Academic Advisory Council Letter to State Department

United States Department of State
Washington, DC 20520

August 12, 2015

Dear Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism Ira Forman,

We appreciate your response to our petition, and the clear commitment to the First Amendment evident within it. We are heartened, in particular, by the clarification that the definition’s examples “are in no way intended to silence speech.”

However, we are disappointed that the response did not address our major concern, which is that these examples, which, as you point out, include “denying the Jewish people the right of self-determination…applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” are vague and overbroad, so much so that they can be construed to deem any criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic.

As a diverse network of scholars inspired to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights, we see how this definition, and the way it continually gets applied within US borders, produces a chilling effect on the constitutionally protected free speech of students, faculty, and those in the United States who advocate for justice for Palestinians.

Our concerns are not abstract, but are in fact grounded in the very real ways this definition is used in the United States to silence political speech and, worryingly, curtail academic freedom. In California, right wing groups have been pressuring the UC Regents to adopt the definition.

Kenneth Stern, who is the author of the European Union Monitoring Centre’s (EUMC) “working definition of anti-Semitism,” upon which the current working State Department definition is based has decried this as “”doing more harm than good” and “an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole.”

Also in California, a young student came under attack when the course she was co-teaching at UC Riverside, “Palestinian Voices,” was deemed to meet the United States State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism and hold an “anti-Israel bias.” This course, which was vetted by university administration, was “a one-unit course focusing on Palestinian history through contemporary literature and media prior to the creation of Israel to the present.”

If even Palestinian history and literature is judged anti-Semitic under this definition, the problem lies with the definition itself. The university investigated the course and found it did not violate university policies, but the public campaign against the course, which relied on the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, produces an alarming chilling effect on students and faculty who wish to explore questions of Palestinian culture and politics or more broadly the Israel and Palestine issue.

It is because of our commitments to a free and open democracy, and to the principles of academic freedom, that we request that the Department of State change the current working definition.

Sincerely,

Tallie Ben Daniel
Academic Advisory Council Coordinator
Jewish Voice for Peace

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