classroom concerns

UCLA professor’s ‘wake-up call’ to anti-Israel hostility on campus

Sharon Nazarian, who also serves as an ADL board member, told JI: ‘The idea of Jewish victimhood is one [students] are not willing to accept’

Araya Doheny/Variety via Getty Images

The Anti-Defamation League's SVP of International Affairs Sharon S. Nazarian speaks onstage during Variety Hollywood & Antisemitism Summit Presented by The Margaret & Daniel Loeb Foundation and Shine A Light Foundation at 1 Hotel West Hollywood on October 18, 2023, in West Hollywood, Calif.

When Sharon Nazarian started teaching a new class on Oct. 4 at the University of California Los Angeles, designed to look at antisemitism from a global lens, she couldn’t have known just how timely the topic was about to become. Three days after the class began, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel and launched a massive terror attack that killed more than 1,200 Israelis. In the wake of the war that followed, rates of antisemitism skyrocketed on college campuses around the U.S.

“I have to admit that when I designed the class, ‘The Globalization of Antisemitism: A Survey of Transnational Trends,’ largely based on my Anti-Defamation League experience, I had no idea what Oct. 7 would bring,” Nazarian, the former senior vice president of international affairs and current board member of the ADL, told Jewish Insider

“Everything that you have read about in terms of the challenges on U.S. campuses showed up directly in my class and with my students,” she said, calling the class, made up of 25 students from diverse backgrounds (an estimated 30% of whom are Jewish), a “wake-up call” about today’s students. 

The class ran in the global studies department – which Nazarian, a former adjunct professor at UCLA from 2005-2017, said provided a more diverse group of students than doing so through the Jewish or Israel studies departments would have. 

“Students are unwilling to hear theses that challenge their own worldview. Students today have far less knowledge of history and analytical thinking skills than previous generations, and this becomes a huge challenge when teaching critical issues such as antisemitism,” Nazarian said, noting that social media — TikTok in particular — has contributed to “the relativism trap.” 

“I asked students which figure personified pure evil to their generation as Osama bin Laden did to ours; they mentioned President Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan,” Nazarian said. “I listed Hitler, Stalin, Mao. You get the point.” 

When Israel responded to Hamas’ attack by launching a ground invasion of Gaza, “the tone of students in class shifted – they questioned my perspective,” Nazarian said, adding that after Oct. 7, students wanted “to hear me constantly speak to Israel’s killing of innocent Palestinians and complained to administrators that I did not offer a safe space for them to do so.”

“The idea of Jewish victimhood is one [students] are not willing to accept. They are so entrenched in the narrative of Palestinian victimhood that there is no space for the concept of Jews as victims,” Nazarian added.

UCLA’s administration responded by disciplining Nazarian about keeping the focus of the class on the Jewish experience around the globe, she said. “They tried (unsuccessfully) [to have me] stay away from thorny policy issues in the Israel/Gaza dynamic, but nevertheless I was trapped.” In spite of this, Nazarian said it is important to make clear that “UCLA welcomed my class. They didn’t have to allow me to teach this, it was a privilege.” 

A senior majoring in global studies who was a student of Nazarian’s, who asked not to be named due to the campus climate, also noted a “significant” shift in the class after the Israel-Hamas war started. “Before, the class was about everyone being curious. After Oct. 7 there were a lot of heightened emotions,” she said. As protests around campus were held during class, the environment became “really charged,” she said, adding that “a lot of people just stopped coming.” 

The student said she came into the class with “quite a bit [of knowledge] on U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern diplomacy.”

“[Other classes taught that] Israel is an ally, but I never before studied how Israel is internally,” the student, who is not Jewish and “leans pro-Israel,” said. 

She said that pro-Palestinian students in the class appeared comfortable to speak up, while most Jewish students did not, which she said mirrors the overall climate on campus. “It’s been really hard [for Jewish students],” she said. “The other day there was a big banner on campus that said Israel is committing Nazi-style occupation. It’s difficult for me to see so many pro-Palestinian rallies taking over and getting so boisterous. Everything is a little bit scarier.” 

Nazarian echoed that the Jewish students in her class generally did not engage. “But [they] told me privately that it felt it was useless to try to challenge what was being said by their classmates,” she added. 

Nazarian said the end of the semester was particularly fraught, when some students requested from the head of the department to miss the final lectures and asked to not be penalized for missing class despite 20% of their grade being for class attendance. 

“The UCLA administrator strongly suggested that I offer them other ways to make up for those lost points, meaning allowing them not to show up to class,” Nazarian said, which she found “utterly shocking.” According to Nazarian, the administration said that policy was to accommodate students not only given the stresses on them post-COVID, but also due to mental health issues. “Of course, this was not the case; they simply didn’t want to hear my narrative,” she said. 

The UCLA administration did not immediately respond to JI’s request for comment about the course. 

The views Nazarian observed in her classroom echo a new narrative that has spread in the Middle East and beyond, recasting Jews as oppressors. That radical view is prevalent among Americans between the ages of 18-29, who sympathize with Palestinians over Israelis, recent polls show. 

Still, Nazarian said some of the students had a genuine interest in learning and kept an open mind. One student was active in Students for Justice in Palestine and said he signed up to hear another perspective. Another student expressed that most of his high school class had become alt-right and neo-Nazis; he wanted tools to counter those extremist ideologies. 

Nazarian, who was born in Iran, noted that a design flaw was that only about a quarter of the students had any formal Middle East education. She said that if the class runs again, a prerequisite needs to be required for such courses “since any discussion of ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ demands a more in-depth understanding of Middle East history and politics.” 

While Nazarian does not know if she personally would offer the course again, she said she would like to see similar ones — looking at the threats of global antisemitism and how that leads to an array of global challenges — at universities worldwide. “This information should encourage universities and administrators to do more,” she said. 

“We need more of what I’ve done,” Nazarian continued. “I tell donors not to push away from universities, just repurpose your dollars and invest in antisemitism education.” 

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.