In his early days at the University of Vienna, Theodor Herzl – the father of modern political Zionism – applied to join the Lesehalle, a student association devoted to intellectual conversation and debate. But in March 1881 (when Herzl was 21), the Lesehalle was dissolved when a discussion devolved into a viciously anti-Semitic rant.
Undeterred, Herzl joined the Fraternity Albia instead. Here too however, the academy and the intellectual world of Europe’s elite proved themselves fundamentally hostile to Jews. Two years after he joined, several of his fraternity brothers attended a Richard Wagner Memorial – which again turned into an anti-Semitic rally. Disgusted and furious, Herzl resigned from the fraternity in protest; but the members rejected his resignation, then threw him out on their own terms.
While it is commonly said it was the Dreyfus trial which drew Herzl to the idea of a Jewish state, that is apparently not true. Herzl was despairing of the possibility of a Jewish future in Europe long before Alfred Dreyfus was tried and unfairly convicted. His days at the university, which should have exposed him to the very best of European society, unsettled him long before Dreyfus did.
That is why a recent turn of events at UCLA is so disconcerting. On February 10, just a month ago, the UCLA student council met to discuss the nomination of Rachel Beyda to the judicial board. Beyda, a Jewish sophomore majoring in economics, had no reason to expect that the proceedings would be anything but pro forma. She was wrong.
“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,” a student named Fabienne Roth asked her, “how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” In the 40-minute discussion that ensued, after Beyda was asked to leave the room, the council debated whether her Jewishness was a problem. More amazingly, the council voted to reject her nomination because of her Jewishness.
No other objections to Beyda were raised (a video of much of the conversation is online). It was only after faculty members offered the profound insight that being Jewish was not a conflict of interest that the council changed its position and confirmed her.
Theodor Herzl would have recognized the spectacle. Though we are no longer shocked by the viciousness of anti-Israel discourse on American campuses, we should nonetheless be taken aback by what transpired at UCLA – precisely because Israel was not the issue. Roth’s objections to Beyda’s candidacy made no mention of Israel at all. Roth’s problem with Beyda was not that she was a Zionist (which she may or may not be) – her problem was that Beyda is Jewish.
Those Jews who dismiss Israel-bashing on campuses as nothing more than a legitimate form of free speech should take note. Jewish critics of Israel’s government, who have taken pleasure (sometimes explicit and sometimes not) in watching the Jewish state – whose policies they often find reprehensible – get lambasted at universities across the country, to the point that many pro-Israel Jewish students no longer feel comfortable being on-campus, should look carefully at what has happened.
Hatred is an ugly virus – and it is highly communicable. What starts with legitimate critique of Israel often morphs into relentless bashing of everything having to do with Israel, and then – as UCLA demonstrated for all to see – sometimes becomes unbridled anti-Semitism.
The virus is spreading. It has come to one of American’s (ostensibly) great universities, and has found a hospitable home in the students who are campus leaders.
Many American Jews will brush this off. College students, they will say, have a right to be stupid. A faculty person intervened. It all ended well. Let’s not blow things out of proportion. Yet Herzl would have said that to respond this way is myopic, for universities are often a barometer of where a society is heading.
Early in his university career, Herzl picked up a book by Eugen Karl Dühring, one of the period’s leading intellectuals. Titled The Jewish Question as a Question of Race, Morality and Culture (1882), the book argued that the emancipation of the Jews in Europe and their integration into European society had been detrimental to Europe. Dühring advocated reversing much of the emancipation; some of his followers began to speak of returning the Jews to ghettos.
What was as disturbing to Herzl as Dühring’s ideas was the fact that Dühring was hardly an uneducated thug. “If Dühring, who unites so much undeniable intelligence with so much universality of knowledge, can write like this,” Herzl wondered, “what are we to expect from the ignorant masses?”
UCLA’s students are also hardly uneducated thugs – but that does not mean they are not thugs. Doing their work behind the shimmer of American’s grand academic tradition, people like Fabienne Roth (whose comments appear at much greater length on the website of Ha’am, UCLA’s Jewish student newspaper) are inching precisely towards the positions of Lesehalle and the Fraternity Albia. The uproar over what happened at UCLA will soon disappear; but the danger of what it represents will not.
What happened at UCLA is the sort of thing that we would expect at a European university, not an American one. At least not yet. But that is precisely the point: In ways we are loath to acknowledge, America is becoming more and more like Europe.
In 2009, Barack Obama was pilloried after he refused to say he believed in American exceptionalism. He said he believed in American exceptionalism, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
There was, he was essentially saying, nothing fundamentally different about America. Tragically, it appears he may have been right.