UCSC Jewish students, leaders say more has to be done to help students feel safe

Third-year student Donna Harel (left) and first-year student Eva Hecht say antisemitic incidents occur regularly at UCSC.
Third-year UCSC student Donna Harel (left) and first-year student Eva Hecht (right) say antisemitic incidents occur regularly on campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Weeks after two antisemitic incidents connected to campus, Jewish students have been meeting with UC Santa Cruz officials to discuss what kinds of support and resources they need on campus. Students and Jewish leaders say they believe antisemitism has been a major problem at UCSC.

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Donna Harel and Eva Hecht, a third-year and a first-year student, respectively, at UC Santa Cruz, come from very different upbringings but bonded immediately through their shared Jewish backgrounds.

For the past two weeks, they’ve spent hours trying to understand and respond to a series of reports of antisemitism on and off campus. On April 20, the university says a group of students held a birthday party for Adolf Hitler on campus. The next day, students reported finding antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ materials on their cars in downtown Santa Cruz.

The university issued statements denouncing those two reports, but Harel and Hecht heard about other antisemitic incidents that week, too: swastikas found on the side of a building on campus and on a whiteboard in a common room of a dorm area.

“Most of the swastikas that we see drawn are on whiteboards on the doors of Jewish students,” said Harel. “Nobody reports it because it happens all the time or it’s downplayed.”

Harel says her physical and mental health have worsened in the almost two weeks since she learned about the birthday party and the flyers found on the students’ cars.

For Hecht, the incidents caused almost no emotional response because they’ve become so frequent. “We’re so used to being targeted here that people don’t feel like it’s worth having their story told,” she said.

Daylen Degelsmith, associate executive director of Student Life for Santa Cruz Hillel, said she believes antisemitism is a major problem at UCSC, and has been for some time, with “dozens of antisemitic incidents” having occurred on campus during the three years she has been with the organization.

As a result, Degelsmith says, Jewish students including Harel and Hecht have begun meeting monthly with Dean of Students Garrett Naiman and Assistant Dean of Students Travis Becker, to discuss what kind of support and resources they need on campus.

“Throughout these conversations, we’ve come to more deeply understand there is more we can do to foster a more inclusive environment for our Jewish students,” said UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason. “We are committed to that effort. As we go forward, we will continue to listen, respond and create resources to fully support our Jewish students.”

While Degelsmith has not attended the meetings herself, she knows that students have raised concerns about hearing and seeing antisemitism weekly, including swastikas and slurs seen and heard on campus. Some students have reported not feeling welcome in many spaces, clubs and classes on campus because of the anti-Zionist rhetoric.

UCSC first-year student Eva Hecht says antisemitic incidents are regularly happening on campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

She said students have made several requests to the administration, including:

  • Increasing access to kosher food on campus.
  • Requesting that the dining halls provide kosher food during the Passover holiday.
  • Requesting that welcome week and move-in activities do not occur on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, which often fall at the beginning of the school year.
  • Requesting that antisemitism education be included in orientation materials and that faculty and staff receive training on the issue.
  • Advocating for a Jewish resource center on campus.

Harel, Hecht and several other students met Monday with Naiman, Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Anju Reejhsinghani, Executive Vice Chancellor for DEI Judith Estrada and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Success Akirah Bradley-Armstrong about some of these requests.

As for Degelsmith herself, she would like to see a physical space for Jewish students on campus, which would be accompanied by a staff member who can act as a liaison between the students and the university.

“I would like to see this individual advocating for Jewish students on campus and helping to ensure that the university does not overlook important Jewish holidays and can hold healing spaces for students who have been impacted by antisemitism,” she said.

She added that she would also like to see the university adopt a definition of antisemitism: “In order to even begin the problem of addressing antisemitism, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is.”

That, however, can pose challenges. Alma Heckman, acting director of UCSC’s Center for Jewish Studies, said that though she is “disappointed and alarmed” at the incidents, crafting a definition of antisemitism needs to be approached very carefully.

“We have to be careful to not craft a definition that silences criticism,” she said. “In particular, what often ends up happening is that criticism of Israel ends up being lumped into the category of antisemitism, when it’s fair, free political discourse.”

Heckman did say that she recalls a number of antisemitic incidents during her eight years at UCSC, and that students are always disturbed by them. “I think one incident is too many incidents,” she said. “Regardless of whether it’s antisemitic or anti-Black, just one is too many.”

Because of that, Heckman believes that, above all, the university needs to listen to the students and their needs.

Harel and Hecht said while they haven’t yet seen any movement on goals such as establishing a Jewish resource center, they’re starting to get moving on smaller, but still meaningful, initiatives, such as giving students access to kosher food on campus and having staff trained on antisemitism.

Spokesperson Hernandez-Jason said the university isn’t “ready to announce anything” but that the meetings have been helpful.

Harel and Hecht were pleased to see — for the first time this past year — a campus message telling professors to respect that Jewish students would be missing class during the High Holy Days. However, Harel and Hecht said a student told them that one professor sent an email requiring students to attend their class regardless. “It shows the lack of enforcement of university policies that also affect us,” said Hecht.


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