(This article is published in Mondoweiss.)
The University of California (UC) Board of Regents, the governing body that oversees 10 campuses and approximately a quarter of a million students, is considering adopting the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. A variety of student organizations have pushed back against the regents’ initiative.
United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the union which represents over 13,000 student workers in the UC system; Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP); and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have publicly opposed the attempt to adopt the State Department definition.
In a message to UC President Janet Napolitano, who supports the initiative, UAW “voice[d] strong opposition to the proposed adoption.” The letter (embedded below) was endorsed by the UAW 2865 Joint Council and represents the official position of the union local.
JVP urged the UC Regents “to stand for academic freedom and to reject the ‘State Department definition’ of anti-Semitism.” SJP West, a coalition of West Coast SJP chapters, also wrote a letter to President Napolitano, “strongly oppos[ing] its adoption.”
David McCleary, Head Steward and Executive Board Trustee of UAW 2865 and a molecular and cellular biology PhD candidate who is also involved in JVP and SJP, spoke with Mondoweiss about the campaign.
McCleary says there has been a “long and planned” campaign against UC Palestinian solidarity activism. The present attempt to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is spearheaded by the pro-Israel organization AMCHA Initiative. On the homepage of its website, AMCHA Initiative claims the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is anti-Semitic and implores readers to sign a petition calling on UC to adopt the State Department definition of anti-Semitism.
AMCHA Initiative has helped pass numerous resolutions on university campuses disguised as condemnations of anti-Semitism, yet with the State Department definition “sneaked in,” McCleary explained, in order to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
The definition is based on the concept of the “new anti-Semitism,” formulated by the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League and other fervent supporters of Israel, which conflates Israel and Zionism with Jewishness and Judaism. This “new anti-Semitism” is based on “the three Ds”: alleged demonization, delegitimization, and double standards vis-à-vis Israel.
For decades, scholars such as Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappé, and others have argued that there is no “new anti-Semitism,” and that it is an explicitly politically motivated redefinition of anti-Semitism in order to prevent criticism of Israel.
The California Legislature’s SCR 35
For months, the California state legislature has deliberated Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) No. 35, a measure that “would urge each University of California campus to adopt a resolution condemning all forms of anti-Semitism and racism, and would condemn any act of anti-Semitism augmenting education programs at all publicly funded schools in the State of California.”
Non-profit advocacy group Palestine Legal has condemned the resolution for “perpetuat[ing] the conflation of anti-Semitism and protected free speech critical of Israel.”
“We applaud the Senate’s efforts to confront racism and bigotry on college campuses, including anti-Semitism,” Palestine Legal says. “However, SCR as currently written is unduly vague.”
The California Senate Education Committee deliberated the resolution on 29 April. The California State Assembly Higher Education Committee then met on 23 June to debate SCR 35. McCleary attended the two hearings; in both, he said, deliberators tried to “openly conflate university divestment and anti-Semitism.”
A UC regent testified at the Higher Education Committee hearing in favor of the resolution. He did not identify himself, yet said “I’m here as a private citizen, not in my capacity as a member of the UC Board of Regents” (his statement begins at 4:40 in the government’s official audio recording of the hearing). UC regents are not legally permitted to lobby on behalf of legislation that will affect their university; the unnamed man was aware of this, yet brought up the fact that he was a regent anyway.
Jack Mizes, president of the UC Davis chapter of JVP, publicly testified against the measure.
If you disagree with Iran’s nuclear program, as many US politicians vehemently do, you are not considered anti-Iranian or anti-Muslim, Mizes argued. But if you criticize Israel, you are often dubbed anti-Semitic.
“If we adopt SCR 35 in reference to the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, then we are clearly adopting a partisan bias,” Mizes said, and, in so doing, “further silencing an already marginalized voice in the debate.”
Carol Sanders, who identified as a member of the Jewish community, voiced strong opposition to the measure. “Central to our beliefs is opposition to all forms of bigotry and racism. Therefore we strongly support efforts to confront anti-Semitism when it occurs,” she said. “But we vigorously reject assertions that speech critical of Israeli policies and supportive of Palestinian rights is inherently anti-Semitic.”
Sanders notes that the original text of SCR 35 references the State Department definition, but unquoted “is that part of definition that condemns critical of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism.”
Proponents of the resolution sent a letter to the legislature after the Senate committee hearing, insisting on the importance of maintaining the State Department’s definition. The pro-Israel AMCHA Initiative called organizations that oppose the adoption of the State Department definition “anti-Israel groups.” It admitted that the “original intent” of the resolution is to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, writing
we are extremely troubled by the efforts of some groups to remove from the resolution any reference to the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, or worse, to replace it with the Merriam Webster dictionary definition. We think that doing so would be disastrous, and would completely undermine and pervert the original intent of this very important resolution.
“A major purpose of the resolution was to combat what the proponents called anti-Israel activity, and particularly BDS,” Sanders explained. “Such intervention would strike at the heart of the First Amendment. It would have the government stigmatize and ultimately silence political speech by officially intervening,” she warned.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder of AMCHA Initiative and a UC, Santa Cruz lecturer, has openly said that her next step is to go to the legislature and to ask them to defund public universities that do not adopt the State Department definition. She has also admitted that her ultimate goal is to pressure the legislature to legally classify any boycotts, divestment, and sanctions of Israel as acts of anti-Semitism.
Rossman-Benjamin has a history of making anti-Arab and Islamophobic remarks. In 2013, UC students circulated a petition calling on the university president to condemn what they characterize as Rossman-Benjamin’s “racist and defamatory claims” and “hate speech.”
Opposition from the Definition’s Author
Kenneth Stern, the longtime former director of anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee, published an op-ed in the Jewish Journal warning against universities adopting the US government’s definition. Stern served as lead author of the European Monitoring Centre’s “working definition on anti-Semitism,” upon which the State Department definition is based.
Stern notes that two dozen groups have lobbied the UC in favor of the measure, but cautions that “official adoption of the State Department’s definition would do more harm than good.”
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.
Those who want the university system to adopt the definition say it isn’t a speech code (presumably because they recognize that speech codes are likely unconstitutional and anathema to the ideals of academic freedom). But that is precisely what they are seeking. You don’t need a university endorsement of a particular definition in order to increase careful thought about difficult issues, such as when antisemitism is present in debates about Israel and Palestine. AMCHA’s leader, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin rather wants a rule of what is hateful to say and what is not. She has said that advocacy in favor of Boycotts/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) against Israel would be classified as antisemitic, as would the erection of fake walls imitating Israel’s separation barrier. So if the definition is adopted, presumably administrators would be expected to label such political speech as antisemitic, or face challenges (political and perhaps legal) from AMCHA and its colleagues that they were not doing their jobs.
[O]n a college campus, do we really want a student (imagine yourself as a Palestinian student) to fear that anti-Zionism on their part (even if they are quoting Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt to make their case) will violate an administratively-imposed definition of what is ok to be said?
Further, if a university adopts an official definition of antisemitism, how long would it be until other groups demand an official definition of Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian animus, homophobia and so forth, with the built-in expectation that speech transgressing such definitions requires an administrative response too? Consider what speech might run afoul of an official definition of “anti-Palestinian.” Perhaps when a student says that he does not believe Palestinians have a right to a country of their own, and that the West Bank instead should be part of a Greater Israel?
Amendments to the Resolution
Through working with the legislature, JVP and Palestine Legal managed to get vague language removed from SCR 35.
In the 29 April California Senate Education Committee hearing, the Asian Law Caucus; the Center for Constitutional Rights; JVP; and the National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles condemned the measure. The committee agreed, in response, to remove the ambiguous phrase “augmenting education programs” from the resolution.
Legislative staff also agreed to add “Nothing in this resolution is intended to diminish the rights of students or anyone else to freely discuss or engage in any legal speech or other activity protected by the Constitution of the United States.”
Students are still afraid, nonetheless, that were the measure to pass, UC will clamp down on not just Palestinian human rights activism, but even on teaching and research.
The majority of the 13,000 workers represented by UAW 2865 are teaching assistants. A grad student who asked to remain anonymous told Mondoweiss she is worried that, if the State Department definition is adopted, she would have to bias her teaching in favor of Israel, in fear of being labeled an anti-Semite for teaching about Israel’s illegal activity and what the world’s leading human rights organizations and legal bodies have classified as war crimes.
“Student teachers need to be able to criticize any country in order to teach students,” the graduate student stressed, particularly when discussing contemporary political issues. “That is the most crucial part of academic freedom,” she said.
McCleary, the student union trustee, explained UAW 2865 has “members who literally wouldn’t be allowed to do their research if this was actually enforced, because their research is focused on Israel.”
SCR 35 is “completely antithetical to the First Amendment,” he said. It poses “a really dangerous precedent for academic freedom.”
McCleary, who got the New York Times to apologize for applying a “Jewish litmus test” to American Jews who are critical of Israel, says he finds the UC regents’ and legislature’s attempts to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism to be insulting.
“It’s really offensive to me as a Jewish student,” McCleary explained. “I support BDS, and I don’t for one second think that’s incompatible with my Jewish identity. That is my Jewish identity in fact. I don’t support BDS in spite of my Judaism; I support it because of my Judaism.”
UAW 2865 Letter Opposing Adoption of State Dept. Definition
Dear President Napolitano,
United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents over 13,000 student workers in the University of California system, wishes to voice strong opposition to the proposed adoption of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism by the UC Regents. As members of the union local’s Joint Council, we write to ask that you withdraw your personal support for its adoption and ensure that this does not end up on the agenda for the July Regents Meeting in San Francisco. The State Department definition conflates legitimate, first amendment-protected criticisms of policies of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism, which is commonly defined as discrimination against Jewish people.
The State Department definition includes a section declaring that “demonizing”, “delegitimizing”, or applying a “double-standard” to Israel are examples of anti-Semitism. These terms are extremely vague and could be applied to virtually any criticism of any Israeli policy. In addition, we are concerned that by adopting such a measure, the UC Regents would in fact be treating Israel as exceptional and applying a double standard to the values of the University, which is supposed to foster free intellectual exchange and which prides itself on commitment to academic freedom, free speech and student leadership.
UAW 2865 understands that many Jews find the conflation of Judaism with Israel and the decisions of its government anti-Semitic in itself. The growing movement of Jewish communities who have spoken out against war crimes and human rights violations by the Israeli state highlights this, and to deny their legitimate grievances against policies claiming to speak on behalf of world Jewry is unethical and tells them their Jewish identity does not matter. In December, our union local endorsed divesting from corporations complicit in violations of International law by Israel and ending US military aid to Israel, by a nearly two-thirds majority. Many Jewish students unhappy with Israeli policies toward Palestinians joined in that campaign, not for a second thinking their criticisms of Israel were an attack on their own Jewish identity. As this vote specifically targeted Israel without calling for divestment and ending military aid to other countries, this could be characterized as applying a “double-standard” to Israel, and therefore declared anti-Semitic. One could argue that students seeking to boycott and divest from Israel weren’t the ones applying the double-standard, but in fact US foreign policy does so through the outsized amount of military aid provided to Israel. The double-standard isn’t applied by those seeking recognition of Israeli violations of International law, but by the US government which prevents any action at the United Nations against Israel for these violations.
The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has clearly ruled that criticism of Israel is protected campus speech. In 2013, the Office for Civil Rights dismissed three separate Title VI Civil Rights Act complaints against UC campuses which claimed that several events critical of Israel fostered an anti-Semitic campus climate. In rejecting these claims, the office stated that the events in question “constitute expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment.”
Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the European Union Monitoring Center’s working definition on anti-Semitism, which served as the basis for the State Department definition, opposes enforcing the definition on college campuses. In a recent Jewish Journal op-ed, Stern characterizes efforts by outside groups like the AMCHA Initiative to apply the State Department definition as a transparent ploy to establish unconstitutional “speech codes” that are “anathema to the ideals of academic freedom.” He says that enshrining this definition in the UC system “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.” He continues:
The Regents would be better advised to think of ways to increase the teaching and scholarship about antisemitism and hatred in general rather than adopt a definition that was never intended to regulate speech on a college campus.
If the university were to officially brand critical views of Israeli policy as “anti-Semitic,” many of us would wake up the next day with a stamp of condemnation on our academic work. Many would have to change our academic focus, or wonder if we should to avoid controversy and undue scrutiny. Many would change their course curriculums to avoid the topic all together. Many would be afraid to ask questions about Israel and Palestine. Many would choose to avoid campus debates on the topic, keep our heads down and decide to stay away from essential learning opportunities that campus activism and controversial programming afford. Many would change our resumes, hide our passions, and decide not to speak our conscious or ask questions. This would be devastating to the learning environment at what should be a world-class university. As a body that represents thousands of student teachers for the work they do in classrooms, we see this redefinition of anti-Semitism as a serious threat to the academic freedom of our members.
Lastly and most importantly we ask the UC regents consider the legal, ethical and academic implications this has on its Palestinian and Arab student and faculty constituency. Many students are here in the US studying in the UC because opportunities for education, to live in freedom, dignity, safety and peace has been denied to them because of persistent Israeli occupation, wars and the denial of Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland. To conflate a critique of Israel with anti-semitism first does not account for the fact that Arab people are also Semitic people and secondly it criminalizes the very existence, experience and narratives of one of your already most underserved and marginalized communities. This measure would signify a new form of institutional racism that would consolidate and strengthen Islamophobia, anti-semitism, anti-Arab racism which will surely be reflected in campus climate. As a union committed to justice, equity and collaborative exchange, we strongly urge you to not consider adoption of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism.
We hope you will do the right thing and not attempt to stifle protected speech on campus.
United Auto Workers Local 2865