The past few weeks have not been good for the University of California's image.
On March 13, a working group commissioned by the UC Regents, a 26 member governing body of California's public university system, released a draft statement on Principles Against Intolerance. The draft statement, which will be voted on next week during a UC Regents meeting, immediately garnered strong criticism from media, civil rights organizations, and attorneys for bowing to outside political pressure to silence the First Amendment rights of students and scholars. This, coupled with the growing outrage over how the university system is handling institutionalized issues of sexual harassment, has drawn considerable attention to the UC Regents ahead of next week's meetings.
There has been concern brewing for some time from UC students and faculty supporters of Palestinian rights, as well as general free-speech advocates, that the UC Regents will respond to outside pressure from pro-Israel groups and formally adopt the State Department definition of anti-Semitism. This problematic definition, taken from the "European Union Monitoring Centre," was abandoned by the EU in 2013 because it is so vaguely worded in certain portions that any critique of Israeli policy could arguably be construed as anti-Semitic.
Last fall, the UC Regents opted not to adopt the State Department definition and instead appointed a working group to draft a more general "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance," as a way to condemn multiple forms of discrimination.
However, during the process of drafting, the working group consulted with a widely criticized all-male panel of "experts," some of whom are known to advocate for the suppression of speech critical of Israeli policies. Jerry Kang, UCLA's Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, is the only individual on the panel with actual scholarly expertise on racial issues.
The latest draft of the statement clearly demonstrates this imbalance: While the actual text of the "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance" is uncontroversial, it is prefaced by an introductory report by the working group that equates anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. A statement from Jewish Voice for Peace warns, "This conflation is inaccurate and harmful: one is a form of anti-Jewish bigotry, and the other is criticism of a political ideology."
Civil rights attorneys at Palestine Legal have urged the UC Regents not to adopt the newly released statement of principles, stating that, "the document cannot be enforced against anti-Zionist speech activities because any such enforcement would violate the First Amendment, the California Constitution, and UC's own policies protecting free speech, and would invite legal challenge."
Despite not being enforceable, if the statement were to be passed by the UC Regents in its entirety, students and faculty will feel the impact. An editorial by the Los Angeles Times echoes these concerns: "Pro-Palestinian activists on campus are right to fear that such a statement would target their advocacy even when it doesn't involve anti-Semitic language or harassing behavior."
If the UC Regents adopt this statement in its entirety, it will certainly stigmatize campus Palestine activism: many of us who speak out against the settler-colonial and apartheid practices of the Israeli state oppose Zionism as the ideology under which such practices are excusable, and even necessary. This possibility is especially alarming given the already intense atmosphere of repression around Palestine organizing in the U.S. While the clampdown on pro-Palestine activism remains intense on virtually all fronts, with anti-BDS legislation even being introduced at state and federal levels, data shows that college and university campuses remain a crucial site of repression for such activity.
Furthermore, over 250 faculty from across the University of California have signed a letter expressing grave concern over the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, pointing out the risks such a definition might pose to academic freedom:
Jewish criticisms of Zionism have been actively debated within the Jewish community since the time of Herzl, and we would be unable to teach that history (consider the important work of Hannah Arendt, the skepticism of Franz Rosenzweig, the robust arguments between among nationalists and internationalists). Examples of those kinds of criticisms of Zionism include the work of secular Jews who have been opposed to Zionism as a religious doctrine with a messianic mission, but also, paradoxically, Orthodox Jews who were, and are, opposed to Zionism because it is a secular doctrine. In the early decades of the twentieth-century, socialist Jews from Eastern Europe made their arguments against Zionism, insisting that Jews would be better served by the Jewish Bund Party representing labour rights. Even now, the New Yorker has run articles by Jewish scholars asking whether 'liberal Zionism' is dead, and Ha'aretz, the major Israeli newspaper, regularly hosts debates for and against Zionism. Indeed, many migrants to Israel have arrived without ever taking a stand on Zionism at all. How would we understand this complex phenomenon if the University called all 'anti-Zionism' bigotry and intolerance?
At a time when politicians and public figures have proposed interning Muslims, and leading presidential candidates run on xenophobic and racist campaign platforms that encourage racialized violence at political rallies, it is all the more troubling that the UC Regents are using a statement against intolerance as an attempt to keep UC campuses free of debate critical of Israeli policies regardless of the threats it poses to First Amendment Rights and scholarship.
For these reasons, the UC Regents must listen to the voices of faculty, students and civil rights and community organizations and scrap this statement altogether, or at the very least vote to pass the "Principles Against Intolerance" without the prefatory report at their upcoming meeting. Adopting a "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance" that blurs the line between political critique and genuine bigotry will not only adversely affect us as activists and scholars -- it will impoverish the very stated intent of opposing prejudice and discrimination whenever they present themselves.