any way.”
Asa Jungreis, president of UC Davis’ Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and a third-year community and regional development and sustainable agriculture and food systems double major, spoke on behalf of his fraternity.
“I am disheartened by the continued presence of vitriolic fliers on campus,” Jungreis wrote in an email. “Although the school has improved in their response to the anti-semitic alt-right propaganda anonymously littered on campus the lack of repercussions faced by the responsible parties that makes them comfortable enough to continue spreading hate is frustrating and worrying […] Organizations that I’ve been affiliated with […] have faced direct anti-Semitic actions. Any and all anti-Semitic behavior, or acts of hate targeted at any race, religion, or minority group will not be tolerated.”
Recht expressed concern about the university’s response to such acts.
“There are ways to address the student body when something like this happens and I feel like the administration hasn’t utilized those tools effectively,” Recht said. “I’ve met with members of the administration personally and it goes in a file somewhere until something else happens and so it’s unfortunate.”
Jungreis described the nature of the university’s response to anti-Semitic actions on campus as “formulaic,” noting that he is “hard-pressed to think of anything notable beyond vague condemnations via newsletters.”
The SPLC notes that there was significant effort on the part of white nationalists to “rebrand” following the Unite the Right rally. The fallout from the rally led to “infighting” and, as social media platforms sought to limit online hate speech, various groups began to splinter.
“Very early in [the American Identity Movement’s] evolution they started doing this campus flyering,” Beirich said. “They claim to get out their message, and they probably try to recruit smart college students. I don’t know if this works at all in terms of recruitment but it certainly gets them publicity, so that’s part of the reasoning for this, for engaging in this tactic. After Charlottesville, after Heather Heyer was murdered […] [white supremacists] were saying it was a bad idea to engage in these street protests, because it made [them] look bad.”
Subsequently, Integrity First for America (IFA), a non-profit, filed a lawsuit against 26 individuals who participated in the Charlottesville rally. Roberta Kaplan, a New York City based lawyer best known for her landmark work on the 2013 Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor which addressed same-sex spousal rights, worked on the case.
“A lot of people named in [the IFA lawsuit] had to hire lawyers, and they were pissy,” Beirich said. “And the other thing that happened after Charlottesville is that Paypal started pulling their accounts so [these groups] couldn’t raise money and they couldn’t move money and they started getting banned from Facebook and Twitter, they were deplatformed in a big way,” she added, noting that the SPLC had been lobbying Facebook to more vigilantly monitor hate groups even before the events in Charlottesville.
Barry Klein, the co-president of Congregation Bet Haverim and a retired Vice Chancellor of Research at UC Davis, also believes that recent events in Davis mimic a national trend of intolerance happening both on and off college campuses.
“The general issue […] is that there’s been a resurgence of intolerance in the world right now,” Klein said. “It happens from all directions. Certainly it’s very clear, and there’s the so-called right wing groups that are fostering anti-Semitism and [there’s] left-wing intolerance too. We’re at a place in the world right now where the center seems to have vanished, where the dialogue in the world has really degraded.”
Klein added that Davis “isn’t necessarily an outlier in the rise of anti-Semitism and hate things in general. The most uninteresting voice [for me to listen to] is my own. I want to listen to [other] people. We can argue in a respectful way […] to get to the place we want to be.”
Recht has experienced assumptions similar to those made of Beyda during classes at UC Davis.
“People will assume you’re not loyal to the U.S. if you’re Jewish, that you’re loyal to the Jewish state [Israel] first,” Recht said. “It’s a very strange and unfortunate question — it will be assumed that you believe certain things because you’re Jewish.”
Recht also mentioned protests on campus where people were chanting that “[Jews] should have learned from Germany. There’s no gray area there, that’s a blatant insult.”
Recht made a distinction between individuals who take issue with the policies of the Jewish state and those who have problems with its existence in general. Similarly, Klein expressed concern about the conflation of Israeli policies with Jewish identity.
“The people who have criticisms of Israel, those criticisms [sometimes] spill over into criticism of the Jews,” Klein said. “Jewish people don’t speak with one voice, on-campus or off. Being Jewish and being pro-Israel are not the same thing. The pro-Israel thing has a lot more complications.”
Klein views the Jewish community as being in solidarity with other minority groups.
“We’ve always been champions of the underdogs, of people who are oppressed, separate from Israeli politics,” Klein said, recalling the cooperation of Jewish community leaders and African Americans during the Civil Rights movement and Jewish involvement in labor and women’s rights movements. “You can get involved with the contemporary politics in the Middle East and you can get lost in all these political things and lose sight of the camaraderie.”
Klein hopes to increase communication between Congregation Bet Haverim and students on campus, describing plans to create a community outreach group that will work with Hillel and other campus organizations in order to “put a face on [the Jewish community]” and “invite other groups to our synagogue.”
Similarly, Jungreis wrote that he hoped “UC Davis [would] grant Jewish organizations greater autonomy in raising awareness regarding and responding to anti-Semitism by promoting Jewish organizations and outreach on campus. While the majority of UC Davis faculty and staff are in no way friendly towards anti-Semitic behavior, I feel that more has to be done to make explicitly clear to all students and faculty that harassment of Jews on campus can come in various forms, and is not limited to such blatant acts as the recent flyers.”
Recht also discussed the importance of interfaith unity in combating hate in all its forms.
“We stand in solidarity [with minority groups] in the sense that we understand what it’s like to be persecuted for superficial reasons,” Recht said. “We have been supported and we’re very fortunate because we have certain relationships with the Muslim and Christian communities. If something happens in one of our communities we support each other. It’s a reciprocal thing and I would like to see that be stronger. Discrimination affects all of our communities.”
Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — firstname.lastname@example.org