(March 18, 2016 / JNS)
By Kenneth L. Marcus/JNS.org
The Regents of the University of California (UC) are preparing to issue a policy statement that could be a major advance in the battle against campus anti-Semitism.
In response to anti-Semitic incidents throughout the UC system’s 10 campuses, the Regents have released an important draft Statement of Principles Against Intolerance. It is not what the Jewish community requested. But it will be a game-changer nevertheless—if the Regents formally adopt it at their March 23-24 meeting.
(By way of disclosure, I was one of the two national experts on anti-Semitism with whom the Regents consulted during this process.)
Last year, UC’s troubles raised national headlines when the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student council denied undergraduate student Rachel Beyda an appointment to its Judicial Board. The council’s reason was that Beyda is Jewish, and some council members expressed the view that this might make her decision-making biased. Under pressure, the council reversed itself.
In many instances, UC leaders refuse to speak out when anti-Israel bias spills over into anti-Semitism. Often the problem is that officials disagree about where the line is between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
The Regents’ new statement can change that.
The text is deceivingly bland. True, it does “call on University leaders actively to challenge anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination when and wherever they emerge within the University community.” But it does not define anti-Semitism, and UC administrators do not always know it when they see it.
The Regents’ breakthrough is not in the text, but in the accompanying “Contextual Statement.”
In 15 words, the Regents have significantly shifted the discourse on campus anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
Here, for the first time, a major American university will acknowledge that extreme “anti-Zionism” is “a form of discrimination” like racism or sexism or homophobia. In other words, Jewish students won’t have to argue that anti-Zionism is also anti-Semitic, because the Regents have established that anti-Zionism is also bigotry.
To be clear, the Regents do not say that anti-Zionism will be banned. Nor should they. As a public institution, they are bound to comply with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the Regents state with admiral clarity that “the University will vigorously defend the principles of the First Amendment and academic freedom against any efforts to subvert or abridge them.”
At the same time, the Regents are quite bold when they declare that “anti-Zionism has “no place at the University of California.” They speak here not as censors but as leaders. They use their own freedom of speech to announce that anti-Zionism, like any other form of bigotry, is inconsistent with their values and should be publicly condemned.
The Jewish community did not get everything we asked for. Specifically, the Regents did not adopt a definition of anti-Semitism, as many experts and activists urged them to.
Why was that a mistake?
Consider the major statement that the U.S. Department of State delivered to world leaders this week at the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating anti-Semitism in Berlin. U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman advised world leaders, in no uncertain terms, that “it is especially important to define anti-Semitism clearly to more effectively combat it.”
Good definitions are necessary, Forman explained, because of cases like the anti-Israel protestors who threw Molotov cocktails at the main synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany. Last year, the judge dismissed the case, finding that the actions were “anti-Israel” but not “anti-Semitic.”
As Forman noted, good definitions also protect innocent people from false accusations of anti-Semitism. In this way, they encourage open dialogue.
Forman told world leaders that “we encourage European governments to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism, ideally, one which would include a section on how anti-Semitism relates to Israel, to improve the safety and well-being of Jewish communities in Europe.”
This is an important lesson for Europeans, but we need to heed it in the United States as well. What’s good for Europe is also good for the U.S.
The Regents’ statement would have been stronger if the Regents accepted the organized Jewish community’s recommendation that they adopt a strong uniform definition of anti-Semitism. But they are doing something that may turn out to be equally important. They are recognizing, at long last, that extreme anti-Zionism is a form of hate.
Kenneth L. Marcus is president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (www.brandeiscenter.com) and author of “The Definition of Anti-Semitism” (Oxford University Press, 2015).