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Jewish Journal

Report, resolution reignite campus anti-Semitism issue

by Jonah Lowenfeld

September 5, 2012 | 12:14 pm

This article has been modified from its original version.

Just weeks before students are scheduled to return to University of California campuses for the start of fall classes, a UC report issued in July about the atmosphere facing Jewish students, along with a recent resolution regarding anti-Semitism passed by the California Assembly, have launched another round of debate over whether some kinds of anti-Israel speech should be prohibited on campuses.

Both the non-binding Assembly resolution and the UC report urge the university system to adopt an official definition of anti-Semitism, raising the possibility that some types of speech against Israel and particular Israeli policies could be defined as anti-Jewish. 

Such a designation could, in turn, lead to restrictions being placed on certain types of speech on campus, and some groups have expressed opposition to the report and the resolution on the grounds that such limitations would violate the First Amendment right to free speech and impinge on the academic freedom of students and faculty at the state’s publicly funded campuses. 

These latest developments come after years of efforts by some in the pro-Israel Jewish community to push UC administrators, in particular, to establish and enforce policies that would prohibit activists from engaging in what they consider anti-Jewish hate speech. Those activists, for their part, prefer to characterize their work as advocating for the rights of Palestinians and reject the charge that their efforts amount to anti-Semitism. 

Because of the constitutional issues involved, what the immediate impact of the UC report and the assembly resolution might be is difficult to predict.

The most controversial recommendations made in the Jewish Student Campus Climate Report, issued July 9 by the UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion, are still being considered, including the recommendation that the UC establish a definition of anti-Semitism. 

Along with the report about the climate for Jewish UC students, issued by Richard Barton, national education chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and California NAACP President Alice Huffman, the UC President’s Advisory Council also issued a report about the campus climate facing Muslim and Arab students. Both reports are scheduled to be discussed at the next meeting of UC chancellors, on Oct. 22. 

Meanwhile, Assembly Resolution 35 was authored by two Jewish lawmakers, along with 66 fellow members who signed on as co-authors. It passed through the 80-member Assembly on a voice vote on Aug. 28. While it commends the UC’s initial actions to address anti-Semitism, including the formation of the advisory council, AR 35 does not compel the UC or California State University systems to take any specific action. Shortly after its passage, a UC spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle that the university would not support the resolution.

Still, the possibility that the University of California might, by accepting the advisory council report regarding Jewish students, signal a willingness to curtail some types of speech on its campuses provoked strong reactions from both sides. 

Reacting to the UC Jewish Student Campus Climate Report, a group of Jewish UC students, faculty, alumni and parents sent a letter to UC President Mark Yudof saying they were “deeply concerned and troubled” by the report, requesting that it be tabled.

“[I]t misrepresents support for Palestinian rights and inquiry into Israeli policy and as anti-Israel and latently anti-Semitic acts,” they wrote in a letter posted as a petition at Change.org, which as of last week had been signed by almost 200 people. A second petition urging Yudof to table the report, also posted at Change.org, had garnered just over 2,400 signatures.

StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group, circulated a petition of its own, requesting that the advisory council endorse the report, which it said “contains a fair depiction of the challenges experienced by many Jewish students, faculty, and community members on UC campuses.” According to the group’s Web site, by Aug. 30, the StandWithUs petition had garnered more than 1,700 signatures. 

Roberta Seid, education and research director at StandWithUs, said in an interview that while her organization recognized the importance of protecting freedom of speech, she believes some demonstrations against Israel and its policies that have taken place on UC campuses have crossed the line into hate speech. 

“On campuses today, people do not put on events denouncing gays, blacks, Hispanics or any other minorities; it’s just not acceptable,” said Seid, who taught history at UC Irvine for several years. “I think, by the same token, that the anti-Israel claims that go beyond the pale should also be considered inappropriate for the campus.”

Though it is nonbinding, AR 35 also provoked strong objections from a consortium of groups led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which called it “a poorly researched, highly ideological resolution that contributes to a climate of intimidation faced by Muslim and Arab students on California campuses.” 

Rachel Roberts, CAIR’s civil rights coordinator for Northern California, said that what is needed is “robust discussion” of the Israeli-Palestinian issue on college campuses, and she warned against defining what she called “strident critiques of the State of Israel” as anti-Semitic. 

“Swastikas on the Hillel building, of course that should be condemned,” said Roberts, who is Jewish. “But characterizing the opposing viewpoint of your own as hate speech is not fair, and these are the kinds of things that the resolution would do.”

In a letter sent to every member of the Assembly on Aug. 28, CAIR and other pro-Palestinian, progressive Jewish and civil rights groups urged the Assembly to revisit the matter when it reconvenes in January. 

The next day, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) told the Associated Press that in January she intends to draft a resolution that affirms free-speech rights and “will make clear in no uncertain terms that students in our universities should feel safe to have differing opinions.”

Assemblywoman Linda Halderman (R-Fresno), AR 35’s other lead co-author, stood by the resolution as passed, saying that the resolution was a response to “the problem of anti-Semitism, beyond free speech.” 

“I’m [politically] conservative, and I’m very sensitive to issues of First Amendment rights, so it would take a lot for me to intervene,” Halderman said in an interview on Aug. 30. 

By all accounts, the atmosphere on UC campuses has reached a point where tempers run high and vitriol is exchanged by members of both sides of this heated debate. 

Doron Feuer, 20, is Hillel-Israel Chair at Cal Poly Pomona and a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow. Last year, at an Israeli Independence Day celebration, a group of Muslim student activists protested the event with signs accusing Israel of killing 5.1 million Palestinians since the occupation started in 1948.

“They were calling Israel a genocidal country and a hateful country,” Feuer said. He signed the StandWithUs petition in support of the Jewish report in part because he supports its recommendation that UC campuses be “hate speech-free.” 

The UC report found that while Jewish students have “thriving open communities and occupy a prominent place” on campus and noted that “no [Jewish] students indicated feeling physically unsafe on UC campuses,” the report also said Jewish students do face “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.”

Meanwhile, a parallel report focused on the climate on campus for Arab and Muslim students, issued by Jihad Turk of the Islamic Center of Southern California; UCLA professor Tyrone Howard; Nan Senzaki, a counselor at UC Davis; and Armaan Rowther, an undergraduate and XIV Dalai Lama Scholar at UC Irvine. This report found that those students say they feel “targeted, marginalized, misunderstood, and fearful of being active on campus or voicing opinions.” 

Some recommendations in the two reports — the Jewish report’s recommendation that the UC offer kosher options in student dining plans and the Muslim/Arab report’s recommendation that campuses establish centrally located “interfaith community space” that could accommodate Muslim students wishing to pray during the school day — already have been endorsed by UC President Yudof. 

But in a letter sent to the UC chancellors on Aug. 9, Yudof said some policy recommendations — including the Jewish report’s recommendation that UC campuses adopt a “hate speech-free” policy and the Muslim/Arab report’s recommendation to review policies on camera use by off-campus groups — would be subjected to further review. 

“I believe our current policies, however, may go as far as they can, given constitutional limitations,” Yudof wrote.

And it is those constitutional questions that opponents of both the UC report and AR 35 find most troubling. 

“The report equates political speech with hate speech,” said Sarah Anne Minkin, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. Minkin, who is Jewish, co-authored the letter and petition advocating against the adoption of the UC report. She said restrictions on free speech critical of Israel amount to “a direct intimidation of many student activists, many of whom are progressive Jews, and many of whom are Muslims and Arabs.”

As for the recommendation in the report calling for a definition of anti-Semitism, Minkin cautioned against such an action. 

“The question is, who would decide?” she said. 

Anti-Semitism is difficult to define, according to Amanda Susskind, ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional director, and not all anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitic. 

But, Susskind added, “Anti-Israel sentiment feeds anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism feeds anti-Israel sentiment.” Susskind also took care to mention that Barton, who authored the Jewish report, was working as an individual, and not as a representative of ADL.

Halderman acknowledged that, in her view, AR 35 does not define anti-Semitism.  “That’s a difficulty that we have had,” Halderman said. “But I also don’t think that we necessarily need to define it in order to know it when we see it.”

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