Just Asking? Or Anti-Semitism?

March 11, 2015

Students consider anti-Semitism through reading, discussing, and writing about a recent controversial incident at UCLA.  

To the Teacher:

At UCLA in February 2015, a student interviewing a candidate for the university’s Judicial Council asked the candidate if she thought she could be objective, given that she was Jewish and was active the Jewish community. In this lesson students explore the controversy that ensued, both about the question and about the questioner’s apology. 

 

Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • explain the "no religious test" clause of the U.S. Constitution
  • interpret and evaluate a question posed to a candidate for the UCLA Judicial Board
  • interpret and evaluate an apology issued to the candidate
  • write an apology for the comment, and explain why the new apology is appropriate

Introduction
 

Tell students that in this lesson they will be learning about a controversial event that recently took place at UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles). The event involved a student who was being interviewed for a position on the school’s Judicial Council, which is the university’s equivalent to the Supreme Court. The interviewers asked a question that sparked controversy.

Have students read the following background information. While they read, write the two quotations (in bold in the Background article) on the board or on chart paper.
 


Background
 

In February 2015, a student government committee at UCLA interviewed sophomore Rachel Beyda for a position on the Judicial Board (the campus equivalent of the Supreme Court). During the interview, a council member asked the following question:

"Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?"

Controversy erupted. Was the question acceptable and appropriate? Was it an instance of bigotry targeted at a Jewish student? Was it legal?

The student who posed the question, and the other three students who had voted against Beyda’s appointment because of their concerns about her religious affiliation, later apologized, saying: 

"Our intentions were never to attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people. It is our responsibility as elected officials to maintain a position of fairness, exercise justness, and represent the Bruin community to the best of our abilities, and we are truly sorry for any words used during this meeting that suggested otherwise."

Again, controversy erupted. Was the apology appropriate? Did the apologizing students truly understand what was problematic about the initial question they asked Beyda? And what were the larger implications, if any, of the entire episode?

Give students a few minutes to write down their immediate reactions to what they have read. Then have students pair off with the person sitting next to them and share their reactions.


Analyzing the question
 

Direct students’ attention to the question that Rachel Beyda was asked, and that you have written on the board: "Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?"

Ask:  Why do you think some people were distressed about the question? Cover the word "Jewish" in the quote, and replace it with "African American."

Ask students if they find the revised question problematic. Repeat the process several times, each time substituting a different group, such as lesbian, Italian American, woman, Catholic, man, Latino.

Ask each student, or pair of students, to write a summary statement of their opinion about the question. Encourage them to use the understanding they have gained from the substitution exercise above. 
 


Analyzing the apology
 

Now turn your attention to the apologies. Read aloud the official apology:

"Our intentions were never to attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people. It is our responsibility as elected officials to maintain a position of fairness, exercise justness, and represent the Bruin community to the best of our abilities, and we are truly sorry for any words used during this meeting that suggested otherwise."

Ask students to work with a partner to paraphrase the apology—that is, to state it in their own words, just to be sure they understand the meaning. Have student volunteers share their paraphrasing with the class.

Ask students to look back at their summary statement evaluating the question. Given what they thought of the question, what do they think of the apology?

Writing: Have students write an apology that appropriately responds to the question, and that shows an understanding of why many people found the question offensive.  

Ask for volunteers to share what they have written.  How is their apology different from the original one?

 


Optional activity:  
Different Perspectives
 

If time allows,  provide students with more ideas about the controversy by reading aloud each of the following quotes (or selected quotes). After you read each quote, give students a chance to talk with another student about their reaction to the quote.

  • "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."-- Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution
     
  • "Would UCLA students consider it appropriate to ask U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan similarly hostile and demeaning questions?" -Barry Kosmin, Trinity College researcher
     
  • "What I'm seeing right now is someone potentially being denied a position because they're Jewish.  I see no other reason. She's a great candidate, obviously. And she’s fantastic." - Avinoam Baral, President, UCLA Student Council
     
  • "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States...gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." - George Washington, 1790
     
  • "It’s very problematic to me that students would feel that it was appropriate to ask that kind of question, especially given the long cultural history of Jews. We’ve been questioned all of our history: Are Jews loyal citizens? Don’t they have divided loyalties? All of these anti-Semitic tropes." - Avinoam Baral, President, UCLA Student Council
     
  • "The message has gone out [on campuses] that certain types of victimization, or victims, are privileged. The young people have picked up that Jews aren’t on the list of protected species...The Jewish community is regarded as part of the privileged white community." -- Barry Kosmin, Trinity College researcher
     
  • "One learns to become an anti-Semite. One learns to become a racist. One can also unlearn these things." -Todd Presner, Director, UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies

Ask volunteers to share with the whole class one reaction they had.
 


Closing
 

In a go-round, ask students to share a thought or feeling they take away from the discussion today.

 


For Further Reading:
 

UCLA’s Student Council Tries to Hide Video of its Members Questioning a Jewish Student

UCLA Student is Latest Victim of Anti-Semitism on Campus

In UCLA Debate Over Jewish Student, Echoes on Campus of Old Biases

UCLA’s Troubling Question for Jewish Students Everywhere