Challenges on the Campus: Crcs Helping Jewish Students Find a Place in the Multicultural Debate

On the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, Jewish students were specifically voted out of a student coalition on culture and color about a month ago.

The University of Washington in Seattle recently decided not to allow courses related to Judaism or Jewish history to fulfill an ethnic studies requirement.

And the initial agenda of a University of Oklahoma-sponsored conference on multiculturalism, to be held June, failed to include any events about the Jewish experience.

Jews are no longer regarded as a minority by other campus ethnic groups, contrary to the way in which Jewish students perceive themselves.

This change has coincided with a heightened ethnic consciousness on college campuses everywhere as the multicultural ethic finds its way into the curricula and policies of major institutions of higher learning.

Jews are simply not legitimate partners in the multicultural debate, in the eyes of those spearheading it. Jews are viewed not as allies in oppression but as part of the white establishment.

The problem is that Jews do not share the agenda of the white establishment with which they are being lumped.

Ironically, Jews are being excluded as partners in the multicultural enterprise just as the philosophy of inclusivity that Jews have long favored gains currency.

JEWISH STUDENTS HAVE NO ALLIES

The net result is that Jewish students wind up in a vacuum of support, bereft of allies when Holocaust revisionists and other anti-Semites come to prey on college campuses.

The prevailing sentiment on college campuses has also alienated Jewish students who want to work with their peers on political issues.

“Every time Jewish students get involved with something like apartheid, or the Gulf war, the anti-Zionism finger is pointing at Israel, and Jewish students feel they can’t be a part of it,” according to Sandy Edry, director of the Jewish Student Press Service.

“Jewish students are told they’re Zionist pigs who control the media. They’re lumped in with white frat types, ‘the oppressors,’ when many Jews would feel comfortable on the other side,” he said.

Ultimately, the pressure “plays out in a very dangerous way for Jews on campus. It’s almost like the only choice left for them is to melt into the melting pot,” said Richard Joel, international director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations.

Others say that the current trend pushing Jewish concerns to the margins of campus debate is not maliciously intended and offers students opportunities as well as obstacles.

“Those incidents happen out of ignorance, and it opens a door for Jewish students to say, ‘Let me educate,’ “said Rachel Weinberg, campus leadership director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“There is neglect,” agreed Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel director at the University of California-Los Angeles, “but it’s a chance to promote the Jewish agenda. It’s not that they’ve closed their ears, it’s that we have to awaken them. We have to co-opt multiculturalism, rather than fight against it.”

To better do just that, students are being taught sophisticated intergroup relations techniques by community relations professionals.

B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations and Jewish community relations councils in five cities have established CRCs on nearby campuses, at Brown University, Washington University, Rice University, Ohio State University and Brooklyn College.

Several more are being planned for next year, according to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

MODEL BEING DEVELOPED AT BROOKLYN COLLEGE

NJCRAC, the umbrella group for the country’s 113 CRCs, and national Hillel are cooperating to develop a model campus CRC at Brooklyn College, which they hope to perfect and replicate on campuses around the country.

Forty percent of the students at Brooklyn College are Jewish, and intergroup relations are particularly important because of the campus’s complex ethnic makeup, said Shlomo Seidenfeld, the school’s acting Hillel director.

Special attention is being focused on training the campus CRC’s core committee members in human relations, intergroup affairs and public affairs skills.

One of the group’s first efforts was to establish a connection with other ethnic student groups. It extended invitations for informal luncheon get-togethers separately to the Black Student Union, the Carribbean Students Union, the Haitian-American Student Alliance and the Middle Eastern Culture Club, which serves the Arab students. Each group accepted.

“It’s been educational,” said Eli Kornreich, a senior who co-chairs the Brooklyn College CRC. “We were surprised to realize that the Arab student group is willing to come out and talk to us, about Israel or a clothing drive for the homeless. There is a willingness to agree to disagree.”

Kornreich and a few other Jewish students have also met their peers from other campus groups through Brooklyn College’s Multicultural Action Committee.

“We haven’t let ourselves be excluded” from the multicultural debate, he said. “It’s imperative that Jewish students get involved, because there’s no other way to get rid of the image that Jews are at the head of the white power structure.”

NEXT STORY