Should What is Said on Campus Stay on Campus?

Have you heard of Rachel Beyda? I hadn’t until a week or so ago. Then I began to see the stories of a UCLA student council meeting at which Rachel Beyda was questioned as a candidate for the council’s Judicial Board. Some members of the council asked whether she could be objective on matters related to Israel and Palestine because she is Jewish and involved with Jewish organizations. Those students who asked the questions were accused of anti-Semitism and have since apologized. Meanwhile, the incident has become nationally known, with coverage in
The New York Times
,
The Atlantic
, and the
Huffington Post
, as well as many smaller websites.

Most of the articles focus on the questions that were asked of Ms. Beyda, and the initial vote rejecting her as a member of the Judicial Board, despite stellar qualifications. They mention the fact that after the faculty advisor told the council that being Jewish isn’t a conflict of interest, there was a second vote and she was unanimously approved, and they mention that the questioning students apologized, but the attitude is that the damage has already been done, and that the initial questioning of Ms. Beyda’s loyalties as a Jew is what’s really important here.

Reading about this issue took me back almost 25 years, to when I was in college at Carnegie Mellon University, and was editor-in-chief of
The Tartan
, our newspaper. Those of us who worked at the newspaper, in student government, and in many of the other student organizations, were a pretty earnest bunch. Every issue, no matter how small, mattered intensely. I remember speaking passionately at a student government meeting about the necessity of using gender-neutral language in the student government’s new bylaws. I was furious at those members who dismissed it as too difficult, and I spent hours editing the bylaws just to show that they could be written in gender-neutral language. Today I don’t remember which version was adopted, though I still believe in using gender-neutral language.

I also remember an episode that was very painful. In the newspaper we published a student-drawn political cartoon that included a racist stereotype of black celebrities—a stereotype that I did not notice because I had grown up proudly “colorblind.” Complaints began immediately after publication, and as soon as it was explained to me, I saw my ignorance and my mistake. I had to attend a meeting of the Black Graduate Students’ Association and be excoriated, and I deserved it. I learned that “colorblindness” is a luxury of being white. I learned about being responsible as a leader. These were hard and valuable lessons that made me a better person. I’m grateful the story didn’t turn up in The New York Times, and that the whole country didn’t find out how ignorant I was.

I believe that is one of the things college is for. It’s a place and time for young adults to be passionate, to work hard, to make mistakes and be called on them. It seems to me that here were some students who were earnestly doing their best, and were blind to their own antisemitism. It was brought to their attention by their faculty advisor, other leaders, and fellow students. They changed their behavior and, I hope, learned their own hard lesson that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Let us admire the passion and remember the occasional idiocy of our own youth, and not write off these college students as anti-Semites yet. Let us appreciate that this is an opportunity for them to learn and grow, because from what I can tell from what’s been written, this is what these members of the UCLA student council have done.

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