Keffiyehs, Yarmulkes and “Belonging” at UVA

by James A. Bacon

It’s “Palestinian Liberation Week” at the University of Virginia this week, and the Students for Justice in Palestine have organized loads of activities for antizionists, culminating with a “Die-In for Gaza” Friday.

“Wear your keffiyeh,” urges UVA’s Students for Justice in Palestine on its Instagram page. Keffiyehs are traditional Arab scarfs, which students wear to signal their solidarity with Palestinians seeking to combat “settler colonialism” in Israel.

Meanwhile, Jewish students have stopped wearing yarmulkes, Stars of David or other ornamentation that would identify them as Jews.

What does that dichotomy say about the sense of “belonging” — the holy grail of the Ryan administration — experienced by Arabs and Jews respectively at UVA?

The Jefferson Council has highlighted fears of parents of Jewish students who have spoken most openly about the hostile climate. We acknowledge that these parents do not speak for all Jews. The president of UVA’s SJP chapter, for instance, is a Jew. Many left-wing Jews have major reservations about Israeli policy toward Gaza and many oppose the conservative coalition in the Knesset headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Those differences are mirrored in the Jewish community at UVA. There is a marked division, for instance, between the Hillel House and the Chabad House. As a generality, Hillel House caters to more liberal/progressive students while Chabad appeals to more theologically and politically conservative students.

Five students speaking as representatives of Hillel House wrote a letter on April 3 to the Board of Visitors decrying what they call “concerted efforts to exploit Jewish students as pawns for political agendas.” The letter didn’t name names, but we’re pretty sure it refers to The Jefferson Council and/or certain Youngkin-appointed members of the Board.

However, even these students conceded they were unhappy about passage of the student referendum calling for the University endowment to divest itself of companies doing business in Israel. More to the point, they said this in their letter:

There have been instances where we do believe that students and faculty have acted with ignorance and hate. We are of the opinion that this is a small, but vocal, contingent of the University community….

Although much of the speech at student protests and events do [sic] not fall into this hateful category, we still have watched protests unfold where the Star of David was used in a derogatory political manner and we have heard chants exclaiming that “Jews are committing genocide.” … This kind of speech is hateful and crosses a line.”

Despite these misgivings, the five Hillel students say they “remain grateful” for all that President Jim Ryan, Provost Ian Baucom and Cedric Rucker (a senior executive in the Office of Student Affairs) have done to promote the “safety and well-being of Jewish students.”

For the record, The Jefferson Council has never suggested that a vast majority of students and faculty have been anything but accepting and welcoming to Jewish students at UVA. But the campus climate is not determined by the passive majority — it’s driven by a vocal minority of militants who feel empowered to speak openly, organize rallies and events, flaunt their badges of pro-Palestinian identity, dish out ethnic slurs, and ostracize the few students who openly proclaim their Judaism.

Whatever UVA leadership might have said to people in private, their words and actions have been ineffectual in altering the reality that pro-Palestinian students feel comfortable wearing their badges of loyalty while most Jews have stopped wearing theirs.

James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. This column has been republished with permission from the Jefferson Council blog.