The California legislature is once again attempting to formally conflate opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism.
California Senate Resolution 35 (SCR 35) urges each of the nine University of California campuses to condemn “all forms of anti-Semitism,” including those “justified … as expressions of disapproval or frustrations over political events in the Middle East.”
On 29 April, the California Senate’s education committee approved the resolution after making two changes recommended by opponents. The resolution must pass in the state Senate before going on to the Assembly for a final vote.
“From sea to shining sea one can witness the proliferation of anti-Semitic activity,” the resolution states in alarmist language. The resolution invokes the US State Department’s controversial definition of anti-Semitism that considers “demonizing,” “delegitimizing” or holding Israel to a “double standard” as anti-Semitic. While the resolution contains one clause which condemns Islamophobia, it devotes the entirety of its text to concerns about alleged anti-Semitism.
In 2012, the California House of Representatives unanimously passed House Resolution 35, which condemned all acts that “demonize and delegitimize Israel,” specifically citing the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as an example of anti-Semitic activities on university campuses.
While the current resolution does not explicitly refer to Israel or the BDS movement, advocates for civil rights and free speech are nevertheless disturbed by the new resolution’s ostensibly more benign wording.
“In substance it does a lot less than HR 35,” David Mandel, a lawyer and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, told The Electronic Intifada. Mandel spoke against the resolution at a public meeting called by the education committee on 29 April.
“Unless you know to read between the lines, it looks fine,” he said. ”But it gives them another hammer to use against Palestinian and student activists.”
“Weapon to stigmatize”
“It is a weapon to use to stigmatize and chill people’s speech. That’s what this is doing. Even though it is less pernicious in actual substance, it amounts to the same function,” Mandel said.
Carol Sanders, a lawyer and member of Jewish Voice for Peace who has been closely watching the resolution, said that HR 35, while currently still in effect, was discredited after coming under a barrage of criticism.
The non-binding resolution was written by Jeff Stone, a freshman state senator and the lone Republican member of the newly-formed California Jewish Caucus, and co-authored by several other members.
In March, Stone attended the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington DC, at which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke. Stone described the right-wing Netanyahu as “very charismatic, very humbling.”
On 24 April, Stone, along with StandWithUs, hosted a visit by two Israeli reserve soldiers. StandWithUs is a well-funded, aggressively anti-Palestinian and anti-BDS organization.
While the impetus for the resolution is said to be the discoveries of a swastika found hanging outside a private resident’s home in Sacramento, and another spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity, critics say its real target is BDS and Palestine solidarity activism.
At a rally condemning the swastikas, Ryan Pessah, the executive director of the Jewish caucus, said, “I truly think that the increase in anti-Semitism is directly connected to the BDS movement. I would argue that without BDS, you would not have these swastikas. This is part of a mindset that the movement has brought into the community.”
As The Electronic Intifada reported, no evidence has been found to connect Palestine solidarity activists to the swastikas at UC Davis.
The Lawfare Project is the only supporter of the resolution to be officially listed. The Lawfare Project is another well-endowed organization that facilitates campaigns aiming to shield Israel from legal accountability for its military actions and other human rights abuses against Palestinians.
Registered opponents of the bill include the Asian Law Caucus, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
At the beginning of 2014, California formed the first-in-the-nation Jewish legislative caucus. Its conception came as student organizing around the issue of Palestine gained momentum, resulting in an increasingly fevered atmosphere among Zionist activists.
The Jewish caucus is currently chaired by Senator Marty Block, who has been an outspoken supporter of Israeli aggression. At the height of Israel’s ferocious attack on the Gaza Strip last summer, for example, Block attended a rally in support of Israel’s actions.
When announcing the Jewish Caucus’ agenda, Block cited the burgeoning student campaigns urging University of California to divest from Israeli militarism, and “anti-Israel” courses taught on UC campuses as issues his lobbying group would address. Block has emphasized that the group is secular, not religious.
Judging by the caucus’s activities during its first year, it appears it will serve as a sort of in-house Israel advocacy group for California’s state legislature. Immediately upon forming the caucus, the group met Janet Napolitano, the UC president, to discuss “anti-Israel vitriol” on UC campuses.
Last year, the caucus authored a resolution endorsing an agreement between Netanyahu and Jerry Brown, California’s governor. The resolution pledged more collaboration between California and Israel’s lucrative biotech, water and security industries, some of which have been successfully targeted for boycott.
“They tell people you might have these fringe groups that are trying to boycott, there are these groups on campus, but California is firmly stating that we’re open for business with Israel,” stated Block.
During the education committee’s vote on the resolution, Block accused opponents of the resolution as having “an objective to harm the State of Israel or to change Israel’s actions.”
Neither Stone nor Block would responded to requests for comment.
Opponents make impact
It is important to note that despite inflammatory and widely covered allegations of a spike in anti-Semitism on California campuses, there is no evidence that such a specter exists.
In fact, the Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel group, notes that for the last three years the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus is the lowest since 1999, when the organization began to keep track.
While the resolution is moving forward, its opponents have gained considerable traction. In April they sent a letter to the education committee criticizing the resolution and offering three recommendations to alter and improve it.
Heeding their advice, the committee removed a clause in the resolution that called on publicly-funded schools to condemn “any act of anti-Semitism augmenting education programs.”
The amended version of the resolution also adds: “nothing in this resolution is intended to diminish the rights of anyone, including students, to freely engage in any speech or other activity protected by the United States Constitution.” Opponents had originally requested the clause to specifically protect criticism of any country.
However, the resolution still relies on the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.
The amended resolution passed out of the education committee with only one abstention, by Senator Bill Monning.
- UC Davis
- University of California
- Janet Napolitano
- Marty Block
- Jeff Stone
- California Jewish Caucus
- US State Department
- David Mandel
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Carol Sanders
- Washington DC
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Ryan Pessah
- The Lawfare Project
- Asian Law Caucus
- Center for Constitutional Rights
- Los Angeles
- National Lawyers Guild
- Jerry Brown
- Anti-Defamation League
- Bill Monning