University of California push against anti-Zionism: overdue or inappropriate?

Many Jewish groups applauded the school's explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism, but others worry that limiting anti-Zionism, too, presents a threat to freedom of speech. 

Eric Risberg/ AP Photo
University of California students protest during a UC Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. A committee approved a statement against intolerance which says, in part, that anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism "have no place" on campus.

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. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to