‘Antisemitism is real and we’re seeing it’: UC Santa Cruz provost shocked by antisemitic incidents

Elizabeth Abrams, provost of UC Santa Cruz's Merrill College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Elizabeth Abrams, provost of UC Santa Cruz’s Merrill College, says she’s stunned by two recent antisemitic incidents, including that a group of students held a birthday party for Adolf Hitler on campus. Abrams is also vice president of Santa Cruz Hillel’s board of directors, which held an emergency meeting Wednesday night to discuss how to move forward. “We need more than messages at this point,” Abrams said. The latest incidents come little more than a year after anti-Black, antisemitic and white supremacist graffiti was scrawled on Merrill College.

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Amid rising reports of antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ acts across the country, UC Santa Cruz students, faculty and local residents are outraged by two incidents reported recently in Santa Cruz — including one on the university’s campus.

On Sunday, the university announced that it had received a report of a group of students who held a birthday party for Adolf Hitler on campus April 20. Akirah Bradley-Armstrong, vice chancellor for student affairs and success, said in the statement that the group “sang happy birthday and ate cakes adorned with hateful and horrific symbols.”

In addition, the university received a report of an April 21 incident that took place off campus. A student reported finding a flyer on their car’s windshield that had “despicable and degrading claims about Jewish people and LGBTQIA+ people.”

UCSC’s Jewish Student Union, a campus administrative office, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Temple Beth El are among the groups to have denounced the incidents and called on the community to reject all forms of hate. Last week, the Jewish Student Union took to social media to call on the university administration to do more to prevent future incidents, saying students felt “numb in the way that this is not the first time we have experienced this type of hate on the UCSC campus.”

On Thursday, Newsom tweeted: “This is absolutely sick. These kinds of disgusting acts have no place in California.”

In a statement, UCSC officials said the actions are “at odds with our Principles of Community and, as such, will be addressed accordingly.” The incident that happened on campus was referred to Student Conduct “for follow-up and adjudication.” The university also asked Santa Cruz city officials to collaborate to address the flyers found downtown.

UCSC Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams told Lookout she was stunned.

“My first response was actually real shock and revulsion. I was sort of surprised, actually,” she said. “Because, at this point, unfortunately, I’m very accustomed to the [antisemitic] flyers and the graffiti — but a Hitler birthday party, that was a new one for me.”

Abrams, who is also vice president of Santa Cruz Hillel’s board of directors, said she’s hearing from Hillel staff that students feel threatened in an entirely different way by the news of students celebrating Hitler’s birthday, compared to previous incidents, such as racist and antisemitic graffiti reported on campus — including at Merrill College — last year. The fact that students held a birthday party for Hitler created a sense of normalizing antisemitism that can be much more painful than graffiti, she said.

Abrams said Santa Cruz Hillel’s board of directors held an emergency meeting Wednesday night to discuss how to move forward; she hopes they can work with the university to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again.

Abrams spoke with Lookout on Thursday about the impact of the incidents.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Lookout: How did you feel after first hearing about this and what was your response?

Elizabeth Abrams: I first heard about it the way most people did, which was reading the announcement sent out by Dr. Akirah Bradley-Armstrong. My first response was actually real shock and revulsion. I was sort of surprised, actually, because I am, at this point, unfortunately, very accustomed to the flyers and the graffiti, but a Hitler birthday party — that was a new one for me. I didn’t find it in the least bit funny. It really was a real shocker for me.

It was already for some reason, and I don’t even remember why, already kind of a stressful day. I think I didn’t call anyone. What I did was, I talked to my husband and talked to my mother-in-law and talked to our houseguests — who were all very sympathetic. And then I thought about, now what? The other thing I did, I was trying to work through what would inspire such a thing? I think my best guess is that it’s the kind of lunkish attempt at humor that people often have without really thinking through the consequences. I just found it so viscerally painful; it’s just not something I’ve experienced before and I was trying to think of analogies.

Lookout: What do you think about the university’s response to the incidents?

Abrams: The message itself indicated that the people responsible for the party [are] going through the conduct process — which is confidential, as it should be. About the [university’s] message itself, the headline for the message was about rejecting hate and that’s very important. But you know, I’ve seen a lot of these messages. What I should say is, I don’t yet know what other response the university might be planning to take. But I would like to be part of any response that the university makes. I would encourage more response, I would encourage something else. We need more than messages at this point.

A sign on the UC Santa Cruz campus
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Can you talk about what the Santa Cruz Hillel meeting was like and how the board is moving forward?

Abrams: We wanted to talk about how to respond to news organizations [asking for interviews], but also, how do we respond to the incident? How do we respond to the university’s response to it? One way of responding is to ask, “Why are you not doing more?” Another way of responding is, “How can we work together to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?”

Related to that is, how can we recognize each other as resources? How can we really work together to make a better support network for our students? I think that’s where we really need to go. While protest actually can work pretty well, why go through with that if you can make a better structure — if you can create a good working allyship? We all get along very well, and we have got better communications going than we used to. Working on programs together might be useful or investing in something like campus climate [surveys] in ways that include consideration of religious minorities that might be useful — that’s not really the direction our climate investigations have gone.

Lookout: Anything else you would like to add about these incidents?

Abrams: I think that we’ve been in error as a campus, and an understandable error, in coping with antisemitism incident by incident rather than thinking about this as a climate issue. If indeed it’s true that we have seen more instances of antisemitism this year than have been reported in previous years … I do think that we’re at the point where we have to recognize that responding incident by incident is insufficient.

You can’t just say we reject hate. Of course, we reject hate. Normal people reject hate. We have to think about this in terms of a larger systemic issue. We need to think about it in terms of our culture right now and what it enables and allows and encourages [it]. And we need to think about how this impacts the [cultural] climate of our campus. We need to stop thinking, “How do we respond to the next one?” I think that we have a campus full of people of very goodwill. We just need to start thinking together about these things. Antisemitism is real and we’re seeing it.

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