Today the University of California (UC) Board of Regents adopted a Report and Statement of Principles against Intolerance that states: “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” In doing so, the Regents rejected a blanket conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.
The UC's chief lawyer confirmed this document is merely a statement of opinion. He said it was not enforceable policy. That is because the First Amendment and California law do not allow universities to restrict speech on the basis of viewpoint. If campus authorities try to apply this statement to restrict or punish political criticism of Israel, they will invite a lawsuit.
The Regents also rejected the primary demand of Israel advocacy organizations, that the UC Regents adopt a discredited State Department Definition of antisemitism that encompasses criticism of Israeli policies.
Why then, is the statement so problematic?
First, the Israel advocacy organizations that pushed for this have a track record of demanding that advocacy for Palestinian rights be punished. They will use this statement in efforts to stifle political criticism of Israel, as they have been doing for years.
Second, the statement remains so vague that students and scholars cannot know what kind of speech “has no place” at the UC. What are “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism”? According to one of the statement’s primary proponents, this would include comments from former Israeli soldiers who speak on campus about wrongdoings they witnessed by fellow soldiers during their military service.
This lack of clarity is unacceptable on a public university campus obligated to respect the First Amendment. As the ACLU emphasized in its concerns about the Regents' statement, “In the area of free speech, clarity and specificity are essential to preserve the free flow of ideas.”
Third, university leaders who are confused are likely to violate students’ free speech rights. This occurred just last semester when the Graduate Students Association at UCLA issued an unconstitutional funding restriction requiring the Diversity Caucus to “have zero connection” with any supporters of divestment from Israel.
Fourth, the Regents accept, without any investigation, the premise promoted by Israel advocacy organizations that antisemitism is a rising problem on UC campuses. In fact, the data shows otherwise.
The Regents disregarded the findings of a quantitative statewide campus climate survey which show that Jewish community members on every campus consistently report high levels of comfort. Moreover, the ADL noted that incidents of antisemitism on campus are the lowest since they began tracking them in 1999. (See the “Anti-Semitism Surge That Isn’t”).
The Regents also ignored ample evidence that Palestinian human rights activism on all UC campuses is principled social justice work, grounded in opposition to all forms of racism. The facts show that while “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” occasionally occur, they are isolated incidents and Palestine activists are among the first to condemn them.
Fifth, the Regents claimed to address “all forms of intolerance,” but they demonstrated a singular interest in implementing the demands of Israel advocacy organizations to the exclusion of other pressing issues like institutionalized sexual harassment and anti-black racism. In preparing its report, the Working Group met with only four experts on intolerance, all of whom were men, and two of whom have a demonstrated record of demanding the university restrict speech critical of Israel.