Despite its increasing presence and impact on college campuses, anti-Semitism’s definition has become inexplicably blurred and political.
The Senate Concurrent Resolution 35 was proposed this March urging University of California campuses to condemn anti-Semitism and racism. Responses have varied; however, most backlash has come from those who have disputed the definition of anti-Semitism rather than the purpose of the resolution itself.
SCR 35 adopted the United States Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism, which denotes it as a “certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews, [in both] rhetorical and physical manifestations.” The State Department provides examples of anti-Semitism, too, which, among other issues, includes “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nations.”
Although there is controversy regarding the inclusion of Israel in this expanded definition of anti-Semitism, for Jewish students, Israel is an integral piece of their Jewish identity. In a report conducted by a fact-finding team at UC campuses for UC President Mark Yudof, the team concluded that “for many Jewish students, their Jewish cultural and religious identity cannot be separated from their identity with Israel.” Therefore, integrating a swastika with the Jewish star of David or “routinely analogiz[ing] Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews” crosses the thin line between politics and hate speech.
Some groups, most notably those who do not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, have refused to accept SCR 35 because of its supposed endorsement of Israel by its adoption of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. That is, they claim that the resolution limits free speech and academic freedom as it pertains to criticizing the Jewish state of Israel. Specifically, the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Cooperating Counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights criticized the resolution as a means to “stifle political expression … SCR 35 reinforces a false picture of anti-Semitism on California campuses.” They urge replacing the United States Department of State’s definition in favor of the broad, convoluted Merriam-Webster definition, which understands anti-Semitism to mean “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic or racial group.”
However, the State Senate’s definition does allow for free speech and criticism of the Jewish state–it simply does not allow for discrimination or hate speech against Jews. In fact, on May 6, the Senate added an additional clause to the resolution directly responding to the resolution’s criticizers: “that 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.”
Furthermore, the specific definition of anti-Semitism in no way detracts from the need to condemn discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, disability, and so forth. In fact, the resolution actually explicitly urges “each University of California campus to adopt a resolution condemning all forms of anti-Semitism and racism, including Islamophobia.”
Perhaps the true question therefore becomes, is this argument really about “free speech?”
Just this year, UCLA experienced anti-Semitism most notably during the notorious Rachel Beyda incident, in which student government leaders questioned and initially rejected the nomination of a Jewish student to UCLA’s student Judicial Board because of the supposed bias her Jewish affiliations would carry.
UC Davis’ chapter of AEPi, a Jewish fraternity, has also faced anti-Semitism, waking up to find swastikas painted on their doors. Nazi symbols and rhetoric have crept into college campuses and students are becoming increasingly fearful of being singled out on account of their Judaism. On every campus, Jews have been harassed and some have resorted to hiding their Jewish identity. The Jewish Star of David has been transformed into a symbol of hate. Students attempting to open a discussion about Israel have been repeatedly shut down and intimidated.
This resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other racism is needed now more than ever. The distinction between free speech and hate speech are becoming increasingly blurred. However, while the passing of this resolution would signify a step in the right direction, it is also naively hopeful to believe that it will actually end anti-Semitism, a force that is, no doubt, growing on college campuses.