To anyone paying attention it is obvious that the California university system has the dubious distinction of being the epicenter of the campus war against Israel, an unwelcomed situation that has reached such intolerable levels that the UC Regents were forced to take some action. That effort, which resulted in a study entitled the “Final Report of the Regents Working Group on Principles Against Intolerance,” attempts to establish guidelines by which any discrimination against any minority group on campus would be identified and censured, but the report specifically focused on the thorny issue of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism as a prevalent and ugly reality throughout the California system.
The report examined a range of incidents occurring during the 2014-15 academic year, unfortunate transgressions that “included vandalism targeting property associated with Jewish people or Judaism; challenges to the candidacies of Jewish students seeking to assume representative positions within student government; political, intellectual and social dialogue that is anti-Semitic; and social exclusion and stereotyping.”
In fact, the problem on California campuses, and on campuses across the country, is that pro-Palestinian activists, in their zeal to seek self-affirmation, statehood, and “social justice” for the ever-aggrieved Palestinians, have waged a very caustic cognitive war against Israel and Jews as their tactic in achieving those ends—part of a larger, more invidious intellectual jihad against Israel led by some Western elites and those in the Muslim world who also wish to weaken, and eventually destroy, the Jewish state.
It turns out that being pro-Palestinian on campuses today does not necessarily mean that one is committed to helping the Palestinians productively nation-build or create a civil society with transparent government, a free press, human rights, and a representative government. Being pro-Palestinian on campuses involves very little which actually benefits or makes more likely the birth of a new Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel. What being pro-Palestinian unfortunately has come to mean is continually denigrating and attacking Israel with a false historical narrative and the misused language of human rights.
The moral uprightness that anti-Israel activists feel in denouncing what they perceive to be Israel’s racist, apartheid character, combined with its role as what is defined as the illegal occupier of stolen Muslim land, has manifested itself in paroxysms of ideological assaults against Zionism, Israel, and, by extension, Jews in general. And of great concern to those who have observed the invidious byproduct of this radicalism, including the Regents Working Group, is the frequent appearance of anti-Israel sentiment that often rises to the level of raw anti-Semitism, when virulent criticism of Israel bleeds into a darker, more sinister level of hatred –enough to make Jewish students, whether or not they support or care about Israel at all, uncomfortable, unsafe, or hated on their own campuses.
In fact, a 2014 study commissioned by then-UC President Mark G. Yudof to measure the climate faced by Jewish students found that “Jewish students are confronting significant and difficult climate issues as a result of activities on campus which focus specifically on Israel, its right to exist and its treatment of Palestinians. The anti-Zionism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movements and other manifestations of anti-Israel sentiment and activity create significant issues through themes and language which portray Israel and, many times, Jews in ways which project hostility, engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.”
If anything, things have gone from bad to worse since that study was written, and this latest report affirmed Yudov’s earlier findings, and stated more specifically, although somewhat controversially, it turns out, that “Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California. Most members of the University community agree with this conclusion and would agree further that the University should strive to create an equal learning environment for all students.”
That reference to anti-Zionism being henceforth prohibited as acceptable speech or behavior has received immediate and thunderous denunciation, unsurprisingly from those very groups and individuals who have been the worst perpetrators—groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Student Association, Jewish Voice for Peace and other pro-Palestinian students and faculty. And they have been joined in their criticism of the adoption of this language about anti-Zionism by free speech advocates and others who feel that guidelines proscribing speech about a topic that many see as merely political is contrary to the notion of academic free speech, not to mention unconstitutional in seeking to censor people’s speech at all.
But the guidelines crafted by the Regents were not hobbled together for the purpose of criminalizing or suppressing certain speech. In fact, one of the difficulties pro-Israel groups and activists have had in making the Regents see the necessity of a workable code for gauging what is and what is not anti-Semitism has been the difficulty university officials have themselves had in knowing when pro-Palestinian activism on their campuses has become something else, something more in keeping with the elements of classic anti-Semitism. For that very reason, pro-Israel groups had encouraged the Regents to incorporate in their report the working definition of anti-Semitism used by the U.S. Department of State, which defines anti-Semitism existing by “Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions; applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; [and] denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist”—exactly the type of expressed attitudes and accusations regularly seen on California campuses.
If the UC system adopts the use of the State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism, and incorporates it into the Principles Against Intolerance, does that mean, as critics of the Principles have suggested, that the free speech of pro-Palestinian activists—supporters of Palestinian solidarity, as they like to call themselves—will be suppressed, censored, or punished? No, it does not. Pro-Palestinian student and faculty can continue to sponsor virulent Israel Apartheid Weeks, promote annual divestment and boycott resolutions against Israel, construct mock apartheid walls and hang blood-strewn Israeli flags, accuse Israel supporters of being racist and genocidal, give tacit support to murder of Jews by apologizing for Palestinian terror and chanting “Intifada, Intifada, long live Intifada,” referencing the murderous Arab campaigns against Israeli civilians, and regularly also chant “Palestine will be free, from the River to the Sea,” meaning that the creation of a new Palestinian state will ideally replace Israel, not exist in peace beside it. They will still enjoy their Constitutionally-protected right to speak freely and in whatever manner they choose, even if that speech is corrosive, factually defective, hate-filled, biased, historically-inaccurate, defamatory, even what we normally define as “hate speech.”
The existence of the Principles and the working definition of anti-Semitism will not prevent anyone from spewing forth whatever intellectual garbage he or she chooses. But, importantly, administrators will finally have the ability to identify instances when pro-Palestinian activism crosses the line into anti-Semitism, and can publicly and immediately condemn that speech and behavior when it occurs, just as they regularly, and appropriately, do if a noose is found on campus, or slurs are made against gay students, or if students wear little sombreros at a tequila-fueled off-campus party, or when, in those rare instances, Muslim students are characterized as supporters of terror.
And because they have been unable to separate the political critiquing of Israel by pro-Palestinians from the latent and overt anti-Semitism that often reveals itself in this activism, university administrators have been reluctant to identify and condemn anti-Semitic behavior and speech when it occurs. Armed with the State Department’s working definition and the other language in the Principles Against Intolerance, school officials will be able, without moral or ethical qualms, to stand up against intolerance when directed at Jewish students and other pro-Israel members of the campus community, which they have, in the past, been unwilling or unable to feasibly do.
Pro-Palestinian activists have successfully hijacked the narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on campuses, but in elevating the Palestinian cause by degrading Israel and its supporters they have unleashed an ideological tsunami replete with virulent language, slanders, blood libels, inversions of history and fact, and, often, as former Harvard president Laurence Summers put it, have unleashed forms of expression that are “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.” That is the issue here, and why it is necessary and important that, in the effort to promote the Palestinian cause and help them to achieve statehood, another group—Jewish students and other pro-Israel individuals on American campuses—do not become victims themselves in a struggle for another group’s self-determination—something that leaders on California campuses, at least, can now help prevent from taking place.