‘Toxic and hostile environment for Jewish students’ at UC Irvine, students claim

Daniel Levine (courtesy Levine) 

For those unwilling to condemn Israel in the harshest terms, he said, the UC Irvine campus has become a hostile and dangerous place.

“When Jewish students say something is hurtful or problematic, they’re told, ‘You’re crazy,’ ‘territorial,’ called ‘racist,’ ‘Islamophobic,’ ” said Rabbi Daniel Levine of Hillel in Orange County. “It’s not just here. This is part of a much wider trend.”

Turns out that Levine’s contract to teach History 18A — Jewish Texts — as a lecturer was not renewed at UCI in late May.

The university says that’s because it has hired two new, full-time, tenure-track faculty members to beef up offerings in Jewish studies — a very good thing.

But dozens of students who adore Levine say it’s a cave-in to demands for an “academic boycott” of Israel and the scrubbing of “Zionist programming” from campus life. Those two new faculty members have expressed public dismay over Israel’s conduct in the war with Hamas, they say, as have professors in the position to weigh in on Levine’s contract renewal.

“(T)he History Department, which oversees Jewish Studies, has become a toxic and hostile environment for Jewish students,” says the students’ protest letter to UCI’s Humanities Department. “(W)e urge the university to transfer the Jewish Studies discipline to a different department outside of Humanities.”

The students are ardent, sincere in their passions and organized. They sing Levine’s praises to the heavens, saying they’ve never had a better professor, that he helped them better understand themselves and their culture, that his knowledge of the subject material is impeccable. “(N)ot a single question was asked in the class that he did not know the answer to,” one wrote. “History 18A with Daniel Levine played such an important role in my educational experience at UCI and I think it would be a shame for future students not to be able to take it.”

From the students’ perspective, and Levine’s as well, ideological bias certainly played a role in all this. They suspect decisions on Levine’s contract were made before the new Ph.D. hires accepted their positions, and that UCI professors who would have supported Levine were frozen out of the discussion.

It’s worth noting that Levine is still slated to teach medieval Jewish thought in UCI’s School of Social Sciences next year. He lectures at Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach as well.

UCI Divest and pro-Palestine students on May 22 (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

It’s also worth noting that a “Wanted” poster of a political science/Jewish studies professor, complete with picture, was posted online Thursday. The professor’s “crimes” included “complicity in genocide,” “misinformation,” “receiving grants from US DOD & US Military Academy,” and “actively funding Israeli genocide and colonial settlement in the West Bank and Gazan Strip.” A “cash reward” was listed, and the background print said, “Divest Our Tuition Fees.”

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It set off a firestorm. “I find the wanted poster aesthetic really distasteful, since wanted posters historically were a call to action to apprehend and sometimes kill the person,” one commenter on UCI Reddit said.

“Utterly vile,” said another.

Others defended the poster. “Scrolling through his (the professor’s) liked tweets, it is evident he praises the IDF, has ZERO mentions of the atrocities being committed towards the Palestinian people, and only ever mentions the ‘war’ when it’s Israelis being in danger,” a commenter said.

“So yeah.. he’s a Zionist freak and this poster not only isn’t antisemitic, it’s also truthful. Cry about it.”

‘Violent threats’

Tensions have grown so fraught that UCI’s original announcement touting the two new Jewish studies hires was edited to remove their names — and Levine’s name as well.

Sevan Minassian-Godner, a political science freshman, left, and Campus Rabbi Daniel Levine sing songs at a Jewish gathering of solidarity on campus at UC Irvine on May 1 (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

There’s no dark conspiracy here, the university said. Levine did a great job. He’s a well-respected lecturer. Students love him. UCI is “fully committed” to supporting Jewish studies, and the two new tenure-track positions prove it, representing a “major expansion” of the program.

It’s as simple as this, officials said: With two new full-time Ph.D.’s soon on board, there’s simply no need for a part-time contract lecturer to teach History 18A/Jewish Texts.

“UC Irvine’s Department of History has become the object of a pressure campaign,” said a missive on the flap posted June 5 by Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities.

“A flood of messages, mostly automatically generated or copied, but a few individually crafted as violent personal threats, degrading insults and calls for punishment, have been received by the department, the school and the campus leadership. There has also been a series of slanderous online conversations that either omit or misrepresent key factual details.

“All of these messages contain a significant amount of misinformation, whether deliberately or because of lack of familiarity with processes the university uses for hiring faculty and establishing curricula. Those who choose to amplify false and erroneous information deliberately will no doubt continue to do so; but as the leader responsible for the programs of the School of Humanities, including the History Department, the Center for Jewish Studies and the minor in Jewish Studies, I cannot leave such falsehoods unchallenged.”

Now, about that particular course. The history department has offered it regularly, but not constantly, since 2007. Over the past 17 years, it has been taught just 10 times, by five different faculty members and lecturers. This isn’t the first time a lecturer’s contract has not been renewed. And while the class isn’t slated to be offered in the fall, that’s nothing exceptional: it will be offered in either the winter or spring quarter next year, officials said.

And it will be taught by faculty. As the faculty union’s contract specifies, faculty have priority over part-timer lecturers for course assignments.

Also worth noting: The hiring process for new faculty is never in any one professor’s hands. It takes months and there’s a rather elaborate protocol, as per UC. This one included “a rigorous international search” and an independent committee appointed by the dean to review applications, conduct interviews, agree on four candidates for on-campus interviews and recommend two finalists. The entire faculty in both history and comparative literature approved the recommendations.

Connecting the trauma of the recent protests with the staffing of History 18A/Jewish Texts is just incorrect, officials said. They’re hoping the Jewish studies minor gets more popular now that it will be more fully staffed; only four students have the minor right now, and only one student graduated with the minor in the past four years.

Dean Miller, for his part, sounds mighty angry. “(W)e have been slandered and slurred,” he wrote. “We have received degrading, threatening messages of hate and misogyny. We have had to hear the qualifications of our new faculty questioned and have received baseless messages, shared with the leadership of the campus up to the Chancellor and the UC Regents, claiming that our newly hired Senate faculty received their positions not because of their scholarly merit and accomplishment but because of their political views.

“This is unacceptable and deeply reprehensible. I decry this attempt to negatively influence and derail the academic mission of the university.”


The students aren’t satisfied with the university’s response. Rather than addressing whether individual beliefs were misused in the hiring process, the focus has been on how threatened officials felt by a few emails.

Peter the Anteater, the UC Irvine mascot, dressed for commencement in 2023 (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

Levine’s class “has been one of the most intellectually engaging experiences I have had at UCI,” said student Sami Ilan by email. “The nonrenewal of his contract pulls back the curtain on a wider systemic issue at UCI and beyond, where the needs and fears of Jewish students are not only ignored but conflated with conspiratorial thinking.”

UCI’s two new hires “demonstrate that personal beliefs can take precedence over honesty and academic integrity, which is a complete violation of academia,” Ilan continued. “Individuals not directly affiliated with an age-old conflict believe they possess complete understanding and feel justified in violating academic principles to impose a one-sided view on their students. It is disappointing because a teacher is supposed to open the doors to learning, allowing students to choose their path.”

Ilan and other students call for Levine’s reinstatement.

Levine sees a problem with the humanities writ large — “the reduction of nuanced thinking, of activism parading as academia,” he said.

We should be suspicious of black/white thinking, of those who purport to have all the answers. There are no clear answers.

“There is a tension of values here,” he said. “A real tension that can’t be reduced to ‘We need to kill all Hamas’ or ‘Israel just wants to kill babies.’”

Meanwhile, in the UCI Reddit where the “Wanted” poster set off a firestorm, there was great debate. Was it really from a student? Or was it a false flag planted to discredit the other side and create the appearance of enemies where none exist?

“Ignore the ragebait folks,” one commenter urged.

If only. If only we could.


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