Defeating BDS on campus unifies, reenergizes UCSB’s Jewish student community



November 23, 2021

Last May, the Associated Students (A.S.) Senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara narrowly blocked legislation to divest from Israeli companies. This close victory against antisemitism means the fight isn’t over.

At UCSB, organizations like Hillel and Students Supporting Israel were critical in galvanizing support from the Jewish community. The support is increasingly necessary given the number of times BDS legislation has been brought to the Senate. The proposal of May 2021 was UCSB’s 7th attempt at passing discriminatory legislation directed at Jews, with the last effort occurring in 2019.

To fight against the perennial attempts to pass divestment, Jews on campus work to educate their peers on how BDS legislation harms Jewish student life.

“Students at UCSB and Hillel need to keep making their voices heard,” Off-Campus Senator Kian Mirshokri said. “Keep talking. Keep trying to leave your mark. Getting those hard conversations going is the biggest thing.”

Meanwhile, Santa Barbara Hillel ensured support reached as far as UCSB Administration, amplifying Jewish student voices where the university can listen.

“We invited students to speak on Zoom with the top administration at the university about what their experiences were regarding antisemitism on campus,” Rabbi Evan Goodman said. “We had over 30 students share some really heart-wrenching stories about their experiences, and by doing that, the administration was able to hear what was actually happening on campus and was able to take action in a number of cases.”

Goodman, Executive Director of Santa Barbara Hillel, is committed to offering Hillel as a physical place of comfort for students. “At Santa Barbara Hillel we see standing up with Jewish students as a key part of our mission and we want them to feel safe and comfortable in this environment,” Goodman said. “We want all students to know that whether they’re Jewish or not, that they can find that supportive environment here at Hillel.

If a bill like this passes, some Jewish students say they are afraid a rise in antisemitism in the community will follow.

“I would be scared to say I’m a Jewish person,” second-year UCSB student Sabrina Cohen said. “I would be scared someone would commit a hate crime, my parents would be scared, and I wouldn’t feel safe on campus.”

A 2019 study by the AMCHA Initiative shows that while formal BDS campaigns on college campuses decreased slightly in 2018, BDS promotion or implementation doubled in academic settings during that same time period. The study attributed 86% of anti-Israel harassment on college campuses to compliance with BDS.

This type of legislation is symbolic, meaning the A.S. Senate does not have jurisdiction over the UC Regents. However, its passage would have grave consequences for the UCSB Jewish community at-large.

“Being Jewish is a really big part of your identity,” Cohen said. “I think anyone who identifies as a Jew would have felt just as scared as I was.”

Keren Lonstein, SSI Co-President and Vice President at UCSB Chabad, went into the 72nd Senate’s Zoom meeting confident that students would see eye-to-eye with her – until the slim win proved that proponents of the bill are strategically reframing the rhetoric to secure votes.

But Lonstein remains optimistic. “If it passes or it doesn’t [mobilizing against] a BDS resolution strengthens the bonds between [Jewish students on campus,]” she said.

This kind of optimism is needed, as UCSB’s fight against antisemitism will be a long one. “I’m just glad that every year we’ve been able to vote down the legislation, but it’s just going to keep coming back,” Mirshokri said. “And sadly, it will pass in the future. Hopefully not in my time, but it will come.”

And amid the ongoing fight against antisemitism, Rabbi Goodman is confident that UCSB continuously fosters a safe environment for the Jewish community.

“Despite all this, we believe UCSB is a really positive place for Jewish students,” Goodman said.  “We don’t want the handful of people who want to harass these students to define the campus.”

After the 13-hour-long Senate meeting had adjourned, one thing was clear: the Jewish community was more unified than ever before.

“When students who are in the middle of the fight call for you, you come running. You tell people your story. You tell people how it’s affected you. You tell people how you connect to Judaism and to Israel,” said Yehuda Jian, Co-President of UCSB’s Students Supporting Israel. “And when people begin to understand that the Jewish connection to Israel is deeper than any politics or any history class you could take, that’s when we’re going to start to see change.”