What You Need To Know: UC Board of Regents’ Principles Against Intolerance

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What You Need To Know: UC Board of Regents’ Principles Against Intolerance

In response to concerns that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise at its constituent campuses, the University of California Board of Regents recently approved a Statement of Principles affirming that “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” A range of powerful voices – including Mark Yudof, President Emeritus of the University of California system and Lawrence Summers, former President of Harvard University –   hailed the decision as a welcome response to a general climate on some college campuses that has allowed legitimate criticism of Israel to be tainted by anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions.

Perhaps the most salient critique of the statement, though, is that it does not explain what constitutes an anti-Semitic form of Zionism – and, perhaps more importantly, what does not. Yet calls to include a guiding definition of anti-Semitism in the statement were declined, in part because the board responded to those who feared the potential chilling effect that this could have on academic freedom and First Amendment rights.  

Many who supported the inclusion of a definition recommended the one adopted by the U.S. State Department in a 2010 U.S. Fact Sheet: “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” This statement, adapted from the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (now the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights or FRA), also includes what are often called “the three Ds”: Demonizing Israel, applying a Double Standard to Israel and Delegitimizing Israel.

A number of those who argued against appending a definition were adamant that this would be tantamount to implementing a campus speech code that would impinge on First Amendment rights. Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, argued that the definition, “if used appropriately” could be a useful tool to stimulate discussions about anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. “But to enshrine such a definition on a college campus is an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole,” Stern wrote. Others contend that a better idea is to look at the context of incidents that take place on campus as a key to devising strategies against anti-Semitism.

A last-minute compromise changed the original wording of the statement from “anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism” to “anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” This late addition was ostensibly offered to placate those who protested that not all forms of opposition to Zionism as a political philosophy are inherently anti-Semitic, although some supporters of including a more direct equation between the two claim that the use of the phrase “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” actually serves to highlight “the plight of Jewish students and the prominent role anti-Zionism, particularly BDS, has played in fomenting anti-Jewish bigotry.”

For some, such as Forward editor-in chief Jane Eisner, the Board of Regents’ actions were both “wise and nuanced,” but Eisner wonders how long their statement will remain relevant, in part because “the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is becoming ever thinner and more porous, and it may disappear altogether.” For others, such as Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law, the difference between the two is clear.

Clearly, the question of where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism overlap is a politically charged question that has inspired debate within the Jewish and academic communities. And, with no explicit definition of terms and no enforcement mechanism included within the Statement, the application of its principles may well lead to heightened tensions if an incident or incidents takes place that one side clearly sees as anti-Semitic and the other side does not. This situation may recall the debate over the similarly disputed application of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that was an integral part of JCPA’s annual plenum in 2012

A difficult truth for those who are neither students nor employed by an academic institution is that the campus does not always behave like a microcosm of the larger society. A college or university campus is, in many ways, its own insular universe. Thus tactics that may be utilized with some success to combat anti-Israel rhetoric and actions in other settings may not work well in a college or university setting. It remains to be seen if the Regents’ decision will be a groundbreaking move that will influence other colleges and universities or if the good intentions of its authors will be neutralized by the corrosive political culture of the contemporary campus.  

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