Protests must not stray into anti-Semitism
For the past decade, a movement of protest against Israel, its policies and Zionism has occupied a central place on University of California and other college and university campuses. The nature of the messages embodied in that movement has drawn tremendous attention and study.
Israel “Apartheid” weeks, mock checkpoints in which students carry fake automatic weapons and portray Israeli soldiers indiscriminately targeting Palestinians, cartoons and other depictions of Israelis as Nazis, and speakers which routinely accuse Israel of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes are the hallmarks of the protests.
In many instances, traditional anti-Semitic themes of Jewish control of the media and U.S. government are advanced as explanations for U.S. support of Israel and the plight of the Palestinians.
In 2010, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education extended the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to Jewish students on university campuses in part because of the environment these protests create.
The starting point for any discussion of this topic must be that criticism of Israel and its policies toward Palestinians is not per se anti-Semitic.
The diversity of opinion both inside and outside the Jewish community regarding Israel and its policies is tremendous, and is debated openly, indeed incessantly.
The First Amendment serves to protect political speech in all of its forms, including hate speech. A university cannot simply ban speech that is protected.
The tension arises from another core value of the University of California: that the vigorous pursuit of knowledge and expression is governed by “Principles of Community,” which mandate that critical inquiry, debate, discovery and innovation take place in a “safe, caring and humane environment” in which “discrimination and hatred are not tolerated.” Student conduct codes operate on all campuses and prohibit conduct that in any way demeans or denigrates individuals and groups.
Indeed, it is the notion that words and images can cause harm and undermine the dignity and respect of students that lies at center of the efforts of the UC Advisory Council on Campus Climate.
It is not criticism of Israel, but the nature of that criticism, that lies at the heart of Jewish student and community complaints. Caricature, distortion and accusations of indiscriminate, unilateral violence carried out by Israel with no discussion of the greater context for the violence, the decades of war and violence directed at Israel by its neighbors, is viewed as an assault on the core values of “honesty and integrity” that are part of the Principles of Community.
Anti-Semitism has always been the grotesque distortion of Jewish conduct and allegations of the victimization of others. That is why the European Union and the U.S. State Department include in their definitions of anti-Semitism the targeting of Israel with distortions and allegations of harming humanity.
By including an examination of the climate for Jewish students, the Campus Climate Council has truly advanced the notion of honest and critical examination that lie at the heart of the UC’s core values.
Richard D. Barton, an attorney, serves on the UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion.