Students at the University of California (UC) are celebrating victory against the latest attempt to stifle advocacy for Palestinian rights under the banner of fighting “anti-Semitism.”
The university’s governing body, the Board of Regents, had been due to consider at its meeting this week whether to adopt as official policy the US State Department’s definition of “anti-Semitism.”
That definition “brands critics of Israel and advocates for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic by blurring the important distinction between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and anti-Semitism,” according to civil rights group Palestine Legal.
But faced with a growing public outcry, Napolitano backed down and the definition was taken off the agenda.
Instead, in September the UC Regents will consider “a statement of principles against intolerance, including, but not limited to anti-Semitism and other types of intolerance,” according to a university statement.
This is a major setback to efforts by pro-Israel activists to control speech on campus.
Victory for academic freedom
Palestine Legal welcomed the university’s shift as “a victory for academic freedom.”
“We commend the University of California for engaging in much-needed conversations about how to effectively defeat all forms of racism at the UC while affirming its commitment to the free flow of ideas on campus,” said Palestine Legal staff attorney Liz Jackson. “We hope the university will recognize that student activism and academic inquiry expressing critical views of Israeli policy are not forms of ‘intolerance,’ but rather, they are initiatives to address discrimination and violence against Palestinians, including Palestinian students at the UC. These racial justice initiatives further the university’s efforts to create a more tolerant environment.”
In a statement from the group, Sophia Shalabi, a student at UC Irvine, said the decision to drop consideration of “a definition that is strategically meant to silence pro-Palestinian activists will allow students to continue advocating for the Palestinian voice that has been ignored by our administration.”
“As we move forward within the upcoming academic year, Palestinian rights activists hope to engage in critical debate and continue to educate our fellow students about the Palestinian plight,” Robert Gardner, a student at UCLA, said. “This will now be a little bit easier.”
Blow to Israel lobby
The decision not to consider adopting the State Department definition of “anti-Semitism” is a blow to a key Israel lobby strategy to stifle criticism of Israel by redefining it as bigotry.
The drive to get the university to adopt it was led by none other than Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, founder of the anti-Palestinian group Amcha Initiative that has long spearheaded attacks on students and faculty who criticize Israel, as well as other efforts at censorship.
In an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward in June, Rossman-Benjamin described how in her view nearly all forms of protest and criticism of Israel employed by students would amount to anti-Semitism.
While claiming her goal is to ensure tolerance, Rossman-Benjamin has been caught on video spouting racist statements against students involved in Palestine activism.
But Rossman-Benjamin’s latest effort to stifle free speech faced considerable, and apparently decisive, pushback.
On 7 July, members of SJP West, UAW 2865, Jewish Voice for Peace and several civil rights groups along with UC students, faculty and staff protested outside the UC Office of the President in Oakland.
There were also letters and statements from civil and legal defense groups Palestine Legal and FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
While backing the substance of the definition, Stern feared that turning it into an officially enforced “speech code” would portray Jews – who he conflates with Zionists – as supporting repression of “sacred values” such as free speech for the sake of Israel. This, he warned, could even end up fueling anti-Semitism.
Even the Los Angeles Times editorialized that the State Department definition would be a “constitutionally dubious” threat to the “free-speech provisions of the First Amendment.”
“Would pro-Palestinian students who mounted a protest against Israeli policies in the West Bank be judged anti-Semites because they didn’t also demonstrate against repression in Egypt or Russia?” the Times asked. “What about a student who wanted to argue that Israel should be replaced by a nonsectarian state? Even those who find such a position unrealistic or undesirable might agree that it needn’t be driven by hatred for Jews.”
This editorial underscores that the backlash against Israel lobby efforts at campus censorship has gone mainstream.
That too is a victory that will likely have repercussions far further afield than the University of California.
- University of California
- State Department
- Palestine Legal Support Initiative
- Janet Napolitano
- Liz Jackson
- SJP West
- Students for Justice in Palestine
- Amcha Initiative
- Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
- UAW 2865
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
- Kenneth Stern
- Los Angeles Times