Pressure forces amendment to Univ. of California intolerance report

Protestors hold signs during a meeting of the University of California Board of Regents, at the San Francisco Mission Bay campus, on 23 March.

Charlotte Silver

A decision came down this week in a battle that may influence how university administrators deal with campus activism on Palestine around the US.

The University of California Board of Regents rejected a proposal to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, approving an amended [report] on intolerance, which had been widely criticized for conflating political speech with discrimination.

The report, which focuses almost exclusively on anti-Semitism, had been undertaken at the behest of Israel advocacy organizations.

It blames anti-Zionist activism on UC campuses for an alleged rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

Notably, the Anti-Defamation League reported that last year the number of anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses was the lowest since 1999, when the organization started tracking them.

Criticism of the report, which was written by an eight-person working group, had focused on the sentence: “Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

At Wednesday’s UC Regents meeting, board member Norman J. Pattiz proposed the sentence be changed to: “Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

Pattiz said his suggestion was based on feedback from the UC Academic Council.

The council had written a letter to the regents that said the statement as it was written would cause “needless and expensive litigation, embarrassing to the university, to sort out the difference between intolerance on the one hand, and protected debate and study of Zionism and its alternatives on the other.”

Activists and advocates for free speech have reacted with mixed outlooks on Wednesday’s decision.

Liz Jackson, an attorney with Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada that the amendment “does little to fix the central problem with this rotten process based on false accusations from the beginning.”

But Rahim Kurwa, a graduate student at UCLA and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), told The Electronic Intifada that “at the end of the day this does not change the situation for campus organizing one iota.”

“SJP’s organizing is not an anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism. It’s a principled stand for human rights,” he added.

On Wednesday, the board’s attorney Charles Robinson told the regents that the report, which consists of a “contextual statement” and a list of “principles against intolerance,” could not be enforced.

“The principles are aspirational rather than prohibitory,” Robinson said.

Kurwa, who has been involved with SJP for six years, says that since 2010 anti-Palestinian activists have consistently failed to stifle SJP’s work.

“What they have to show for these efforts is basically nothing,” Kurwa said. “The regents ultimately did not accept that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.”

The statement was produced after Israel advocacy organizations, led by the anti-Palestinian watchdog group Amcha Initiative, pressured the UC to adopt the US State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes much criticism of Israel.

According to Kurwa, now that the report is out, “it’ll be easier to get back to our work without worrying about what the regents might do.”

“I’m happy it’s over,” he added.

But Jackson said that the statement still does not make it clear what “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” are, and fears this vagueness will be exploited by Israel advocacy groups.

The Amcha Initiative celebrated the regents’ vote, calling it the first university to take the “critical step” to condemn “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”

“There is absolutely no doubt that anti-Zionism is the driving force behind the alarming rise in anti-Semitism at UC and at schools across the country,” Amcha claimed.

UC Regent and vice chair Bonnie Reiss said at the Wednesday meeting that groups like the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine have created “emotional debates” with criticism of Israel.

Echoing Amcha’s assertions, Reiss said those debates have caused acts of anti-Semitism, like the appearance of swastikas on campus, but did not demonstrate how hate graffiti was connected to campus activism in support of Palestinian rights.

Public comment

The vote took place after a public comment period, during which the regents heard from members of the university and broader community about a range of topics. More than a dozen people voiced concerns about the intolerance report.

Omar Zahzah, a graduate student at UCLA who told the regents his family was displaced from their homes in Palestine in 1948, asked the regents what it means for there to be “no place” for anti-Zionism on campus: “Are our stories and our struggles … meant to be built over, forgotten?”

According to Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson, Zahzah was called an “anti-Semite” while he was walking back to his seat after delivering his comment.

David McCleary, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and member of the UC student worker union, emphasized the breadth of opposition the report had generated, including from the African Black Coalition, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Those who spoke in favor of the statement included California Assemblyman Travis Allen and Amcha Initiative co-founder Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.

Other proponents include the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America.

The Academic Engagement Network, a recently formed group of US academics who aim to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses, also endorsed the full statement.

Assemblyman Allen recited the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism to support the report’s portrayal of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.

Referring to the countrywide effort to beat back the growing BDS movement on college campuses, Allen told the UC Regents they “are not alone.”

In January, Allen introduced legislation to the state assembly that would forbid the California state government from doing business with companies which boycott or divest from Israel.

Politicians interfere with student activism

Meanwhile in Ohio, three state representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties wrote a letter to the undergraduate student government at Ohio State University before their vote on a divestment resolution that has been endorsed by nearly 20 student groups.

The letter urges students to reject the divestment resolution, stating, “Efforts to politically, economically and culturally isolate Israel breed discrimination and hate, and are not reflective of the values that we as Americans hold dear.”

In their response, the OSU Divest campaign said they were “dismayed and profoundly disappointed that you would deem it appropriate to meddle in deliberations regarding an internal university matter.”