When the University of California Board of Regents adopted "Principles Against Intolerance" last week, it became the first public university in the US to do something many say was long overdue: condemn anti-Semitism amid a growing boycott movement against Israeli institutions.
"Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California," reads the Board's unanimously approved statement, noting that "expressions of anti-Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify" than in the past.
Many students critical of Israeli policies, however, say that that same ambiguity is why blanket statements against anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism may do more harm than good. The vague statement might limit academics' ability to teach and debate the history of Judaism and Israel, or protest the state's treatment of Palestinians, they say, although the statement does not prescribe any punishments for those who do.
Professors and a flurry of op-eds protested the original wording of the proposal, which decried "antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination." A hatred for the Jewish people should not be conflated with criticism of the Israeli state, they warned, and the statement has since been edited.
But as protests against the treatment of Palestinians and Israel's occupation of the West Bank become more commonplace on college campuses, that gray line is under intense debate among young Americans and their professors, particularly in the UC system.
Several of the UC campuses' student governments have voted to support the "B.D.S." movement, a call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel institutions, although their administrations have not followed through. Among many academics, however, it's a popular position; the American Studies Association has voted to divest, and the American Anthropological Association, a 10,000-member organization, is scheduled to vote on it this spring.
"I would like to ask AAA members, would you have told civil rights activists not to boycott buses and instead dialogue? Would we have told the United Farm Workers not to boycott grapes?" University of Illinois-Chicago Associated Professor Nadine Naber asked at the association's annual business meeting in November, calling the boycott a way to support the basic rights of Palestinians.
As various student groups line up to support Palestinian causes, however – sometimes in ways that seem to veer into anti-Semitic generalizations, evoking comparisons to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa – other campus and Jewish leaders are wondering if a double standard has become the norm.
"With very few exceptions, university leaders who are so quick to stand up against microaggressions against other groups remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism," former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers wrote Thursday in an op-ed applauding the UC Regents' decision.
Dr. Summers has previously argued that the boycott movement is anti-Semitic in its effect, if not intent. Boycotts implicate US colleges in "uniquely persecuting the world's only Jewish state for sins that even on the least sympathetic reading are small compared to those of many other nations," he said at Columbia University last winter.
Even for academics and activists sympathetic to the UC statement's intentions, however, some worry that its vague definition could impede academic freedom, discouraging professors, guest speakers, or students from thoroughly analyzing and discussing Israel's past and present.
But better historical perspective is needed on both sides, some say: not only the often-neglected history of Palestinians living on now-Israeli land, but also centuries of anti-Semitic persecution.
"What bothers me is the shocking amnesia of people who look at the situation of American Jews right now and say, 'You’re privileged, you don’t have a right to complain about discrimination,'" Stanford University student Rachel Roberts, a member of the board of the school's Jewish Student Association, told The New York Times last May. "To turn a blind eye to the sensitivities of someone’s cultural identity is to pretend that history didn’t happen."
Students of all backgrounds and political views also need to keep in mind the importance of being challenged, the UC regents acknowledged in their report, noting that finding the fine line between criticism and bias can necessitate uncomfortable conversations.
As the report states,
... students at UC campuses should expect to be challenged both intellectually and emotionally. They should expect more intense intellectual and emotional give and take than they might have previously experienced. Some of the ideas a student encounters may be abhorrent to that student or their family members and friends; nevertheless, these ideas may be instrumental in helping a student further define their own vision.