Last week, scholars and university faculty issued a public statement and letter to the 66 California Assemblymembers who drafted, sponsored and passed a resolution on 28 August calling on university administrators to address what the assembly called “anti-Semitism” on campuses — but what many see as a clear attempt to curb Palestine solidarity activism and in-class criticisms of Israel’s policies.
The scholars’ letter said that “the resolution poses a clear threat to academic freedom in the University of California and the California State University systems. … [the resolution] HR 35 does not create new law, but it calls upon university administrators to deny First Amendment rights to students and faculty.”
Over this past weekend, the University of California Student Association (UCSA), a body which represents hundreds of thousands of students across the University of California, on Saturday passed a resolution condemning HR 35 by a 12-0 vote (with two abstentions).
Sigificantly, not only does the UCSA resolution reject the California Assembly’s attempt to chill student activism behind the disguise of fighting anti-Semitism, but it also demands that the university systems stop tolerating, supporting and profiting from Israel’s human rights violations and occupation. The Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is also given specific recognition as “important social movement tools.” The UCSA resolution says that the student body resolves to “encourage all institutions of higher learning to cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investments in companies implicated in or profiting from violations of international human rights law, without making special exemptions for any one country.”
In a press statement released on Saturday, Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley (Cal SJP) said that:
… While ostensibly aimed at protecting Jewish students from experiencing anti-Semitism on campus, HR 35 conflates legitimate, principled criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, raising concerns about free speech rights and academic freedom for students and faculty.
“HR 35’s supporters wish to draw a protective circle around certain nations and say you are exempt from the same criticism that we apply to other state actors,” said Shahryar Abbasi, a voting member of UCSA representing the UC Berkeley campus. “Today’s vote is a statement that UC students believe in free speech and universal human rights. We hope UC Regents will hear and respect our decision.”
… Currently, the UC holds millions of dollars in investments in Caterpillar Inc. and Hewlett-Packard. Caterpillar bulldozers are used by the Israeli army to destroy Palestinian homes and agricultural land, to build illegal Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land, and to construct the West Bank wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. Hewlett-Packard’s products are used by the Israeli navy to enforce Israel’s blockade of Gaza, also deemed illegal by the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In the hours following the vote, national peace organization Jewish Voice for Peace voiced its strong support for the resolution. “This vote is important because the student body of one of the world’s great public universities has unequivocally repudiated efforts to use false charges of anti-Semitism to stifle criticism of Israeli policies,” said Cecilie Surasky, Deputy Director of Jewish Voice [for] Peace. “Many Jewish UC students and professors have been very clear–efforts like HR 35 aren’t about protecting Jewish students. They are about trying to protect the right-wing government of Israel from the criticism of others, many of whom are Jewish.”
“What was almost unthinkable a few years ago is becoming normal”
The UCSA resolution also acknowledges that student activism in various forms has “demonstrated campus unity” across UC campuses and “refutes claims that these actions are motivated by anti-Semitism.”
In an interview with me on Sunday via email, Cal SJP member Tom Pessah said that the process behind issuing the statement by the student association was remarkably “normal” — especially in relation to the divestment vote process in 2010, which was drawn out over several days (the student government had initially passed a divestment initiative, which was vetoed by the student body president, and then voted on again, where ultimately the veto was upheld after days of public debate).
Pessah added that the discussion on addressing HR 35 followed a presentation about unionizing students.
“In a similar way, the bill’s author introduced two presenters who spoke for around 20 minutes about HR 35, the history of intimidating free speech on Israel at UC campuses, including investigations opened and closed about professors teaching the wrong materials, the campus climate report and the Irvine 11.
“Since HR 35 characterizes claims that Israeli policies are racist as a form of anti-Semitism, we disucssed some examples of racism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. The reaction was surprisingly calm — no one claimed [that] criticizing Israeli policies was necessarily a form of religious bigotry, there were no personal attacks on the speakers, and no attempts discredit organizations like Amnesty International.
“Some senators wanted to emphasize activism in this area was happening all over the UC [University of California]. The main objection was that the issue was too big to get involved with, but there was a clear consensus against external interference with students’ free speech. One amendment changed ‘Israel’s occupation’ to ‘Israeli human rights abuses,’ but the latter term was seen as uncontroversial.
“The results speak for themselves — 12 for [the resolution] and 2 abstentions, with no one voting against. What was almost unthinkable a few years ago and highly controversial in 2010 is slowly becoming normal — the idea that Israeli policies can be criticized just like those of any other state, including applying pressure to change them.”
“The issue is not just discussing these policies, but acting to change them”
Pessah added that the message that the student association’s statement sent to the state legislature and university administrators is very clear.
“Students’ and researchers’ academic freedom should not be the subject of either threatening statements, as in HR 35, or actual policies to suppress discussion of certain topics, as proposed in the recent Jewish campus climate report,” Pessah stated.
“No senator spoke in favor of these attempts to chill free speech — the oppossition to them seemed very broad. We hope that freedom to discuss Israeli policies both academically and in the framework of activism will be bolstered by this new resolution. … As several of the senators emphasized, the issue is not just discussing these policies, but acting to change them, which is why the bill that was approved included specific language opposing UC profits from companies invested in the occupation.”
Full text of UCSA resolution
The full text of the UCSA resolution, which can be accessed on Cal SJP’s website, is below.
— A Resolution Regarding California Assembly Bill HR 35 —
WHEREAS a marketplace of ideas where no political speech is suppressed is crucial to a healthy democratic process, AND
WHEREAS universities are important traditional centers of free speech and academic freedom. AND
WHEREAS students and student organizations, motivated by belief in human rights, justice and equality, and who exercise their First Amendment rights to criticize Israeli policies are a welcome addition to campus dialogue and debate. AND
WHEREAS HR 35, introduced in the California State Assembly, calls upon public postsecondary educational institutions in California to directly suppress legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and Palestine solidarity activism, and stifles robust political debate on public university campuses.AND
WHEREAS HR 35 calls upon public postsecondary educational institutions in California to increase efforts to swiftly and unequivocally condemn student and faculty sponsored boycotts, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel and those companies supporting Israel’s Human rights violations.
AND WHEREAS Boycotts, divestment and sanction campaigns are a recognized form of free speech protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. AND
WHEREAS HR 35 constitutes a serious attack on academic freedom and the rights of students and faculty to raise awareness about human rights abuses by US-backed governments AND
WHEREAS While HR 35 is a non-binding resolution, the resolution may embolden university administrators to explicitly curb students’ freedom of expression, as has already been advocated by the recent campus climate report commissioned by UC President Mark Yudof. AND
WHEREAS While HR 35 purports to oppose anti-Semitism, much of HR 35 is written to unfairly and falsely smear as “anti-Semites” those who do human rights advocacy focusing on Israel’s illegal occupation, alleging that the UC faculty and staff involved in such work are motivated by anti-Semitism rather than by the political ideals of equality and respect for universal human rights they affirm, ideals UCSA and most California students share. AND
* WHEREAS organizations and student governments on campuses throughout the UC system have passed resolutions and been involved in actions critiquing and responding to Israeli policies, and this demonstrated campus unity refutes claims that these actions are motivated by anti-Semitism AND
WHEREAS The misuse of terms like anti-Semitism does a disservice not only to those falsely smeared but also to the legacy of anti-Semitic racism and actual victims of anti-Semitism. AND
WHEREAS HR 35 reflects a complete ignorance of the wealth of scholarship and legal opinion (important pieces of it coming from scholars at the UC) affirming the applicability of terms such as racism and Apartheid in the context of Israeli policies.
BE IT RESOLVED that the UCSA President will issue a letter to the Assembly and UC Regents in strong opposition to HR 35 and expressing the UCSA’s opposition to all racism, whether it be the racism of campus and global anti-Semitism or the racism of Israel’s human rights violations, neither of which our campuses should tolerate, support, or profit from.
BE IT RESOLVED that the UCSA recognizes the legitimacy of boycotts and divestment as important social movement tools, and encourages all institutions of higher learning to cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investments in companies implicated in or profiting from violations of international human rights law, without making special exemptions for any one country;
BE IT RESOLVED that the UCSA supports free speech on campus, including criticisms and critiques of foreign governments,
BE IT RESOLVED that the UCSA recognizes HR35 as one in a series of attempts to stifle legitimate speech by UC students by falsely conflating speech critical of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this blog post referred to a part of the UCSA resolution that specifically addressed the 2010 divestment vote at UC Berkeley. That part of the final resolution has been amended to include all student activism across UC campuses (noted with an * asterisk).