Reflections on the UC Regents meeting
By Rahim Kurwa and Tallie Ben Daniel
Yesterday, the UC Regents voted unanimously to pass a “Statement of Principles against Intolerance.” This statement has been the subject of much scrutiny, especially since the original preamble to the draft included the disturbing sentence “antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” While that language was missing from the principles themselves, it was unclear how these principles would be applied, and many pointed out that collapsing antisemitism with anti-Zionism was factually wrong and an unacceptable limitation on our free speech rights.
In the meeting itself, the sentence was changed to “antisemitism, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University,” and was subsequently passed by the Regents.
It is important to be clear: anti-Jewish bigotry is always reprehensible, but criticism of the state of Israel is not inherently anti-semitic.
At first, this seemed like an alarming attack on political criticism of Israel, because the new phrase offered no clarity on how to interpret “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” How can one determine when criticism of Israel or of Zionism crosses the line into anti-semitism, if there are those that consider all criticism of Israel antisemitic? The choice of words is redundant and unclear – aren’t antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism just antisemitism?
But the phrase is even more confused when we consider that the whole process was predicated on the idea that support for Palestinian rights is inherently anti-semitic.
The amendment, introduced by Regent Pattiz during the meeting, was suggested by the University Committee on Academic Freedom at the University of California, following an outcry in the media, and among faculty, students, and civil rights groups.
In the meeting, the UC General Counsel Charles Robinson made it clear that this is a statement of opinion, an “aspirational” statement on behalf of the Regents, not a change of policy for the University of California.
We want to note the ways that this sentence, in the end, is a testament to the success of the movement for Palestinian rights, after many years and many attempts to suppress such activism. For example, this marks what might possibly be the first time that faculty at the University of California collectively acknowledged that anti-Zionism and criticism of the Israeli state are legitimate political positions.¹ The UC Academic Senate noted:
“Most importantly, the Academic Senate objects to the inclusion of “Anti-Zionism” in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Contextual Statement. Zionism is a nationalist and political movement with specific and well-documented historical roots. Explication, analysis, and critique of that movement, both in all its current and historical manifestations, are legitimate subjects of academic teaching, research and scholarly debate. We fear that an overly broad interpretation of “Anti-Zionism” may have a chilling effect on reasonable and appropriate discourse on this political, social, and historical phenomenon. Thus the condemnation of “Anti-Zionism” in total raises valid concerns for protected speech and academic freedom”
This fight has been years in the making. We could start this story in May of 2015, when President Janet Napolitano expressed support during a radio interview for calls from far-right Israel advocacy organizations to adopt a problematic State Department definition of antisemitism that includes vague language about criticism of Israel. Enforcement of this problematic definition raised alarm bells from free speech advocates and supporters of Palestinian human rights, as well as from the original author of the definition who said it should not be enforced on US campuses.
But the real start of this story goes back to the mid 2000s, when Israel advocacy organizations began a campaign to squash speech critical of Israel at the UC system.
Between 2004 and 2013, anti-Palestinian advocacy groups like the Zionist Organization of America, the Brandeis Center, and the AMCHA Initiative turned to the federal government for official validation of its theory that activism for Palestinian rights is anti-Semitic and therefore must be shut down. These groups, and their leaders, filed three Title VI complaints against UC campuses (as well as filing a separate lawsuit, Felber v. Yudof, against UC Berkeley). The legal claimsboiled down to the notion that criticism of Israeli policies creates a hostile environment for Jewish students (assuming that all Jewish students must be pro-Israel) and denied them access to an equal educational environment. Not only did these legal complaints erase the experiences of Jewish students who are critical of Israeli policies, but they were used as a political tool to intimidate student activists for Palestinian rights.
In the end, the Department of Education dismissed all three claims.
“We view this attempt to use the Civil Rights Act to limit students’ ability to speak out for the rights of oppressed groups as a perversion of the spirit of the law and the cause of equality and justice that undergirds it. We are pleased that the Department of Education dismissed all three cases, finding that the allegations either lacked merit or were examples of speech “that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.” These findings echo the department’s 2007 conclusions from UC Irvine, which stated that “speeches, articles, marches, symbols, and other events at issue were not based on the national origin of the Jewish students, but rather based on opposition to the policies of Israel.” The dismissals finally lift a threat that has been hanging over our universities since 2004, when the first complaint to the DOE was made against UC Irvine.”
The Department of Education has consistently affirmed the right of students to advocate for Palestinian rights, and have never found any evidence that a hostile climate exists because of this activism.
Fast forward to 2010. In response to one racist event (UCSD’s notorious “Compton Cookout”) and one anti-racist student protest (the Irvine 11 incident), then-President Mark Yudof convened the President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture, & Inclusion to investigate the campus and make recommendations for administrators to improve its climate.
These efforts started well before the divestment movement picked up steam at the UC system.
In 2012, after two years of biased and unaccountable fact-finding, the “Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact-Finding Team” produced a report that painted all Jewish students as pro-Israel, equated criticism of Israel with antisemitism and outlined shocking recommendations that would suppress Palestinian activism on campus. The report openly discussed banning the ability for campus centers to support Israeli Apartheid Week programming, and discussed developing protocols to ensure that campus events on Palestine were “balanced” or “unbiased.” It also suggested adopting speech codes that may categorize criticism of Israel as hate speech and advised the adoption of a definition of anti-semitism that included criticism of Israel. The report acknowledged the potential illegality of such actions, but urged the Regents to court a lawsuit regardless. As Palestine Legal’s report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech, notes, “a number of groups protested the report, pointing out its methodological flaws, its factual misrepresentations, and the constitutional issues its recommendations raised.” Not to mention, “more than 2,200 students, faculty, and alumni—many of them Jewish—signed a petition asking UC president Yudof to set the report aside.”
In the end, the University of California declined to adopt those recommendations, and removed the report from its website.
This brings us up to the summer of 2015. Having failed to successfully squash student speech through the Department of Education or through the Campus Climate Reports, the AMCHA Initiative, along with other pro-Israel groups like the Brandeis Center for Human Rights and StandWithUS, advocated for the UC system to adopt the “State Department definition” of antisemitism, which includes the vague language of “demonizing, delegitimizing, and applying a double standard to” Israel as a form of antisemitism. In an interview with The Forward, Rossman-Benjamin clearly stated that she intended to use the definition to suppress Palestinian human rights activism. Namely, when asked which acts would be considered antisemitic by use of this definition, Rossman-Benjamin said that “BDS would, in principle,” as well as “protests in which activists erect a wall to symbolize Israel’s separation barrier,” and “demonstrations in which activists distribute mock eviction notices,” as well as presentations by Israeli soldiers about human rights violations in the occupied territories.
Again, after several groups denounced this move by the University, including Jewish Voice for Peace, UAW Local 2865, Palestine Legal, Center for Constitutional Rights, Students for Justice in Palestine, and several other social justice organizations, the University instead stated they would be developing a “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” to address the claims of antisemitism at the UCs.
The first draft of the Principles were mostly benign, although some had criticisms about their potential application. But after pro-Israel groups showed up to the Regents meeting in force, demanding that the University take strong action against what they defined as antisemitism on college campuses, the first draft was scrapped and a working group was convened to re-draft, cynically invoking the struggles of other communities to make the process appear more inclusive.
The working group, made up of Regents, the student regent, UC Davis Chancellor Katehi, and members of UCOP, put together a draft that included the sentence “Antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
The responses have been vociferous and nearly unanimous. The LA Times editorial board, American Civil Liberties Union, UCLA historian and Jewish Studies professor David Myers, UC professors Saree Makdisi and Judith Butler, State Department definition of anti-Semitism author Kenneth Stern, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, and over 300 UC faculty pointed out that collapsing antisemitism with anti-Zionism was factually inaccurate and harmful to the university.
Which brings us to yesterday, when the statement was amended to read “antisemitism, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination.”
Yesterday, our takeaway was that this is just another tool AMCHA and other anti-Palestinian groups will use to suppress student activism and faculty’s academic freedom with regards to Palestine. But today, I have a slightly different view: all these censorship attempts put together have amounted to one vague sentence, in a statement that University counsel called “aspirational” but not enforceable.
No doubt that the efforts to suppress our movement will continue. Over the decade of time that anti-Palestinian groups have tried to censor our work, the principled movement for justice did not stop because of these attempts at suppression. In fact, from 2004 to 2016, the movement for justice and human rights in Palestine and Israel has grown exponentially. The students and faculty that continue to fight for justice in classrooms, on campus, in academic associations and in their daily lives will not be stopped, regardless of what the UC Regents say.
- Many thanks to Dr. Sunaina Maira for this observation.