Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director at the East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Ilana Kaufman hosted a lecture about anti-Semitism and community activism on campus March 27. Her talk focused on the importance of respecting individual identities and tackling social justice issues. She also explored how social justice groups can avoid conflict using the idea of adjacency, an idea that proposes groups focus on the specific goals of their organization while understanding that not everyone will hold the same views on every social issue.
Before entering the social justice field, Kaufman worked as a U.S. history teacher at various schools in Northern California, where she taught about black history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kaufman said that she had always been interested in relationships, conflicts and their social contexts throughout her career and that she became the director of the East Bay JCRC to connect with her Jewish identity.
“Being a professional who works in the Jewish community has given me the opportunity to try to align my professional passions and skills with my identity,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman currently works to address anti-Semitism at the community level by bringing the concerns of the Jewish community to public officials. She also acts as a mediator when conflict arises between the Jewish community and other groups.
In her lecture, Kaufman discussed how identity and perceptions of social groups factor into discrimination. As someone who identifies as Jewish, African American and part of the queer community, she said that she is excluded in different ways depending on the community she is in. Her experience led her to study social identity from a holistic perspective and how society tends to make certain identities mutually exclusive. According to Kaufman, the perception that two identities, such as being African American and Jewish, are mutually exclusive is problematic for society. She said that it is important to create spaces where people can be accepted for their full identity and not just certain parts.
“I have the ability to project a very particular image of the way the Jewish community is,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman said that while some individuals have more power than others due to their economic or social status, marginalized groups should not underestimate their collective power.
“It doesn’t matter what body you live in, we all hold tremendous power,” Kaufman said.
According to Kaufman, power should be used carefully; people need to be aware of when they are using their power to suppress other voices or setting a bad example of how to treat marginalized people.
Sara Packer (senior), president of Hillel, a Jewish student organization, said that she connected Kaufman’s discussion on the appropriate use and abuse of power to anti-Semitic comments made on campus.
“I see [the abuse] playing out on campus where professors are in positions of power and influence, so if they make anti-Semitic comments or use offensive terminology or phrasing it can be more impactful than if the same thing was said by a peer.”
Packer said that as president of Hillel and part of the campus community, it is her job to respond to anti-Semitism on behalf of the Jewish students at Occidental but often finds it challenging to find consensus on what an anti-Semitic comment means. She said that she plans on using Kaufman’s ideas about interacting with people you are in conflict with to better respond to anti-Semitism on campus.
During the lecture, Kaufman highlighted the importance of advocating for one’s community. This involves standing up for one’s own group and supporting others who experience discrimination.
The Constitution protects the Jewish community’s right to practice their religion, but Jewish individuals need to be active in protecting their civil rights and the rights of all groups who are marginalized, according to Kaufman. She said that while Jews face discrimination, they hold more power than other groups who have historically faced marginalization. This puts members of the Jewish community in a position to advocate for others as well as themselves.
Kaufman discussed how conflict can arise between groups with similar values, such as the JCRC and Black Lives Matter, because of a difference in priorities. Madeline Callis (junior) attended the talk and said that Kaufman’s discussion about mediating conflict made her think more critically about how people tend to put their own needs above others at the expense of resolving a dispute.
“I think her way of looking at the big picture and when you have the goal of resolution and peace, that’s how you have to think of it. When you are in a conflict you tend to just want to win and disrupt things instead of just participating in what’s going on,” Callis said.
According to Kaufman, many conflicts between groups arise because members do not all hold the same stance on social issues. She proposed that social justice groups working in partnership need to focus on adjacency instead of intersectionality. This prevents people from arguing with each other and turns their focus towards the shared problem they are tackling.
As an example, Kaufman referred to the debate over Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory’s attendance at an event hosted by The Nation of Islam (NOI) where Louis Farrakhan, the leader of NOI, made anti-Semitic comments during his speech. Many were offended by the comments and asked for Mallory to step down for her lack of disapproval and are waiting for her response. Kaufman said that Mallory’s actions are an example of someone mishandling their power.
“People of power need to recognize their impact and make decisions that are sensitive to those watching,” Kaufman said.
After the talk, students were invited to join Kaufman for a discussion and debrief of her lecture.
“Being Jewish, anti-Semitism is always a factor and having the tools to combat that is really helpful. It also felt really good to bring a Jewish speaker to campus because it feels like we haven’t had many of those,” Callis said.
Packer said that Kaufman’s discussion was helpful because it is not always easy to identify what is anti-Semitic or not.
“Even among the Jewish community, there is a lack of consensus around what is or is not anti-Semitic. Being able to see these different perspectives can be really valuable,” Packer said. “Ilana [Kaufman] discussing how she interacts with people that the Jewish community may be in conflict with was really valuable.”