Dear Eddie Island, Norm Pattiz, John A. Pérez, Bruce Varner, Avi Oved, Linda Katehi, Dan Hare, and Yvette Gullatt:
Your most recent task as regents, chancellors and university leaders is to debate, revise and re-construct the UC Statement of Principles against Intolerance — a policy statement affirming the UC’s stance against discrimination and prejudice of all kinds. The term “intolerance” is broad and wide-ranging, and covers any and all forms of prejudice and bigotry. To remind you, that includes anti-Semitism.
I commend you all for tackling a task that, however fundamental, seems to always inexplicably stir controversy: ensuring the fair treatment of Jewish students on campuses across the UC. But to successfully achieve that task requires the incorporation of the US State department’s definition of anti-Semitism into the statement of principles, a matter that has elicited an inordinate degree of contentiousness. Incorporating the definition is not some throw-in to the statement. On the contrary, your success as a working group depends on it. Here’s why:
When a Jewish fraternity house is defaced with a swastika; when a Jewish student is denied a student government position because of her religious identity; or when a Jewish student government representative is told he cannot vote because of his “Jewish agenda,” it’s easy to recognize and condemn anti-Semitism. It’s easy to recognize it because incidents like those, even if motivated by hatred towards Jews as a whole, constitute attacks against Jewish individuals. It’s easy to condemn it because the vast majority of the public can recognize these acts as anti-Semitic.
But in our world today, anti-Semitism manifests itself in more subtle ways, often as discrimination against the Jewish people not as individuals but as a nation, most prominently in their nation-state and homeland: the state of Israel. These forms of anti-Semitism are more subtle and more controversial, rendering them less prone to widespread recognition and condemnation. However, more subtle anti-Semitism does not mean less significant or less severe anti-Semitism.
To de-legitimize the state of Israel is to negate the historical record by denying the history of the Jewish people therein. Israel is not an outpost of Western settler-colonialism, as academic detractors often claim; it is not the result of some Freudian redirection of violence from Holocaust victims to Palestinian oppressors, either. Israel is, simply and comprehensively, the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland. To deny the Jewish people’s history in their homeland is to effectively deny their right to exist as a nation. Where are Jews to go if they can’t live in Israel? Many of our fellow students who deny Israel’s right to exist and reject a two-state solution won’t say, either because they don’t know, or with extremists, because they would reluctantly accept a genocide of the Jewish people.
To hold Israel — and the Jewish people — to a standard higher than that of every other nation and every other people is equally problematic. Every single country, including Israel, is governed by people who act improperly. And yet, on campuses all around the UC, advocates of the BDS movement choose to single out Israel. It’s this singling out of Israel that leads to the obvious isolated incidents of anti-Semitism mentioned above.
Why do these students single out Israel?
Could it be because of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Well, Turkey has occupied Northern Cyprus since 1974, Morocco has occupied the Western Sahara since 1975, and Armenia has occupied parts of Ngorno-Kharabakh, a region in Azerbaijan, for more than 20 years. A strange yet resounding silence is all I hear regarding these occupied peoples, and nobody on campus — BDS advocates included — agitate on their behalf. So surely it can’t be about taking a stand against occupation.
If not occupation, then it must be about purported systematic oppression or mass civilian carnage, right? According to even the most conservative estimates, at least twice as many civilians have died in the last four years in Syria than have died in the last 96 years of the the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. Until the recent refugee crisis, nobody — BDS advocates included — advocated for these oppressed peoples on campus. And yet, when tragedy struck in Paris a couple weeks ago, BDS advocates were ironically the same people remonstrating against the Western world’s selective outrage at terrorist attacks.
Ultimately, Israel’s wrongdoings are no more heinous than many other countries’, and in fact are much less so. Whether advocates of the BDS movement claim through their words to hate or not is irrelevant because they single out only the Jewish nation through their actions. That is, by definition, discriminatory.
The main visible barrier between your recognition of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism and your adoption thereof is the issue of whether adopting this definition will block free speech. Just today, in fact, you all were “advised by a collection of researchers, scholars and opinion leaders on First Amendment issues.” Espousing the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism will not stifle free speech or other academic freedoms. It will still allow for the free exchange of ideas and the open debate thereof, processes crucial for the growth of students at any university.
Most importantly, espousing this definition will in no way suppress criticism of Israeli policy, a pretext frequently bandied around by Israel’s detractors on campus. (It is ironic — and again, discriminatory — that many of those who seek to deny Jewish students’ request to self-define anti-Semitism often themselves complain about being denied the privilege to explain what constitutes prejudice against their own ethnic, racial or religious groups.)
As a board member of Hillel at UCLA, and as a managing editor for Ha’Am Newsmagazine, I am a Jewish leader in this community. That does not mean I claim to speak for all Jews on this campus. I don’t. But I do know that I command the respect of many, and that my views mirror those of the many in the greater UC Jewish community.
With that in mind, I remind you: as governors of this university, as protectors of its wellbeing, and as trustees of its students, it is your duty to ensure all are treated without prejudice. The first amendment guarantees that those who are prejudiced are entitled to remain as such, provided they don’t act on their prejudice. Adopting this definition of anti-Semitism into the Statement of Principles will not change those who seek to de-legitimize Israel and hold it to a double standard. It will not curtail their right to publicize their beliefs, either. It will only recognize them for what they are: bigots. Adopting this definition will not limit free speech, it will not stifle academic growth, and it will not distort the definition of anti-Semitism. But adopting this definition will help eliminate the unfair treatment of Jewish students at the UC.