Can a qualified student be barred from a student organization because she is Jewish? That is the awkward debate from UCLA that has attracted national attention recently. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask a different awkward question: How is this debate different from the one about conservative evangelicals on campus? UCLA’s student leaders have apologized for the anti-Semitic slant of this incident, but many universities have intentionally de-recognized Christian organizations due to their Christian beliefs.
As the New York Times reported, Rachel Beyda’s confirmation hearing on February 10 turned into a painful debate about her Judaism and her affiliation with campus Jewish groups. Beyda is a sophomore pre-law student, hoping for a place on the student judicial council. At the February 10 meeting of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, her qualifications were questioned. One councilwoman asked Beyda,
Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community … given that recently … [inaudible] has been surrounding cases of conflict of interest, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view … [inaudible]?
Eventually, Beyda was voted in, but the agonizing back-and-forth about Judaism and bias has caused the university and the student group to apologize. They had not meant to imply that Jewish students have a special sort of bias; they did not mean to say that Jewish students have divided loyalties. Such ideas, they affirmed later, have a long and ugly history in American history.
As the New York Times points out, this sort of anti-Jewish attitude has become more common on college campuses, largely due to protest against Israel’s politics. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement in support of Palestinian rights has attracted widespread support among college leftists. It has become increasingly difficult for students to separate their anti-Israel ideas from anti-Semitic ones.
As the New York Times’s Adam Nagourney writes, this incident
has set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated, particularly in comparison with other groups that are more typically viewed as victims of discrimination, such as African-Americans and gays and lesbians.
What about the anti-evangelical bias of many universities? As we’ve seen here at ILYBYGTH, evangelical groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship have been de-recognized at many pluralist colleges, including the Cal State system.
First, a few caveats: I’m no evangelical myself. I’m not asking this question as an apologist for conservative Christianity. Indeed, I vehemently disagree with most conservative evangelical political and theological positions. Nor am I unaware of the fact that these are different situations. I understand that Intervarsity has been derecognized not because of its ethnic background, but because of its discriminatory beliefs. Intervarsity members are not barred from leadership in campus activities because they might have “divided loyalties,” to use the ugly rhetoric of the recent UCLA discussion. Rather, the group as a whole is pushed out because it does not allow non-evangelicals to take leadership positions in its own group.
Having said all that, I think the Intervarsity case is another prime example of the ways “discrimination” is often used in conflicting and short-sighted ways on today’s college campuses. The student council members at UCLA insisted that they did not mean to imply that Jewish people somehow could not be full members of the university community. In short, the student-council members suffered from an overzealous interpretation of discrimination. Some council members apparently believed that there was something “discriminatory” about being Jewish.
Similarly, Intervarsity has been de-recognized because its leadership policy is discriminatory. It really is. Only those who affirm Intervarsity’s statement of faith can be leaders. This rules out students engaged in active homosexual relationships, not to mention Jewish students, Muslims, Catholics, and even liberal Protestants.
The awkward result, of course, is that Intervarsity itself has been discriminated against. Can’t some student groups engage in some forms of discrimination? Isn’t it fair for a religious group to insist that its leaders be part of its religion? Yes, such policies are frankly discriminatory. But is all discrimination necessarily beyond the bounds of proper campus thinking?
Let me repeat: I do not think the two situations are identical. I’m no member or fan of conservative evangelical student groups. But it does seem as if the zeal to purge campuses of any group that might be “discriminatory” has led to weird and troubling sorts of discrimination. Like the confused student council members at UCLA, some zealous campus voices seem to overcompensate in their desire to purge discrimination.