The regents of the University of California unanimously adopted a new policy on discrimination on Wednesday that links anti-Semitism to opposition to Zionism, the ideology asserting that the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in historic Palestine.
At a meeting in San Francisco, the UC Board of Regents approved a working group’s recommendation for a set of “Principles Against Intolerance” that accepts the argument that “manifestations of anti-Semitism have changed” as a result of debates over Israel on college campuses and “expressions of anti-Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify.”
“In particular,” the report stated, “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.”
To address the concerns of pro-Israel students and faculty, who claimed that supporters of Palestinian rights who disagreed with them were practicing a form of discrimination, the working group was formed in September to expand on a draft statement that had said, “Intolerance has no place at the University of California.” In January, the working group proposed that the declaration should read instead: “Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
But that proposed language was criticized — by, among others, the ACLU, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, student activists and faculty members like Michael Meranze, Saree Makdisi and Judith Butler — for erasing the line between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and hate speech aimed at Jewish students and faculty. Just before the regents voted on the policy on Wednesday, a member of the working group, Norman Pattiz, further amended the reference to anti-Zionism so that it now condemns “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”
Before the vote on Wednesday, Bonnie Reiss, the vice chairwoman of the Board of Regents, argued that students opposed to Israeli policies, and those questioning the state’s unequal treatment of non-Jews, had fostered a dangerous environment for Jewish students by supporting the effort to pressure Israel to change its policies through a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, known as BDS.
It was necessary for the university to address anti-Semitism, Resiss said, because “members of the Muslim Student Association or Palestinians for Justice groups… that are anti-Israel have brought BDS resolutions” which have “created emotional debates.”
“Anti-Semitic acts against many in our Jewish community have resulted from the emotions over the debates over the BDS-Israel resolutions,” she insisted, without citing evidence of the linkage.
As my colleague Alex Emmons reported, that view was endorsed earlier this week by Hillary Clinton, who called the Israel boycott movement “alarming” in her speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee this week, and accused activists of anti-Semitic “bullying” of Jewish students on college campuses.
Later the same night, Bernie Sanders, who has been critical of Israeli policy, told Chris Hayes on MSNBC that he agreed with Clinton that “there is some level of anti-Semitism” in the BDS movement.
Supporters of the BDS movement, including those who call for Israel to grant full civil rights to Arab citizens of East Jerusalem and the millions of Palestinians who have lived under Israeli military control for nearly half a century in the West Bank and Gaza, strongly reject the claim that opposition to a state that privileges Jews is in any way anti-Semitic.
That the backlash against Israel on college campuses might be caused not by unreasoning hatred but by Israeli actions — like the ongoing blockade of Gaza, punctuated by three rounds of punishing airstrikes in the past seven years, the building of illegal, Jewish-only settlements across the occupied West Bank, or the refusal to recognize the rights of Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948 to ever return — seems not to have occurred to students, faculty or politicians whose support for the Jewish state is unquestioning.
As Omar Zahzah, a Palestinian-American graduate student at UCLA who spoke against the proposed policy before the regents voted on Wednesday, observed later:
We all agree that anti-Semitism and racism must be combated on campus. Where we disagree is in the claim that anti-Zionism is bigotry. Palestinian and Jewish students alike should have the right to say that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 was morally wrong and that Palestinian refugees should have the right to return home to a state where Palestinians and Jews live in equality rather than in a discriminatory Jewish state.
Butler, who teaches at UC Berkeley and spoke against the policy before the vote, said later that the amended language was still problematic. “If we think that we solve the problem by identifying forms of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, then we are left with the question of who identifies such a position, and what are their operative definitions,” she wrote. “These terms are vague and overbroad and run the risk of suppressing speech and violating principles of academic freedom.”
In 2003, after the then-president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, argued that academics who held “profoundly anti-Israel views” were “advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,” Butler responded in the London Review of Books:
…it is important to distinguish between anti-Semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.
The vote in favor of the policy was celebrated by supporters like Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz whose AMCHA Initiative led the campaign to have the university specifically condemn expressions of anti-Zionist activism, calling it “the driving force behind the alarming rise in anti-Semitism” on campuses.
We did it!!! UC Regents passes Statement Against Intolerance with the Report unanimously. VICTORY, and fitting timing with Purim :)— The AMCHA Initiative (@AMCHAInitiative) March 23, 2016
But as the Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe noted, “both the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office and a federal judge have dismissed complaints by UC Jewish students that such activities have created a hostile climate and violated their educational rights.”
The policy was also welcomed by Avi Oved, the student representative on the board of regents, who spoke from behind a laptop with a heart-shaped pro-Israel sticker that is used by the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us. Oved said the policy was necessary to defend pro-Israel students who have been subjected to abusive language, like being called “Zionist pigs,” or told that “Zionists should be sent back to the gas chambers.”
The chief executive of Stand With Us, Roz Rothstein, thanked the regents for endorsing her view that “denying Israel’s right to exist and opposing the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland is racism, pure and simple.”