There is no shortage of American pundits who love to denounce “PC” speech codes that restrict and punish the expression of certain ideas on college campuses. What these self-styled campus-free-speech crusaders typically — and quite tellingly — fail to mention is that the most potent such campaigns are often devoted to outlawing or otherwise punishing criticisms of Israel. The firing by the University of Illinois of Professor Steven Salatia for his “uncivil” denunciations of the Israeli war on Gaza — a termination that was privately condoned by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin — is merely illustrative of this long–growing trend.
One of the most dangerous threats to campus free speech has been emerging at the highest levels of the University of California system, the sprawling collection of 10 campuses that includes UCLA and UC Berkeley. The university’s governing Board of Regents, with the support of University President Janet Napolitano and egged on by the state’s legislature, has been attempting to adopt new speech codes that — in the name of combating “anti-Semitism” — would formally ban various forms of Israel criticism and anti-Israel activism.
Under the most stringent such regulations, students found to be in violation of these codes would face suspension or expulsion. In July, it appeared that the Regents were poised to enact the most extreme version, but decided instead to push the decision off until September, when they instead would adopt non-binding guidelines to define “hate speech” and “intolerance.”
One of the Regents most vocally advocating for the most stringent version of the speech code is Richard Blum, the multi-millionaire defense contractor who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. At a Regents meeting last week, reported the Los Angeles Times, Blum expressly threatened that Feinstein would publicly denounce the university if it failed to adopt far more stringent standards than the ones it appeared to be considering, and specifically demanded they be binding and contain punishments for students found to be in violation.
The San Francisco Chronicle put it this way: “Regent Dick Blum said his wife, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ‘is prepared to be critical of this university’ unless UC not only tackles anti-Jewish bigotry but also makes clear that perpetrators will be punished.” The lawyer Ken White wrote that “Blum threatened that his wife … would interfere and make trouble if the Regents didn’t commit to punish people for prohibited speech.” As campus First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn put it the following day, “Feinstein and her husband think college students should be expelled for protected free speech.”
I should add that over the weekend my wife, your senior Senator, and I talked about this issue at length. She wants to stay out of the conversation publicly but if we do not do the right thing she will engage publicly and is prepared to be critical of this university if we don’t have the kind of not only statement but penalties for those who commit what you can call them crimes, call them whatever you want. Students that do the things that have been cited here today probably ought to have a dismissal or a suspension from school. I don’t know how many of you feel strongly that way but my wife does and so do I.
Sarah McLaughlin of the campus free-speech group FIRE wrote: “Yes, a UC Regent flatly threatened the university with political consequences if it failed to craft a ‘tolerance’ policy that would punish — and even expel — its violators.”
In response to inquiries from The Intercept, Feinstein refused to say whether her husband was authorized to make such threats on her behalf, but she refused to distance herself from them. “This is a matter before the University of California and Senator Feinstein has no comment at this time,” her Press Secretary said.
How does speech about Israel become “anti-Semitic”? According to the State Department, “anti-Semitism” includes those who (1) “Demonize Israel” by “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” or “blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions”; (2) espouse a “Double standard for Israel” by “requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” or “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations”; or (3) “Delegitimize Israel” by “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.” The State Department generously adds this caveat at the end: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
The ironies of this definition are overwhelming. First, it warns against advocating a “double standard for Israel” — at exactly the same time that it promulgates a standard that applies only to Israel. Would the State Department ever formally condemn what it regards as excessive or one-sided criticism of any other government, such as Russia or Iran? Why isn’t the State Department also accusing people of bigotry who create “double standards” for Iran by obsessing over the anti-gay behavior of Iran while ignoring the same or worse abuses in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uganda? The State Department is purporting to regulate the discourse surrounding just one country — Israel — while at the same time condemning “double standards.”
Worse, this State Department definition explicitly equates certain forms of criticism of Israel or activism against Israeli government policies with “anti-Semitism.” In other words, the State Department embraces the twisted premise that a defining attribute of “Jews” everywhere is the actions of the Israeli government, which is itself a longstanding anti-Semitic trope.
But most important of all, whatever you think of this State Department definition, it has no place whatsoever regulating which ideas can and cannot be expressed in an academic institution, particularly one that is run by the state (such as the University of California). Adoption of this “anti-Semitism” definition clearly would function to prohibit the advocacy of, say, a one-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, or even the questioning of a state’s right to exist as a non-secular entity. How can anyone think it’s appropriate to declare such ideas off limits in academic classrooms or outlaw them as part of campus activism?
To ban the expression of any political ideas in such a setting would not only be wildly anti-intellectual but also patently unconstitutional. As UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky put it today in an LA Times op-ed: “There unquestionably is a 1st Amendment right to argue against (or for) the existence of Israel or to contend that it should meet (or not have to meet) higher standards of human rights than other nations.” Even the now-retired Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman — while arguing that “the effort to support boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, is sinister and malicious and is having a negative effect on Jewish students on some campuses and on the wider Jewish community” — acknowledged in May that such bans would be clearly unconstitutional:
Legislation that bars BDS activity by private groups, whether corporations or universities, strikes at the heart of First Amendment-protected free speech, will be challenged in the courts and is likely to be struck down. A decision by a private body to boycott Israel, as despicable as it may be, is protected by our Constitution. Perhaps in Europe, where hate speech laws exist and are acceptable within their own legal frameworks, such bills could be sustained. But not here in America.
But none of that seems to matter to Dianne Feinstein and her war-profiteering husband, Richard Blum. Not only is Blum demanding adoption of the State Department definition, despite the fact that (more accurately: because) it would encompass some forms of BDS activism and even criticisms of Israel. But, worse, he’s also insisting that it be binding and that students who express the ideas that fall within the State Department definition be suspended from school or expelled. And he’s overtly threatening that if he does not get his way, then his wife 0- “Your Senior Senator” — will get very upset and start publicly attacking the university, a threat that public school administrators who rely on the government for their budgets take very seriously.
This behavior is as adolescent as it is despotic. Does anyone believe that college and post-graduate students should be able to express only those ideas about Israel that Dianne Feinstein and her war-profiteering husband deem acceptable?
It’s no mystery what this is really about. The Israeli government and its most devoted advocates around the world are petrified at the growing strength of the movement to boycott Israeli goods in protest of the almost five-decade occupation. As Foxman conceded, the boycott idea “seems to be picking up steam, particularly on college campuses across the United States. While no universities have yet adopted or implemented BDS, there are a growing number of campuses — now up to 29 — where student organizations have held votes to determine whether they support BDS.” Just this week, the City Council of Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, voted to boycott all Israeli goods as long as the occupation persists (days later, the City quickly retracted the vote, citing the unexpectedly intense “backlash” from Israel).
After the horrific massacre they committed in Gaza last summer, followed by its devastating defeat on the Iran Deal, the Israeli government is rapidly losing the PR battle around the world, and they know it. The boycott movement scares them above all else because it is predicated on the truth that they are most eager to suppress: the similarities between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and the apartheid policies of South Africa (which were undermined by a global boycott movement and which the world now universally regards as evil).
Since they are losing the debate about this movement, the Israeli government and its loyalists are instead seeking to suppress it altogether, to literally outlaw it. Recall that in May, the right-wing Canadian government threatened hate speech charges against those who advocate a boycott of Israel; the country’s Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau, decreed via Twitter that “the BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses.” Back in 2013, the ADL took out a full-page ad in the New York Times announcing that “the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — known as BDS — is anti-Semitic hate speech.”
The effort to formally re-define “anti-Semitism” to include certain criticisms of and activism against the Israeli government has been coordinated and deliberate. That history is laid out with ample evidence here by the non-profit group Palestine Legal; here by Ali Abunimah’s book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, the relevant portion of which was published by The Intercept; and here by the writer and activist Ben White. In essence, this re-definition was first promulgated by Israeli lobbyists and academics, imposed with varying degrees of success on the EU, and then successfully imported into the Clinton-led State Department.
It’s one thing to apply political pressure to induce governments to adopt speech-repressive definitions of “anti-Semitism” that are non-binding. It’s another thing entirely to try to import them onto state-run college campuses where they are used to outlaw the expression of certain forms of criticisms of the Israeli government. And it’s another thing entirely for a prominent public official like Dianne Feinstein to have her husband throw their ample financial and political weight around in order to threaten and bully school administrators to ban ideas that this power couple dislike and punish the students who express them.
The obvious goal with this UC battle is to institutionalize the notion on American college campuses that activism against the Israeli government is not merely wrong but is actually “hate speech” that should subject its student advocates (or professors) to severe punishment. If this menacing censorship is allowed to take hold in an academic system as large and influential as the University of California, then it’s much easier for the censors to point to it in the future as a model, in order to infect other academic institutions in the U.S. and around the world. That’s all the more reason to vehemently oppose it in this instance. If defenders of Israel are determined to defeat the boycott movement, they’ll have to find other ways to do it besides rendering its advocacy illegal and, in the process, destroying the long-cherished precept of free speech in academia.