Jewish Community Takes to Isla Vista’s Streets in Wake of Anti-Semitic Incidents
UC Santa Barbara’s Jewish Students and Allies Walk to Remember Holocaust Survivors and Reject Recent Acts of Hate
Isla Vista’s streets were packed with more than 150 members and supporters of the Jewish community taking part in a Walk to Remember on Sunday, a direct response to the recent anti-Semitic incidents in Isla Vista and in remembrance of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust.
“Anti-Semitism in all its forms is painful,” said Jamie Orseck, a fourth-year student at UC Santa Barbara and co-president of Santa Barbara Hillel, which hosted the event alongside Alpha Epsilon Pi–Sigma Beta, a Jewish fraternity at UCSB. “It’s what we choose to do with that pain that shows who we are as a community.”
Participants met at the Santa Barbara Hillel building on Embarcadero del Mar and then marched through Isla Vista’s streets, making stops at Little Acorn Park and Pelican Park to hear stories of Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust. The walk was characterized by a strong feeling of community, as participants hugged and chatted with one another and onlookers from nearby homes waved at the large crowd passing by.
“Seeing you here means more than you know. When my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1990, they came here with hope, a hope that they would never be persecuted for being Jewish again,” said Tessa Veksler, a senator in UCSB’s student government and Chabad boardmember. “Years later, to their surprise, literally, I was born. Now they have to live here knowing that their daughter is facing the exact same thing that they once fled.”
Stories told by Jewish students from UC Santa Barbara were supplemented by messages in solidarity spoken by legislators — including State Senator Monique Limón and former senator Hannah-Beth Jackson — and other community members.
“I’m here, not just as your state senator, but as someone who shared the UCSB campus for 11 years with so many of you here, and so many that came before,” said Senator Limón. “This is not easy to be here to watch what has happened year after year, that increase in anti-Semitism in our community right here, across our state, across our country and across our globe.… So I want to thank all of you who created a space for us today: to be here, to stand in solidarity, to recognize and not ignore a history that has a danger of repeating itself.”
Last week’s multiple displays of anti-Semitism shocked the community at UCSB and in Isla Vista. On Monday, anti-Semitic messages were written across the chalkboard of an Israeli Politics class, and on Tuesday, anti-Semitic propaganda was distributed in flyers around Isla Vista.
Tom Hirshfeld, a boardmember of the Santa Barbara Hillel and a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi–Sigma Beta, explained that the chalkboard incident made Jewish students feel unsafe, although it was not an example of “classic anti-Semitism,” as the writing referred to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“There’s obviously a space for legitimate activism on a college campus … but Jewish students primarily felt like it crossed the line, because it felt very targeted in nature,” Hirshfeld said in an interview with the Independent. “This was different; this was, we felt, an attempt at intimidation, and it made Jewish students feel very uncomfortable on campus. Because a classroom is supposed to be a place of learning where you feel very comfortable … and this took that feeling of safety away from people.”
Yehuda Jian, the Campus Coordinator for the End Jew Hatred movement, told the Indy that “it’s okay to criticize the State of Israel,” but one of the statements written on the chalkboard, “From the river to the sea,” he said essentially calls for the destruction of “the only Jewish state in the world.”
“The reason that Israel exists is because the entire world understood that the Jews needed a state of their own, that the Jews needed somewhere to call home, where they could govern themselves and fend for their own protection, not count on anybody else,” Jian said. “So to wipe out the entire Jewish state, to say ‘Push it all into the sea,’ is basically to say that the Jews don’t deserve a home, and we don’t want them there either.”
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Jian, a recent graduate of UCSB who was involved in the school’s Jewish and Pro-Israel community, explained that although he thinks the anti-Semitic acts are “absolutely disgusting,” he is not surprised by the incidents.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this on a college campus; this isn’t the first time we’ve seen it at UCSB,” Jian said. “It saddens me that even through all the work that I did over my time, my fellow community members still have to go through this type of thing…. The Jewish community at UCSB has always been strong, vibrant, and present. And they really showed up, especially with that walk.”
Jian also mentioned that there are “things in the works to make sure that it’s not just a show of support that doesn’t lead to any real change,” referring to the efforts of Jewish students and UCSB’s response to the incidents. He said they’d like to see a committee under the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department of UCSB dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, as well as the establishment of a Jewish Resource Center operated under the school’s administration.
“There are many members of the Jewish community that continue to work with the student government and the administration to make sure that there are lasting changes on the UCSB campus and in Isla Vista to make sure that this type of thing doesn’t happen again,” Jian said.
The flyers distributed in Isla Vista on Tuesday were more blatantly anti-Semitic, spreading what Hirshfeld called “anti-Semitic tropes, disgusting claims leveled at Jews,” including claims denying the Holocaust, as well as seemingly connecting Jewish people with racism, pedophilia, and homophobia.
“I think the response to that was shock,” Hirshfeld continued, “Because for the first time, a lot of Jewish students received this stuff at their doors, and it’s a very different feeling than encountering this type of information online.”
Dan Meisel, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Santa Barbara and Tri-Counties, explained that the motivations of the distributor of the flyers most likely included intimidating members of the Jewish community, even though the flyers were widely distributed. The wide distribution of the messages from the small anti-Semitic fringe group responsible hinders the potential for prosecution.
“To maximize their First Amendment protection, their argument, as facetious as I think it would be, is to say, we’re not communicating to the Jewish community; we’re communicating to the non-Jewish community, about the Jewish community,” Meisel said. “And my answer to that is that if you are targeting a group, you shouldn’t get more protection by simply doing more of what you’re doing. But the reality is, they did not just leave these flyers on the homes of people they believe to be Jewish residents, so it makes it more difficult to overcome First Amendment protection when they distribute these broadly.”
When the community is met with these acts of hate, Meisel said it’s important to have a diversity of condemnation, response, and education, including teaching youth and adults how to think critically about information they see online.
“I think the answer is to be focused on reaffirming as a society, as a community, our rejection of this kind of conduct, that we will stand up in allyship with those being targeted by hate, and educating people about what is Judaism, what is anti-Semitism, and then how to identify and resist conspiracy theories. Because anti-Semitism is, at its core, a conspiracy theory,” Meisel said.
“Judaism is more than just a religion,” he continued. “It is a culture; it is an ethnicity. It is a history and experience and a connection to land. And so some people think if criticism isn’t criticism of the religion, religious practice itself, then it’s not anti-Semitic. But the vast majority of anti-Semitism isn’t directed at the practice of religion. It’s directed at the Jewish experience. So helping more people understand what is the Jewish experience and why hate that focuses on the Jewish experience is so harmful and hurtful, I think could increase allyship and increase the disincentives for those in our community to act on biased attitudes.”
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