Avi Levine’s Strong Speech to Legislators
About Experiencing Antisemitism as a Zionist at UC Berkeley
AMCHA Initiative is pleased to share the full transcript of Abraham “Avi” Levine’s presentation to Legislators at the first California Campus Climate Meeting, held at San Jose State University on March 21, 2014.
Thank you for letting me speak here and share my personal story and perspectives.
My name is Abraham Levine and I’m a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in political economy.
I’m a student who identifies as a Jewish Zionist.
As a result of my identity, and involvement in on-campus activism, I’ve been labeled as a quote ‘ZiZi’, shorthand for “Zionist Nazi,’ a quote “radical right winger,” a quote “white supremacist crying about my white privilege” among other things.
To say that this sort of name calling is grotesque would be an understatement.
Let me tell you why this hateful generalization is particularly inaccurate in my case.
Not only am I not a white supremacist, I am a first generation Mexican American student. I grew up in a Mexican community in San Diego, speaking Spanish with my family, Spanish with the vast majority of my friends, celebrating Mexican culture as a part – integral part – of my identity.
However, I’m placed, on campus, in the same box as ‘privileged white students’- as the rest of my Jewish friends. This includes my Persian Jewish friends, whose parents were expelled from Iran during the revolution – only because they were Jewish.
My Russian Jewish friends were not allowed to practice their Judaism in the soviet union.
My Iraqi Jewish friends whose grandparents and parents had to flee the country from persecution.
And my family, who fled antisemitism in Eastern Europe, ended up in Mexico City, and two generations later moved to America for better economic activity and a safer place to raise their children.
The Jewish community is an incredibly diverse community, and not deserving in the least of these sorts of generalizations. This is because our families have been tossed around the world, expelled from country to country over the last thousands of years.
We’ve been exposed to all sorts of antisemitism, bigotry and intolerance. The only place that has truly been safe for Jews has been Israel. This reality is the basis of Zionism. And this is the reason I argue for what I do. It is simply about wanting a place to practice our Judaism safely and having a place in our historic homeland where we identify.
In my three years at Cal, I’ve noticed that North American college campuses haven’t even become a close substitute as a safe place to practice our Judaism. This is reflected in our native campus climate.
In 2011 the President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion put together by former UC President Mark Yudof travelled to 6 of the UC’s and put together a report for campus climate for Jewish students in which they stated quote, “Jewish students are confronting significant and difficult climate issues as a result of activities on campus which focus specifically on Israel.”
So the question is, “How do you define these climate problems?”
I would argue that campus climate is a reflection on whether or not students feel comfortable on campuses being themselves and expressing their true identity as Jews.
In order to maintain that positive campus climate, all students need to be able to practice their right to free speech, without being met with hostility every time they choose to do so.
Free Speech is one of the most important factors in full academic freedom – it is one of the pillars of our society in an academic democracy. As academic institutions, our university should absolutely be standing strongly to allow us students and faculty to explore any topic they might be interested.
But in doing so, they must also practice their free speech to condemn hate speech. They must also stand in strong leadership against bullying other students from studying subjects that they might be interested in.
It is true, many of these negative issues, antisemitic slurs and hostility are directed mainly at students who have gotten involved. The average Jewish student does not face these things on a daily basis.
However, this reality intimidates many Jewish students from getting involved and doing something other than just pursuing their studies. In 2011, this same report produced by President Yudof’s Advisory Council, states quote “students involved with Jewish organizations which support Israel, or which do not denounce Israel, reported their perception that various overtures to outside organizations had been rejected.”
As acknowledged by the Office of the President of the University of California system, the fact that we support the Jewish state bars us from memberships in many campus groups completely unrelated to Israel. To be clear, this is not an under-policy.
However, it’s a result of campus tension and disrespectful social interactions.
This is the trade-off many Jewish students have to consider when they decide what will I get involved in my four years at college? Will I get involved with my culture and my identity and subject myself to intimidation and harassment; or will I pursue some other passion, whether that be environmentalism, sports, other forms of civil rights, professional groups, whatever else it may be.
My particular story, as a Mexican American, my freshman year I tried to get involved with the Latino Business Association, and I never felt fully comfortable. I was met with stares, I was met with intimidation. One of my best friends was the president at the time, a friend from High School, and I never felt comfortable in this organization, and this is a result of the social culture that we have created, that we have allowed to be created.
And what we need is strong leadership from the student level, administration and state officials.
To condemn this sort of of interaction.
To condemn this sort of hate speech.
Just because someone is allowed to say something doesn’t mean that we need to tacitly endorse it. And that’s what we need from our leadership. We need to be able to, when there is a hateful divestment resolution that’s labeling me as a ‘Zionist Nazi’ when my grandfather has a number tattooed on his arm – to say that this is not OK.
That student has every right to say what they want, but it’s not acceptable and we don’t stand by it.
That’s what we need from our administration.
I commend all of you for taking steps in the right direction. I commend President Yudof for putting together his Advisory Council. But I feel like we’ve had many meetings like this in which we have these conversations and we’re heard, and it’s not turned into true action.
Some of the findings and recommendations from President Yudof’s Advisory Council were that the UC should review its policies and University sponsorship in neutrality. This has not yet happened, as you can see from an event that happened just yesterday, less than 24 hours ago on the UC Berkeley campus, sponsored by 3 Academic Departments – the Gender and Race Center, the English Department, and the Sociology Department – in which they hosted a speaker who said:
“Israel might be behind the JFK assassination.”
They said “Nazi-ism and Zionism are very similar in that both want Jews out of Europe.”
And they also said that “There are no liberal Zionists left. If you know one, document it for historical purposes.”
These are quotes from a speaker yesterday, sponsored by three Academic departments of the University of California record.
Just because a student group can bring this person, doesn’t mean our Universities can endorse it, doesn’t mean our Universities can sponsor it, it doesn’t mean our Universities need to stand by it.
The second recommendation was that the UC should adopt a hate-speech-free campus policy.
I’m still being called a ‘Zionist Nazi’. I haven’t seen anything happen.
The third major one was that the UC should develop cultural competency training around principles of community for all communities, not just Jewish students. I still have not seen any major developments.
So I would really hope that this conversation can help foster some action and we can help in any way we can, and take positive steps towards improving campus climate, and to improving and making the society and situation on campus where all students feel accepted and welcome to say what they feel – without being met with hate.