By Zachary Brenner
On a rainy day in early March, I sat down with George Blumenthal in his pleasant office at Kerr Hall to discuss his experiences in Israel as an educator and his views of Israel discourse on campus. This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Zachary Brenner: When did you spend your year in Israel? Where did you stay?
Chancellor George Blumenthal: I’ve been to Israel maybe a half dozen times, so the year [my wife and kids and I] spent in Israel was maybe the third time I had been there. I was at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the physics department. My wife, who is a professor at Hastings College in San Francisco, was a visiting professor at the law school at the Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem. They are on either sides of the city. We lived in East Jerusalem on French Hill, which is close to the Mount Scopus campus. We put our kids into one of the public schools.
ZB: Did you visit the West Bank or other areas beyond the Green Line? What were your experiences outside of Israel proper?
CGB: I was in the West Bank a number of times. When you travel to the north of Israel, one of the fastest paths to get there is through the West Bank. I went through the West Bank on a couple of trips down to Eilat. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the West Bank. In fact, there were areas that I avoided. I remember one time I gave a talk at Ber Sheba University. It was pointed out to me that there were two ways to drive there. One took three hours and one took two hours, but the two hours was through Ramallah, and I decided that there was no way I wanted to drive through Ramallah, so I took the longer way. I think the most serious exploration I did in the West Bank was when I went with the college presidents. When Mark Yudof became the president of the UC about seven or eight years ago, he lead an annual trip of university presidents to Israel. The point of those trips was to introduce university presidents to Israel. My wife and I joined him, his wife, and about eight or ten other university presidents and their spouses on this trip. We did visit the West Bank, the wall, and a number of universities and colleges, and we saw firsthand both the aspiration of some of those colleges as well as some of the difficulties that they face in terms of having meaningful academic exchanges with universities within the Green Line.
ZB: You said you were able to see some of the difficulties and aspirations of those schools. What did it look like to you?
CGB: First of all, it looked pretty poor. They didn’t have a lot of money. Israel has a way of funding universities so that if you’re at an Arab University in Israel proper, you basically get the same funding as Hebrew University or Tel Aviv University. But for universities in the West Bank, I think it’s a different funding model, and so they are much less well-funded. But I think even more difficult is the difficulty of travel. Let’s say a scholar is giving a great talk in Jerusalem. Even if Jerusalem is only an hour away, it’s not easy for them to be able to go across the wall and go to that talk. It’s a major deal for them to be able to travel, and so they don’t. This inhibits the interactions between the two. I just felt that the colleges and universities in the West Bank were much more isolated from Israeli intellectual life.
ZB: Was there anything within the Israeli university system that was inspiring or disheartening to you? Perhaps a policy that you decided to implement once coming back to the United States?
CGB: First of all, I have a lot of admiration for Israeli universities, partly because Israel has a lot of really bright students and scholars. Those that [sic] actually get positions at Israeli universities are the crème de la crème. Secondly, I learned a little bit about the awkwardness of funding in Israeli universities. It’s always a contentious issue, but I know that when I was there, which was in the 90s, Israeli higher education had been going through a really tough time. We saw a situation where some universities, like Hebrew University, cut their expenses dramatically. When times got even worse, Hebrew University came through in much better shape than some of the other Israeli universities. For me, that was an important lesson. I think I can draw some analogies between what is going on today here at Santa Cruz and the financial travails at Berkeley. There are some lessons to be learned. I really liked the productivity of Israeli universities. The students are an interesting lot as well, because most Israelis do their army service before they go to college. So, undergraduate students are typically three years older than undergraduate students that we would see here. I taught a few guest classes while I was there and I was struck by the fact that the students just seemed so mature, so driven.
ZB: I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent BDS resolution. I’m curious whether you have noticed a change in rhetoric toward Israel and or Jews since then.
CGB: I think that’s a really complicated question. First of all, it isn’t really BDS that passed the SUA, it was a divestment resolution. I did send around a campus message, which has been much discussed. That was motivated in part because I really don’t like to see any group of students feel that they are disenfranchised or unwelcome on the campus. That email for me did cause considerable controversy because it was perceived as some that I was picking on one group of students over others, which actually was not my intention at all.
Do I actually see the situation for Jewish students being worse on campus or more challenging on campus now as a result of that resolution? I think we had issues before that resolution and we have issues now. I don’t perceive that it’s worse, but that doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily right in that perception. I just don’t see evidence of it. But not seeing evidence doesn’t mean it’s not true. I think that this is an issue that continues to challenge us, and I don’t think we are alone as a campus in that regard. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see the Regents’ meeting this month in San Francisco. It’s a meeting I have jokingly referred to as “March Madness” because they will be considering a number of very controversial issues that will raise a lot of passions. One of those issues that you probably don’t care about that much is the penchant issue for faculty and staff.
ZB: (Defensively) I care about that!
CGB: The faculty and staff care a lot about the penchant issue. So that will be a point of real contention. The other issue that this group that the Regents formed to look at is some form of a regental statement about intolerance, which was motivated by an anti-Semitic incident at UCLA. That discussion has been going on for a long time. At the moment, I don’t have a position about whether they should or shouldn’t adopt that particular statement. Now I’ll say something controversial. I put a lot of effort into encouraging the Regents to not adopt the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which I think would be adverse not just to Jews on campus. I would have feared that it would make our culture even more anti-Semitic. That’s my personal opinion, and I can justify it if you want.
ZB: I’m sure students are curious why you chose that particular stance.
CGB: Opposed to the State Department definition? There are lots of definitions of anti-Semitism that I’m perfectly fine with. I’m happy with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition. I’m happy with the Anti-Defamation League definition of anti-Semitism. I’m happy with the Simon Wiesenthal definition of anti-Semitism. The State Department definition, in my view, crosses a line. The reason is that in addition to trying to define anti-Semitism, it uses, as a part of its definition, some examples of anti-Semitic behavior. One of those examples calls criticism of Israel that compares Israeli policy to Nazi Germany policy as being intrinsically anti-Semitic. So for example, I am not a supporter of Israel having built a wall. I could easily imagine myself arguing that the wall that Israel built to separate Palestinians and Jews is analogous to the wall in the Warsaw Ghetto that the Nazis built to separate Jews from everybody else. But based upon the State Department definition, that would make my feelings or my statement anti-Semitic.
ZB: What I hear you saying is that there is a clear line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
ZB: Actually, my next question is whether you think the typical student at this school understands or has heard of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
CGB: *Sighs*. I’m not going to give you a direct answer. Because I think it’s a hard question and it’s a loaded question. I think that there is a distinction. There is no question about it. I think many students, when they come to college, are experiencing a diversity of culture for the first time and never before had to even think about those issues. And so I think one of the purposes of the university is to bring those issues to the fore so students can think about them.
ZB: Have you been informed that at the divestment resolution vote, there were accusations that a letter you wrote encouraging the voters to not pass the bill was fraudulent? Have you responded to this?
CGB: Sort of. That’s at a certain level of detail that I don’t want to get into. I’m not in a position to do fact-finding. I don’t think it’s my job to look at everything that anyone does or says and criticize it. I’m trying to stay at somewhat of a bigger picture level.
ZB: Looking back upon your time as a student in college up to your experience on campus today, what would you say are the biggest differences in terms of Jewish sentiment or Israel-related politics?
CGB: That’s a tough one. It’s a really interesting question. So first of all, we need to contextualize this a little bit. You know, I’m pretty old…
ZB: Thirty-one, right?
CGB: *Laughs*. Yeah, thirty-one. I was a student in college before the ‘67 war. This wasn’t all that long after the independence of Israel. Certainly among Jewish students, there was great pride in the establishment of Israel, great pride in many of the values that Israeli life encompassed at the time. When I was in graduate school, the ‘67 war broke out. And then it was an existential question. I remember coming home from my classes and turning on the news and hearing that the initial reports were that the Arab countries were invading Israel and that Israel had bombed Damascus, Amman, and Cairo. I remember thinking, Oh my G-d, this must be awful if they are bombing the three biggest cities. This must mean this is probably the end of it all.
Well, very soon on the news they did a more detailed, careful analysis and I remember some American general got on and said the bombing that the Israelis did destroyed the Air Force of the three major Arab countries and therefore the war was over. It was a very cold-blooded analysis and he was absolutely right. Israel won that war in six days. And I remember thinking afterwards, I sure hope Israel does the logical thing and uses this opportunity to find a way toward peace in the territories that they captured. I was hoping that they would create an economic boom that would raise the standard of living of all the people that lived there in the hopes that that might be the way forward. Well, obviously that didn’t happen. Now here we are many decades later and we’re further away from the potential for peace than we were then. We have people in places like Gaza living in abject poverty. Back when I was a student, there was some optimism about the idealism about the establishment of Israel. Even after the ‘67 war, at least I felt some optimism that the opportunities were there to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Today, I feel very cynical about the likelihood of peace in our time in the Middle East. I’m not seeing progress. And I’m not seeing the likelihood of immediate progress. One of the things I find particularly inspirational is what happened with the fall of the communist regime in Russia. Two things I found were particularly notable there. One was the rapidity. Once the Berlin wall came down and Germany reunited so quickly, it was just astonishing to me after all of those years of hostility. The other thing that really astonished me was (what happened) in Russia, which had been under communist rule since 1917. Suddenly all of the ethnic minorities reestablished themselves as important ethnic minorities. They had not homogenized the country, even after all of that time. In a way, human beings kept their origins, they kept to their culture and traditions.The fact that those traditions and cultures could survive I think said a lot about society. And it gives me some optimism that no matter how much hatred there is now, it may still be possible in the future to find a way past that. But it will take some inspired leadership.