California Campus Conundrum: UC Rejects Both CA Assembly and UC Task-Force Recommendations on Campus Anti-Semitism

The past month has seen a great deal of activity in California regarding anti-Semitism on college campuses. The University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact-Finding Team issued a report detailing the results of investigatory visits to six UC campuses, including eight recommendations for reform. This report was followed by the passing of California Assembly HR35, recognizing extensive documentation of hostility toward Jewish students over the past decade and urging more decisive action by UC administrators. Neither report is binding and the University of California has stated that it will not support the recommendations.

Not surprisingly, the sticking points in both reports are recommendations that the UC believes infringe upon free speech. The UC fact-finding team calls for a “hate-speech free campus policy,” while HR35 urges administrators to ensure no “public resources will be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or any intolerant agitation.” Concerns over the recommendations are vociferously seconded by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a first amendment legal defense organization with a strong record of litigation against university speech codes and restrictions. Moreover, diversity of opinion within the Jewish student community, as stated in the UC report multiple times, complicates any efforts to protect Jews on campus since it is no secret that some Jewish students may be actively involved in anti-Israel activities that are cited as a primary forum for anti-Semitic expression and intimidation of Jewish students. Some of these Jewish students have spoken out against the findings.

Is the UC rejection of key recommendations a loss for advocates of campus reform? In short, no. The recommendations are, in fact, not the most important aspects of either the fact-finding report or HR35. The findings of the UC report are extensive, reasoned and accurate. They detail an underlying sense of isolation and unfair treatment of Jewish concerns on campus while recognizing the diversity of opinion among Jewish students. HR35 recognizes and affirms the most important governmental statements, findings and resolutions, both within the US government and abroad, including Institute for Jewish & Community Research testimony in front of the US Commission on Civil Rights. The most important and valuable contributions from the UC report and Assembly resolution is the affirmation of the problem of campus anti-Semitism as well as recognition of the need for ameliorative action.

As much as it may seem to hinder the options available to the Jewish community, bans on “hate-speech” and restrictions on public funding for “any intolerant agitation” are just as likely, if not more, to be wielded against pro-Israel advocates as they would anti-Israel activists. The UC fact-finding team found that the main problems facing Jewish students are a sense of isolation, double standards and more generally, a lack of support from other segments of the campus community. IJCR research offered similar findings in Alone on the Quad, which reported that over 40% of Jewish students are aware of anti-Semitism on their campus but that few non-Jewish students shared their concerns over anti-Jewish bias.

In contrast, IJCR research showed that a broad spectrum of student groups shared concerns over anti-Christian bias with Christians and over anti-Muslim bias with Muslims. Jewish students are largely alone on campus in the fight against anti-Semitism. Given this scenario, it is likely that the interpretation of what constitutes “hate-speech” and “intolerant agitation” will reflect the concerns of the majority of students who do not recognize anti-Semitism on campus, rather than the minority of Jewish students who do. In this scenario, as FIRE warns, the group intended to be protected may actually be harmed.

The primary problem is not a lack of ability on the part of university administrators, but the reluctance to take a clear stand. The pressure is increasing on administrators to use the many tools already available to them to curtail intolerance and hostility on campuses. The fight against campus anti-Semitism is not about absolute wins, or a quick fix. It is about upholding norms against intolerance and demanding leadership. When the university rejects a recommendation, or even when a legal case is dismissed, these do not represent losses. The goal is to continually ratchet up the pressure on administrators until rejection of anti-Semitism is as second nature to administrators as rejection of racism, sexism and homophobia. Universities do a sufficient job on those fronts with their current structures and, to a certain degree, recommending new policies to combat anti-Semitism validates the excuse that they do not have the capability to confront it now. They certainly do and they should not be let off the hook so easy.