By Liz Jackson, cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights and a staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (PSLS). PSLS provides legal support to advocates for Palestinian rights facing backlash for expressing their views.
Anti-Semitism remains a very real problem. The line of questioning put to UCLA student Rachel Beyda during her confirmation hearing for a student government position was inappropriate, and yes, anti-Semitic in its raw form. So are the isolated incidents of swastikas found on campuses. These instances of anti-Semitism must be addressed head-on.
The extensive media coverage of the UCLA incident, however, has missed one of the most important story lines: the efforts to conflate anti-Semitism with legitimate political criticism of Israel. The New York Times asserted, "Reports of anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish sentiment have been on the rise across the country in recent years, especially directed at younger Jews, researchers said." Yet this accepts the troublesome premise that criticism of Israeli state policies is motivated by and fuels anti-Semitism. Indeed, it is this premise that has paved the way for concerted efforts to curb advocacy for Palestinian rights, on university campuses especially.
There are now, in fact, two resolutions passed in UC Berkeley and UCLA's student senates rightly condemning anti-Semitism, but adopting a definition long pushed by Israel advocacy groups that would encompass almost any criticism of Israeli policies. The definition, identified as the "State Department Definition," has been widely criticized for considering anti-Semitism to encompass "demonization, delegitimization and applying a double-standard" to the state of Israel. This is an affront to First Amendment rights to engage in critical, even if uncomfortable debate about important issues - something the Department of Education has echoed in its repeated dismissals of unfounded complaints of anti-Semitism on campuses. It is also a sure way to dilute and confuse what is really anti-Semitic in an attempt to shield Israel from accountability.
The reality is that, for every real incident of anti-Semitism on campus, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has documented many more false accusations aimed solely at thwarting serious discussions about Israel's treatment of Palestinians. In 2014 alone, we documented over 240 incidents of repression and requests for legal advice, nearly 75% on campuses. These ranged from disciplinary actions against students for peaceful speech activities, to attempts to cancel events, to smear campaigns against groups, students and professors, to death threats and anti-Arab and Islamophobic slurs and assaults against activists because they voiced their views. Virtually all of these cases resulted from unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism and unrelenting pressure from Israel advocacy groups to censor and punish those organizing and engaging in speech activities advocating for Palestinian rights. So far this year, we have already documented over 80 such cases, 40 of which occurred in California.
The narrative encouraged by Israel advocacy groups is devoid of the realities that Muslim, Arab, Jewish and other students of diverse backgrounds who advocate for Palestinian rights and other social justice issues face, because of the political views they express and their identities. Referring to "[t]he coalition of Arab, Muslim, Latino, Asian and gay students," the Executive Director of Hillel at UCLA stated that "Campus politics have been hijacked by a group of students who are intent to conquer." Without recognizing the irony that these marginalized groups are challenging the conquest of their own nations and identities, he undermines their motivations and minimizes their struggles for equality and freedom from colonial domination.
It is precisely this attitude - one that elevates and amplifies certain isolated incidents of bigotry while ignoring and minimizing other histories of institutional oppression and racism - that has fueled the outrage over the UCLA affair, and that is allowing for resolutions like the UCLA one to pass without comment.
As a Jewish attorney working in California, I can attest to the damage of these efforts to brand anyone who dares criticize Israeli policies as anti-Semitic, and to blame them for all anti-Semitic utterances and incidents. The damage extends beyond the individual students and other activists who are intimidated, shunned and punished for voicing their views. It also threatens fundamental U.S. values that protect dissenting voices from the whims of those in positions of authority in order to ensure that ideas can be heard and debated without fear of censorship. Without such protections, we would not have seen the upending of systems of oppression like the Jim Crow South, or the eventual end of US support for the South African apartheid regime. Without such protections, and recognition of the wider context of this issue, Israel will remain unaccountable and able to continue its reckless and decades-long oppression of Palestinians, with full U.S. support.