Letter to UC Regents: University of California Deserves Real Experts on Intolerance
January 13, 2016
Dear Regents of the University of California,
We are deeply concerned with the list of “experts” chosen by the Working Group on the Statement of Principles against Intolerance. The inclusion of Rabbi Marvin Hier and Kenneth Marcus leads us to believe that the resulting statement will not address intolerance at all, but will reflect a biased effort to redefine anti-Semitism as including criticism of Israel.
To begin with, it is well known that the working group was initially established to focus on an allegedly unsafe environment for Jewish students on UC campuses, in response to a campaign to cast human rights activism on behalf of Palestinians as somehow anti-Jewish. After an outcry from campus communities who pointed out the many attacks against other groups on campus, its mandate was expanded to address issues of intolerance more broadly.
To address the many forms of prejudice and bigotry against UC community members, it would have been appropriate to bring the most diverse and scrupulously objective group of experts possible into the consultation process. Yet the list of experts chosen to provide testimony indicates that the working group is instead focusing largely on issues related to Israel, and moreover, that it failed to exercise due diligence in choosing those whose advice it solicited.
We have learned that the working group met with the following four individuals: UCLA Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, Kenneth Marcus of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights under Law and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). Not only does this constitute a very small pool to consult on a policy meant to address the broad spectrum of intolerant acts against UC students, faculty and staff, but all four are men, leaving out the fundamental voice of women as experts on issues like gender-related bias, intolerance, and sexual assaults against women. Of the four men, only one, Vice Chancellor Kang, can speak authoritatively to racial bias on campus.
We are extremely concerned that not only is there is no expert on Islamophobia or any religious bias other than anti-Semitism, but that Mr. Marcus and Rabbi Hier both represent a particular Jewish viewpoint on Israel, one that sees criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Jews are not and have never been a monolith, and for the Regents to assume so would be inappropriate and offensive.
Beyond their personal political opinions, Marcus and Hier have public records of supporting suppression of speech critical of Israel, vilifying advocates of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic. Especially troubling is that both Marcus and Hier support the domestic use of the “State Department definition” of anti-Semitism, which redefines the term to include “demonizing, delegitimizing, or applying a double standard to” Israel, a definition so broad and subjective it is practically unusable. Even the author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has denounced its proposed use at the University of California.
Marcus has a record of leveraging false and inflammatory accusations against Arab and Muslim students as pro-terrorist or threatening, doing untold harm to the lives of individual students and creating a chilling effect for all UC students. No less an expert on First Amendment issues than UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky has directly questioned Marcus’ credibility on these issues, noting that “any administrator in a public university who tried to follow Professor Marcus’s approach would certainly be successfully sued for violating the First Amendment.”
Indeed, 28 California chapters of the Muslim Students Association and Students for Justice in Palestine signed a 2012 letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expressing “shock and dismay” that Marcus was invited to speak before the commission, accusing him of misrepresenting and stigmatizing their views.
Even more troubling, Marcus has been at the forefront of attempts to attack Middle East Studies Centers for supposed anti-Israel bias, and has celebrated the chilling impact of such unsubstantiated attacks. As he stated directly in a September 9, 2013, opinion piece for the conservative Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post, “Standing Up for Jewish Students,” “These cases — even when rejected — expose administrators to bad publicity. … No university wants to be accused of creating an abusive environment. … Israel haters now publicly complain that these cases make it harder for them to recruit new adherents.” Such language and reasoning have no place in an “expert” knowledge base that the working group is tasked with creating to shape its final statement.
For his part, Hier and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have a similar record of demanding that campus speech critical of Israel be punished. To cite one example, SWC played a significant role in pressuring the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to terminate Professor Steven Salaita due to his criticism of the 2014 Israeli military attack on Gaza on his personal Twitter feed.
SWC claimed that hiring Salaita presented “a real danger to the entire campus community, especially to its Jewish students.” This clear attempt to unduly influence an academic hiring process was not only a violation of academic freedom and highly suspect ethically, it was clearly wrong on the merits, as judicial rulings, censure by the American Association of University Professors and the settlement reached with Salaita all demonstrate.
This was not the first time SWC has inserted itself injuriously into what should be academic issues. At UC Santa Barbara in 2009, SWC helped students file complaints against a Jewish professor, William Robinson, alleging that he had assigned anti-Semitic material.
In fact, the material assigned was critical of Israel’s “Cast Lead” military operation, and charges were dismissed, but not before Robinson was dragged through a harrowing and chilling investigation.Even under the best of circumstances, this can only mean that the totality of views the working group hears will be highly skewed toward equating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, when there are many other issues on which it should be receiving expert advice and analysis.
Given the history of Marcus’ and Hier’s actions and the climate of heightened Islamophobia in the United States, we are deeply concerned that the Statement of Principles against Intolerance will single out Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Students Association and other students supporting Palestinian rights, including many Jewish students. Students are already being unfairly attacked, silenced and punished for their legitimate advocacy.
To ensure the integrity of the process moving forward and that the Statement of Principles includes and protects all students at the University of California, we therefore make these two demands:
1. That the working group expand the list of experts to include those who have long experience advocating on behalf of Palestinian, Muslim and other students (including Jews) who have been singled out for punishment and harassment at UC and elsewhere for their activism; and that it meet with representatives of the growing interfaith Palestinian solidarity community at UC to understand its experiences and concerns.
2. That the working group invite a wide range of experts who have experience in the many other facets of intolerance that must be addressed in any meaningful and comprehensive statement.
Jewish Voice for Peace
American Friends Service Committee
American Muslims for Palestine
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (Michigan)
Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus
Center for Constitutional Rights
Chico Palestine Action Group
Council for American Islamic Relations, California
Ecumenical Peace Institute
Faculty for Justice in Palestine, UC Davis
Jewish Voice for Peace, Bay Area Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, Los Angeles Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, Sacramento Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, San Diego Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, Santa Barbara Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, Santa Cruz Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, South Bay Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, UC Berkeley Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, UC Davis Chapter
Jewish Voice for Peace, UCLA Chapter
Keep Hope Alive, Bay Area Presbyterians
Los Angeles Chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Palestine Israel Network
Muslim Students Association, West
Middle East Children’s Alliance
National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles Chapter
National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter
Northern California Friends of Sabeel
Office of the Americas
Palestine American Congress
Palestine American League
People for Palestinian-Israeli Justice
Sacramento Area Peace Action
Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Rights
Students for Justice in Palestine, West
UAW Local 2865 Joint Council
Veterans for Peace Chapter 87, Sacramento
Wellstone Progressive Democrats of Sacramento
Church & Society Committee of Buena Vista United Methodist Church
Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform