In a Win for Efforts to Protect Speech, University of California Drops Consideration of State Department Anti-Semitism Definition
In a victory for academic freedom, the University of California Board of Regents will not consider adopting the U.S. State Department’s re-definition of anti-Semitism during their July meeting, which began yesterday. Instead, according to a statement released by President Janet Napolitano, the Board of Regents “will consider at its September meeting a statement of principles against intolerance, including, but not limited to, anti-Semitism and other types of intolerance.”
Israel advocacy organizations had urged the University to adopt a troubling re-definition of ‘anti-Semitism’ used by the State Department for the limited purpose of identifying instances of anti-Semitism abroad. That re-definition, which falsely conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, raised serious First Amendment concerns, outlined in a letter Palestine Legal and its partners sent to the UC Office of the President on June 18. The letter urged the University to drop consideration of the re-definition.
“We commend the University of California for engaging in much-needed conversations about how to effectively defeat all forms of racism at the UC while affirming its commitment to the free flow of ideas on campus,” said Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson. “We hope the University will recognize that student activism and academic inquiry expressing critical views of Israeli policy are not forms of ‘intolerance;’ but rather, they are initiatives to address discrimination and violence against Palestinians, including Palestinian students at the UC. These racial justice initiatives further the university’s efforts to create a more tolerant environment.”
The university decided to drop consideration of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism at its July meeting after an outcry from students, graduate student instructors, and Jewish and other civil rights organizations who object to defining advocacy for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic.
ln addition to the University of California, several other colleges and universities, including Northwestern University, have faced pressure to adopt State Department’s re-definition. Palestine Legal recently sent a letter to Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro noting, among other things, that the re-definition’s own lead author, Kenneth Stern, published an op-ed explaining why its use was inappropriate for the university setting.
The effort to redefine anti-Semitism comes at a time when Israel advocates are increasingly using the accusation of anti-Semitism to silence criticism on campus. During the first four months of 2015, Palestine Legal documented 60 cases of false accusations of anti-Semitism that were in fact incidents where students or faculty criticized policies of Israel. We responded to 102 requests for legal support from campuses across the U.S., and 67 of those requests came from California.