Israel Advocacy on the UCI Campus, a Conversation with Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, Chabad Shliach at UC Irvine


Yehudis Litvak

Three months ago, an anti-Semitic incident took place on the campus of the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Every year, Jewish organizations at UCI hold a pro-Israel week, with different events related to the State of Israel. One of the events this year was a screening of the documentary film Beneath the Helmet, about the Israeli Defense Forces. Two veteran IDF soldiers were invited to participate in the screening.

That day, over 40 UCI students gathered to protest the event. “They were loud and aggressive,”  says Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, Co-Director of The Rohr Chabad at UCI. “It was very intimidating. [Jewish students] felt that they were personally being attacked. They felt threatened.”

After the protesters prevented a student from attending the movie screening, she called the police. Rabbi Tenenbaum relates, “She was very much traumatized, and turned to us for comfort and support.” When the police arrived, they escorted that student and other participants safely away from the event.

The incident was investigated by the UCI administration. Recently, they concluded the investigation, issuing a written warning to UCI’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a campus organization largely responsible for the violent protest. The warning – for disruption of the university activities – requires SJP to hold an educational program by this November.

Out of about 30,000 students enrolled at UCI, less than a thousand are Jewish. For most of the school year, they don’t experience any overt anti-Semitism. Ariel Barnoy, a recent graduate, felt comfortable as a Jew at UCI. “UCI has a great Jewish community,” he says. “There is no danger, no risk to being a Jew.” Active in Jewish organizations on campus, Ariel proudly wore his kippah at UCI without incidents.

Another graduate, Josh, also did not experience anti-Semitism personally. However, he witnessed anti-Semitism for the first time during his first year at UCI. He saw the anti-Israel protesters put up a replica of the Israel Security Wall on campus, with an Israeli flag splattered with blood. “I was not exposed to it before,” says Josh, who found it a shocking experience.

In his second year on campus, Josh got more involved with Jewish organizations, including Chabad. Still, while he witnessed the anti-Israel activities, he says, “I never experienced anyone coming to me personally.”

“For the most part,” says Rabbi Tenenbaum, “students don’t feel threatened or unsafe. There are a lot of Jewish activities going on, educational classes, Shabbat dinners.” The Shabbat program attracts on average 40 to 50 students every week, although there are several weeks a year with close to 100 students attending.

The Muslim Student Union, however, together with other anti-Israel organizations, maintains a strong presence at UCI, due in part to its geographic proximity to a large Muslim community. “They do a very good job collaborating with other groups,” says Rabbi Tenenbaum. “They project Israel as the oppressor and Palestinians as the oppressed, and they get together with other minorities. [Students representing] Black Lives Matter and Hispanic students join them at protests.” These groups hold an annual anti-Zionist week every year.

In addition, says Rabbi Tenenbaum, while most Muslim students are religious with strong anti-Israel sentiments, many Jewish students are not necessarily religious or pro-Israel and do not form such a strong presence on campus.

Rabbi Tenenbaum sees it as part of his job on campus to combat anti-Israel propaganda. He teaches a six-week course about the Land of Israel for the Jewish students. Most of them, he explains, do not know the basic facts about Israel’s history and why it is integral to the Jewish People. On completion of the course, each participant is required to give a presentation at a Friday night dinner about what they learned. Rabbi Tenenbaum explains, “I acknowledge that not every student wants to stand in the picket line or grab a bullhorn  and advocate for Israel, but I do believe that every student has the responsibility to have basic knowledge on the issue, and to be capable of giving a satisfactory answer regarding the Land of Israel.“

The vast majority of UCI students are neither pro- Israel nor anti-Israel, and are open to learning more about the issues. Josh explains that even during the pro-Israel week most non-Jewish students “didn’t feel the tension.” Wearing his Israel t-shirt, Josh would explain to his classmates what the conflict was about.

Rabbi Tenenbaum feels that it is very important to focus on pro-Israel advocacy on campus. He says, “Our mission is to engage with Jewish students and provide opportunities for them to learn and experience Judaism, so that they leave more empowered and connected than when they came.” The students turn to Chabad for all Jewish issues, and the Israel issue is very much on their minds. Rabbi Tenenbaum believes that in this day and age Israel advocacy is a matter of pikuach nefesh, life and death, and thus it becomes part of Torah and part of Judaism.