How California uni chief conflates real bigotry with criticism of Israel

18 April 2012

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When it comes to criticizing Israel, free speech is being muzzled on university campuses.

(Jennifer Moo / Flickr)

Last month, Mark Yudof, president of the University of California Regents, sent an email to the entire UC community. The title of the correspondence referred to “recent incidents of intolerance.” The letter explained, “I write today to address, once again, the moral and ethical imperative for all of our University of California students, faculty and staff members to foster a climate of tolerance, civility and open-mindedness. I am prompted to do so because of a number of recent incidents that undermine this imperative” (“Open letter to UC community from President Yudof,” 8 March 2012).

The incidents to which he then refers are the defacement of an Israeli flag at UC Riverside, a protest against a talk by former Israeli soldiers at UC Davis, a noose hung at UC San Diego two years ago, vandalism of the LGBT Resource Center at UC Davis (also two years ago), and the drawing of swastikas on campus.

Yudof claims that all five of these incidents undermine values of tolerance on campus, as if to draw equivalence between criticism of state policy, racism and hate.

However, during a recent demonstration near campus involving Jewish Voice for Peace and Cal Students for Justice in Palestine, protesters (both UC students and community members) were assaulted with pepper spray and threatened with tasers (“Three pepper-sprayed south of UC Berkeley campus following protest,” The Daily Californian, 25 February 2012).

Not long after, Yudof issued his statement to the UC community with no mention of this egregious violation of campus safety.

Selective attitude to “intolerance”

Ray Hajduk, an SJP member of Jewish descent who participated in the nonviolent demonstration that day, told The Electronic Intifada that “there was no statement from the administration at any level, no actions taken to ensure my own or other Jewish and non-Jewish students safety. If Yudof really wants to protect students from bigotry, from attacks on their beliefs, identities and safety, then why does he only choose to stand up for students when he finds it convenient for his own pro-Israel message?”

Why does Yudof believe that the defacement of a flag or a silent protest against soldiers from a foreign army on campus is more threatening than physical assault with tasers and pepper spray?

“Whatever one thinks about the tactics of defacing a flag or shouting allegations of murder at a soldier, such acts do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as anti-LGBT slurs, Nazi swastikas in student dorms, or the hanging of nooses on African-American students’ doors,” SJP core organizer Emiliano Huet-Vaughn said.

“That Yudof would conflate real hatred and bigotry with criticism of Israeli apartheid is an insult to the clear majority opinion at Berkeley opposing that apartheid and to the real victims of hate-driven bigotry on our campuses,” he added.

Among the countless events that Yudof selectively omitted from his list were an assault of Students for Justice in Palestine members on 29 February during an on-campus debate in which SJP proposed a resolution on divestment from Israel, repeated vandalism and destruction of the CalSJP signboard displayed on Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, and the assault of a UC Berkeley student senator in 2010 because of her views on human rights violations in Palestine (“Anti-Palestinian vandalism at UC Berkeley,” Students for Justice in Palestine, 11 October 2010).

Even campus community leaders such as Noah Stern, former president of the Associated Students of the University of California, who shares Yudof’s pro-Israel sentiments, believes that criticism of Israel is not a threat and in fact something that the Jewish community should be talking about. In an article published by J Weekly in January, Stern states, “Those who decry the lively debate about Israel taking place at UC Berkeley among the Jewish students are wrong, and those who declare it ‘anti-Israel’ could not be further from the truth” (“Debate among all Jewish groups belongs at UC Berkeley,” 12 January 2012).

Silencing solidarity with Palestine

Yudof’s letter is an attempt to disguise promotion of Israeli impunity as concern for the safety and security of UC students. His comments amount to abuse of those who suffer true oppression as political tools for silencing any challenge to Israeli supremacy.

There are many other examples of efforts to silence criticism of Israel on UC campuses and campuses across the country in recent years. In addition to the arrest, prosecution and eventual conviction of ten Muslim students at the University of California at Irvine for their protest of an Israeli official’s speech in 2010, professors around the country — such as Terri Ginsberg and David Klein — have been attacked by Israel lobby groups for their critique of Israeli policies.

There have also been several lawsuits calling on UC administrators to crack down on Palestine solidarity activism, claiming that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The most recent lawsuit, filed against the UC administration (including Yudof) was dismissed by San Francisco District Judge Richard Seeborg in late 2011 for lack of evidence.

Yudof’s most recent statements clearly reflect that the goal to eradicate the freedom of free speech in the case of Israel is actively supported by the highest levels of the UC administration.

However, student activism is continuing to grow and challenge administration policies linked with Israel, despite ongoing threats and attempts of repression.

As Suleiman Hodali, a UCLA student and SJP member points out, “the president’s letter indicates that the actions of groups like SJP are truly beginning to pose a threat to the status quo of university power relations with Israel.”

Editor’s note: Ray Hajduk’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. It has been corrected.

Dalia Almarina is a Bay Area native. She is a recent alumnus of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine.