Anti-Semitism vs. Anti-Zionism

U of California alters definitions in proposed statement on intolerance that is attracting considerable scrutiny from faculty members and activists.

March 24, 2016
A pro-Palestinian student protest

The University of California Board of Regents will vote today on whether to endorse a statement on intolerance that condemns anti-Semitism, including some "forms of anti-Zionism." That condemnation departs significantly from a draft released last week that equated anti-Zionism generally with anti-Semitism and drew sharp criticism from some faculty members and others.

The proposed Principles Against Intolerance, and their accompanying contextual information, are themselves a revised version of an statement proposed last year that attracted criticism from several directions. Jewish groups said it wouldn't do enough to fight the anti-Semitism they say is growing on University of California campuses, and others worried that the proposal would hamper free speech.

Both those sides warmed to the revised version that was released last week, though the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned that its support would depend on how the policy was carried out. Others, including Jewish Voice for Peace -- which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel -- theorist Judith Butler, and many UC faculty, opposed the new version because, they said, it foregrounded anti-Semitism above other forms of intolerance and it equated anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.

The principles themselves “call on university leaders actively to challenge anti‐Semitism and other forms of discrimination when and wherever they emerge within the university community.” They both affirm the university's commitment to free expression and specifically address situations akin to past incidents that caused many to fear anti-Semitism on UC campuses was growing. One provision, for example, condemns physically ("or otherwise") interfering with a speaker on campus. The reference is apparently to an incident in which pro-Palestinian speakers repeatedly heckled an Israeli speaker, preventing him from giving a lecture.

In a “contextual statement” preceding the principles themselves, one line in the document released last week read, “Anti‐Semitism, anti‐Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

Critics focused much of their ire on that sentence specifically and the notion that anti-Zionism is innately anti-Semitic. A systemwide Faculty Senate committee also noted that the sentence appeared to contradict a previous line, which distinguished intolerance and criticism of Zionism, and suggested it be changed to read “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”

The board committee made the change yesterday at the behest of Regent Norman Pattiz, who helped draft the revised statement, and then sent the now doubly revised Principles Against Intolerance to the entire board for consideration today.

Despite the change, groups that lobbied for a tough stance on anti-Zionism and previously supported the statement haven’t withdrawn their approval.

A statement from the pro-Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, which also voiced its support last week, said, “While this is less unequivocal than the previous language, it is a major step forward in educating the UC community about the nuanced forms of anti-Semitism Jewish students face today.”

The anti-Semitism watchdog group AMCHA Initiative, whose previous support was very much tied to the anti-Zionism reference, reiterated its support Wednesday. “In some ways, [the change] takes the wind out of the sails of the people who falsely claimed the regents were trying to shut down discussion about Israel,” said AMCHA’s director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, because this language doesn’t condemn all criticism of Israel, or anti-Zionism, outright.

“I wish they would have adopted a definition [of anti-Semitism],” she said. “But on the other hand, I’m not going to condemn the statement for not being more clear because I think it says something. It’s gone to a place no one has gone before, which is to mention the word 'anti-Zionism.' To establish that there are anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism is huge for us.”

Several groups that opposed the statement in part because of the anti-Zionism reference have not budged, either.

“The regents' new policy offers no clarity on how to determine when criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism crosses a line into anti-Semitism,” reads a statement released Wednesday by Jewish Voice for Peace. “And [it] was predicated on the erroneous assumption that support for Palestinian rights is inherently anti-Semitic.”

The well-known literary theorist and Berkeley professor Judith Butler also criticized the proposal in a statement read at the meeting, and she upped her opposition, despite the altered language, in a blog post published after the meeting.

“If we think that we solve the problem by distinguishing forms of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, then we are left with the question of who identifies such a position, and what are their operative definitions?” she wrote. “These terms are vague and overbroad and run the risk of suppressing speech and violating principles of academic freedom.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California also raised free speech concerns. “Rules should be clear, they should be specific. They should draw a line as clearly as possible between protected speech and prohibited discrimination,” said Alan Schlosser, senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California. “The language is confusing and vague as to what it adds to anti-Semitism. That confusion is really antithetical to the way free speech works.”

That holds true even though the regents proclaimed at the meeting yesterday that the statement was entirely aspirational. “It’s not just anybody saying this, it’s the regents,” Schlosser said. “It’s the regents in an official document linking anti-Zionist speech with anti-Semitic speech. We felt that’s going to create problems for people who intend to engage in protected speech … Speakers that want to express anti-Zionist views on campus are going to experience a chilling effect even with the rephrasing, because anti-Zionism is part of the statement in that sentence.”

A university spokeswoman confirmed that “these principles will not, by themselves, provide a basis for enforcement or sanctions.”


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