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Back and forth: Josh Woznica, president of Jewish Student Union

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OCTOBER 09, 2016

After growing up in a Los Angeles household filled with Jewish culture and custom, Josh Woznica came to UC Berkeley with the intention of stepping outside his comfort zone and putting his religious involvement on hiatus. Woznica couldn’t help but return to his roots, however, deeply involving himself in the community that already had such a notable impact on his pre-college self. Oftentimes, being the president of the Jewish Student Union at a school as large as UC Berkeley places Woznica at the forefront of some of the campus’s most contentious issues. Woznica had plenty to say about recent anti-Semitic events on the UC Berkeley campus after spending a good deal of his term thus far addressing them alongside campus administration.

The Daily Californian: What prompted you to fulfill a leadership role in the Jewish Student Union?

Josh Woznica: I grew up with a very strong Jewish upbringing. I went to Jewish day school, my dad is actually a rabbi, I went to Jewish summer camp, the whole nine yards. When I came here freshman year, I wasn’t actually involved in the Jewish community one bit and then I realized I was missing something — that Jewish community, as cliche as that sounds. And now I’m very involved, I do everything. Leadership is something that I’m really interested in and something that I really like to do, so I thought why not do it in this capacity, in something I’m really passionate about and that is a part of me.

DC: Do you feel we have a strong Jewish community on campus compared to other University of California schools?

JW: It’s a little hard to tell how many students on campus are Jewish. We think about 10 percent of the undergrad population is Jewish, so around 2,500 students. And I definitely think there is a strong Jewish community, between the various clubs through the Jewish Student Union, through a strong Hillel, we have (the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life). Up at the law school there’s the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, there’s a center for Jewish studies, a Jewish department on campus, so between all these different organizations who have all these different approaches and do different things, I would say many Jewish students can find their community here in some way or another.

DC: This month, campus alerted students to an incident in which anti-Semitic flyers were distributed around campus. Regarding this incident, you said that the campus should focus on how to move forward from these incidents. In what ways do you believe this can be achieved and what exactly do you mean by moving forward?

JW: This campus definitely has its fair number of anti-Semitic incidents, whether its institutionalized or not, things do pop up here. That said, Jewish students don’t walk around feeling uncomfortable and like they can’t live a strong Jewish life. But there are incidents and I think a lot of these incidents aren’t identified very strongly because they’re masked in the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel activity when there is a conflation of the two, and you often see anti-Semitic trope when there are anti-Israel incidents.

DC: What would you say to someone who argues that there exists a similar intolerance against the Palestinian community here at UC Berkeley?

JW: I think, look, there definitely is. The Palestinian struggle is its own struggle, and so is the Jewish struggle. They’re separate issues. When people ask, ‘Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine?’ I say, ‘I’m both. I want to see the Palestinian people survive. I want to see the Israeli people survive.’ However, it’s tough right now because the Palestinian government doesn’t want to see their own people survive or move forward. So, look, I think there are issues but each community needs to have its issues recognized appropriately and sometimes that doesn’t happen, which is unfortunate.

DC: John Efron, a campus professor of Jewish history, said, “One of the grave problems with anti-Semitism today is having it taken seriously.” Do you feel this is the case on campus?

JW: I feel like when there are issues that happen against other minority groups, they get identified and the administration sends out something and there are no questions asked. For some reason, when something happens to the Jewish community it doesn’t have the same weight, and I don’t know why that’s the case and it shouldn’t be the case. A hate crime is a hate crime, and when the administration makes a statement about one thing, it should be the same statement as another thing. And I’ve had these talks with the administration, I know how complex it is, I know how they have to decide who’s going to send this out, who’s going to decide this, whose name it’s going to come from, but it’s important that people know what’s going on.

DC: During your time here at UC Berkeley, do you think the attitude toward the Jewish community has changed in any way, either positively or negatively?

JW: I think it’s changed positively just by the advent of new Jewish things on this campus. The Kosher diet is coming this year; that’s a huge step for traditional students who might have not come to this school for that reason. The Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies brings Israeli faculty to teach in the classrooms and teach on Jewish Law. These things are there. It’s happening in the classroom. However, you often still see sort of the opposite happening in the classroom. You still see anti-Israel stuff happening in the classroom, you see often, so I’ve heard from friends, anti-Semitic things taught by professors. So you’re moving forward, but the issues are also still there. The community is getting stronger but the issues are sort of staying at the same level, which makes it seem like the issues are going away when that’s not really the case.

When people ask, ‘Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine?’ I say, ‘I’m both. I want to see the Palestinian people survive. I want to see the Israeli people survive.’

DC: What are your thoughts on Paul Hadweh’s DeCal, Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis? Do you feel like the course promotes anti-Semitism in any way?

JW: I definitely think, after looking at the syllabus, that there are anti-Semitic tropes. It’s a very wishy-washy issue because once you start to censor one side of academic freedom, you’re on a balance beam honestly, but it’s really important that the syllabus and the course content is upheld to the regents’ policy which says the Principles Against Intolerance and it all has to hold up to that and I don’t know if that process really happened. There were a number of administrative issues whether it was the syllabus not being sent in to the dean of Letters and Science; I don’t know if that was accidental or not. Whether it was the fact that that the faculty sponsor of the DeCal (Hatem Bazian) is the co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is, in my view, an outwardly anti-Israel group. It’s a little concerning. And the student running the DeCal (Paul Hadweh) is (also involved in) that group. It’s a tough issue.

DC: Do you feel like the university administration handled the Palestinian DeCal incident accordingly?

JW: I think the DeCal situation was handled horribly to be honest. I think the administration needed to make it very clear that they were looking into the issue before the external organizations came in and sent out the letter (concerning anti-Semitic messages in the DeCal syllabus). I think sometimes outside Jewish organizations have strong intentions and don’t always act in support of the students. It’s really tough. Look, I really understand this campus and so do my peers. (External organizations) don’t always consult me or us on this, and these are often things that they do which we have no control over. So it’s tough to work with them in that way.

DC: How would you respond to Jewish parents who are concerned about enrolling their child here because of anti-Semitic incidents?

JW: If I’m on Sproul or I’ve talked at some events in L.A. for potential students, the question I always get from any Jewish parent, no matter if they’re extremely traditional or not traditional at all, is, ‘How bad is the anti-Israel? How bad is the anti-Semitism?’ And it’s sad that this is the reputation of our campus. Look, it definitely has its incidents and we can’t ignore this, and as I’ve said the administration has to point those out and keep everything up to the Principles Against Intolerance and so on. However, I describe to (the parents) all the things I’m involved in, all of the things my peers are involved in, how wonderful the Jewish community is here, how many ways there are to get involved, and say, ‘Look, if you’re not going to send your strong Jewish kid here, who’s going to fight the fight?’ We need those students to come. We can’t take 10 steps back. You’ve got to fight it full force. If Jewish students don’t come here, it could be an issue. That is precisely the thing we do need, for them to send their kids here.

DC: Do you think there is a discrepancy in the beliefs of Millennial Jews versus those of their Jewish parents and grandparents?

JW: Short answer, yes. Long answer, look up the 2013 Pew Study on American Judaism.

DC: Why do you think that people are still showing prejudice toward Jewish citizens while, at the same time, growing increasingly intolerant toward prejudice against other minority groups?

JW: For some reason, the Jewish struggle is often masked because we’re white. We are not people of color, but we have faced a lot of shit like people of color. I think that’s one of the main reasons.

DC: Has the sometimes anti-Semitic climate on campus changed your opinions about UC Berkeley itself in any way?

JW: Not really. I think if anything the administration is becoming more and more concerned about the issues of the Jewish community. There’s a recently formed (in 2010) chancellor’s committee on Jewish life and campus climate (University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate), which I actually sit on. And the chancellor is at those meetings, and he and Mark Yudof, the former head of the UC system and the chair of the committee, are making sure the administration knows what’s going on with Jewish students. So, if anything, I think it’s made me realize that the administration is genuinely concerned about students, which I know you’ve probably never heard before.

DC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JW: If I could sort of summarize everything in one picture, I would say, ‘Look, the campus has its issues and, as you can see, they seem to be higher than some other campuses. Why maybe has to do with the history of Berkeley and the political leanings of Berkeley and stuff. But there is a strong Jewish community here and I don’t want the incidents to overshadow that strong community.’


Summer Langton is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]

OCTOBER 09, 2016