Outcry forces Univ. of California to drop Israel lobby’s “anti-Semitism” definition

Community members take part in a mobilization against censorship of Palestine activism, at the University of California Office of the President in Oakland, 7 July. (via Facebook)

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.

In an interview on WBUR radio in May, UC President Janet Napolitano had publicly declared her support for the State Department definition and insisted that UC Regents would vote on it this month.

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.”

SJP-West, a coalition of West Coast Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, also welcomed the decision.

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.

Outcry

But Rossman-Benjamin’s latest effort to stifle free speech faced considerable, and apparently decisive, pushback.

This included a petition from SJP-West and a letter from UAW 2865 (the labor union for graduate students and workers at UC campuses) to UC President Napolitano.

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.

They delivered a petition from Jewish Voice for Peace with more than 4,000 signatures.

There were also letters and statements from civil and legal defense groups Palestine Legal and FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Remarkably, pro-Israel activist Kenneth Stern, a lead author of what became the State Department’s definition, opposed official adoption, saying it “would do more harm than good.”

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.

Going mainstream

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.

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From a Zionist perspective, I'm happy it failed. If the definition were adopted, it would have unnecessarily raised SJP's profile and given them stuff to rant about in the Fall. Students would have been made aware that people who support Israel are trying to use the regents to contour the definition of free speech to their liking. This would be disastrous for Israel advocates who are trying to portray Israel as a liberal and enlightened cause.

Pro-Israel Jews can win by making their case and explaining why Israel deserves support. We don't need to censor other students.

The Israel lobby often likes the heavy-handed institutional approach. This is because the Jewish-American community is close to elites, the wealthy, politicians, and centers of power in the United States. However, this approach doesn't work as well at the grassroots.

Maybe this failure will show them that a top-down iron fist approach is not the only way.

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"Maybe this failure will show them that a top-down iron fist approach is not the only way."

That's a judgement which ought to be conveyed to the military "authorities" who illegally occupy, colonise and collectively punish Palestine. Let's talk about the real iron fist.

And by the way, why does Israel deserve support?

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I don't think there is any point for you and me to debate why Israel deserves support. We won't agree.

Iron fist is only way to conduct occupation. Issue is that there is an occupation, not the way it is conducted. And occupation can never be pleasant.

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I think the reason they asked why you think Israel deserves support is because they're curious how a seemingly reasonable person justifies the Israeli position. Whether you'd convince me or not I'm always interested in hearing Zionist arguments from someone who isn't actively foaming at the mouth.

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Well, I view Israel is a normal country confronted by abnormal circumstances (in the words of a former Spanish PM).

And I view Israel as part of the pantheon of "good countries:" countries that are democratic, protect free speech, and believe in freedom of religion. There are certainly flaws in Israel's behavior, but I don't throw out the entire beauty of the Zionist project because some aspects of it aren't so pretty. I want them to be fixed.

The Zionist venture is really unprecedented; when have another people sanctified a land for 2000 years and finally managed to come back to it as one people? It's unheard of. Not only is it romantic -- it is just after what has happened to the Jewish people for so long.

Israel is the only country in the world that has everyone of its flaws held up as "evidence" that the state shouldn't exist. I believe that if any society were subjected to the scrutiny that befalls Israel, it would look hopeless and a failure.

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"The Zionist venture is really unprecedented; when have another people sanctified a land for 2000 years and finally managed to come back to it as one people? It's unheard of. Not only is it romantic -- it is just after what has happened to the Jewish people for so long."

This is just the sort of self-regarding flap-doodle an earlier generation was fed in novels and movies such as Exodus- a golden dream of transcendent purity and vindication. Not a word about the rights of the indigenous people, or the brutal methods used by the settlers to dispossess them. Jabotinsky was at least candid in acknowledging what was intended and carried out.

There's nothing democratic about Israel- it's a racist enclave functioning as an outpost of western imperialism in the Middle East. This is a country whose Minister for Justice openly calls for the systematic murder of Palestinian women because "they give birth to little snakes", and whose Deputy Speaker of Parliament demands the total eradication of the people of Gaza, to be replaced en masse with Jewish colonists. Then again, I suppose these are examples of free speech, of a sort so well protected there.

As for "romantic", tell that to the millions driven from their land, to live out their lives in stateless refugee camps. Tell it to the parents of children shot down, bombed, tortured, maimed. Tell them not only is all this "romantic"- it's the epitome of justice, because people far away in another time did similar things to Jews.

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It is a reliably Western nation, pro-western. Even if other western countries like in Europe treat Israel poorly, Israel still will always see itself as Western. The U.S. likes this because in reality, Israel won't ever adopt an anti-Western agenda.

The stupidity in our modern world, the source of conflicts these days is the anti-western world is upset about imperialism but only in rare circumstances can the non-western countries actually implement non-authoritarian regimes (The main example is India which is non-western but a great friend of the west). Eventually though, globalization will sweep everything up. Look at Iran! With the lifting of sanctions, it will eventually stop relying on the political capital of anti-western rhetoric because it wants the financial capital of normal relations with large capitalist states. It might take decades but it will happen. Same goes with Cuba as well.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.