In November, United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told a conference group that her Jewish identity was the one thing that didn’t come up during her confirmation process. At the same conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the most remarkable thing about the fact that there are three Jews among the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices was how unremarkable it is in America today.
Apparently, there’s a huge disconnect between what’s acceptable in the highest echelons of the federal justice system and what passes muster in student government on America’s college campuses.
Recent incidents at Stanford University and at UCLA concerning Jewish students’ fitness to serve in student government positions indicate that anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in universities-the exact locations where open exchange of ideas and intellectual honesty should reign.
At Stanford, a Jewish student seeking an endorsement from the Students of Color Coalition, an umbrella group that has helped many win seats in the student senate, was asked how her Jewish identity would affect her views and voting on the issue of divestment from Israel.
At UCLA, a Jewish student was initially rejected from the Judicial Board of the Undergraduate Students Association Council because the others on the board felt she could not be objective due to her religion and strong affiliation with the Jewish community.
America is a multicultural society and has been that way since its founding. The ability of individual citizens from vastly different backgrounds to come together for the good of the whole has always been celebrated. Clearly Jews, blacks, Hispanics and Asians all have their own culture and community, and yet they are certainly capable of serving the public at large and promoting the greater good.
There was no public outcry that Barack Obama’s previous position as an African American community activist made him unfit for the presidency, or that Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s Hispanic roots disqualified her from the high court. Would it be acceptable to suggest that anyone who ever advocated for a minority group to which he belonged should not be considered for judicial or government positions?
Beginning with Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1916 became the first Jew ever nominated or appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jews have served and contributed as lawyers, legislators, and judges in local communities as well as in city, state and federal government. Reaching back before these posts, there exists a rich history of Jews serving as judges that dates all the way back to biblical times.
The book of Leviticus describes the qualities a judge must possess as well as the behavior expected while serving on the court. According to Jewish law, a judge may not favor a litigant of high rank, or pity one who is poverty-stricken. The Biblical tradition exhorts judges to render decisions with complete impartiality, commanding them to consider “the small just as the great” (Deuteronomy 1:17). A judge is forbidden to pervert the law, regardless of how admirable the purpose.
This tradition has served Jewish justices well everywhere, and to quote Justice Breyer, being Jewish and on the court is about “trying to create a better world.” Note that he did not say “a better world for Jews.”
So why are Jewish college students assumed to have such a narrow world view? Here are some possibilities:
â€¢ Jewish students are assumed to be pro-Israel, inherently biased, and unable to be fair;
â€¢ Jewish organizations are suspect, and thus their members should not be in a position to judge other students;
â€¢ Those who identify religiously and culturally with Judaism cannot be effective adjudicators or lawmakers for the larger student body.
Each of these attitudes represents the worst kind of prejudice – ascribing a group’s purported characteristics to an individual, demonization of Jews, and a deep-seated bias.
What happened to the students at UCLA and Stanford unfortunately were not isolated events. A recent Trinity College survey found that 54 percent of Jewish students in the United States reported being confronted with anti-Semitic acts or comments on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.
The Stanford student who did not receive the endorsement she sought said that she felt the need to hide all her Facebook posts showing her proud support of Israel before launching her campaign for student government. This was because the campus climate had been hostile and taking a public stance on Israel, she felt, would not be politically expedient.
Educators and citizens alike must refuse to tolerate this kind of prejudice. Students whose actions conflict with the ideals and principles held dear by America’s founders should be removed from positions of power on campus. University officials should strongly condemn racist and anti-Semitic behavior and the true Jewish tradition of justice should be brought to light.