UC proposal on intolerance says 'anti-Zionism' is unacceptable on campus

University of California officials are proposing to include "anti-Zionism" as a form of discrimination that is unacceptable on campus, according to a long-awaited draft statement on intolerance released Tuesday. 

The inclusion immediately drew sharply divergent reactions, with pro-Israel groups hailing it as a needed step to protect Jewish students from hostility and those supporting Palestinian rights criticizing it as a naked attempt to suppress criticism of the Jewish state.

Scholars were similarly divided over whether a statement meant to express the UC regents' principles against intolerance should include Zionism -- historically an international movement to establish a Jewish homeland and now viewed as the belief in Israel's right to exist.

One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on "when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel's right to exist."

But another letter from more than 250 UC professors expressed fear that the proposed statement would restrict free speech and academic freedom to teach, debate and research about the complex and tumultuous history of Israel and the Zionist movement.

Judith Butler, a Berkeley professor of comparative literature who has written on Zionism, questioned who would define that term or decide what crossed the line into discriminatory speech.

And although the statement provides no sanctions, calling on university leaders to "challenge" bias, Butler wondered whether those singled out as criticizing Zionism would be denied faculty research funds, promotions or other benefits.

"To include anti-Zionism as an instance of intolerance and bigotry is actually to suppress a set of political beliefs that we actually need to hear," she said. "It saddens me and strikes at the heart of the task of the university."

 Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of the AMCHA Initiative, which has led the drive for a UC statement, said such fears were unfounded. She said the intent was not to punish speech but to raise awareness about hostility toward Jewish students. 

The effort to adopt the statement on intolerance was launched after a series of troubling incidents targeting Jewish students on UC campuses. They included the defacing of a Jewish fraternity house with a Nazi swastika at UC Davis last year and the questioning of a student's eligibility for a UCLA campus judicial panel because she is Jewish.

A new report by the AMCHA Initiative found that ''alarming rates" of hostility toward Jewish students were preceded by campus activism against Israel, such as supporting the divestment of university financial holdings in firms that do business with the Israeli military.

But Liz Jackson, an attorney with the Palestine Legal organization, noted that a 2014 UC campus climate survey found that more Jewish students reported feeling comfortable and welcomed - 75% -- than Christians, Muslims or those with other religious affiliations.

UC officials first presented a proposed statement on intolerance last fall, but it was criticized by Rossman-Benjamin's group, several regents and others for being too weak and failing to mention anti-Semitism particularly.

Officials then formed an eight-person working group to prepare a new statement, which will be debated at the regents meeting in San Francisco this month.

The new document includes a "contextual statement" that accepts the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

"Opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture," the statement says. "Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California."

 But the statement asserts that 1st Amendment principles and free speech must be "paramount" in guiding responses to acts of bias. It also includes concerns raised about bias directed at Muslims, blacks, immigrant-rights suppporters and the LGBT community.

The statement includes 10 "principles against intolerance," one of which refers to anti-Semitism but not anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination. It was unclear whether that will prove to be a significant difference.

It affirms the legal right to academic freedom and free speech, but says "mutual respect and civility" in debate and dialogue were also important. 

The new proposal specifies that harassment, threats, assaults, vandalism, destruction of property and interference with the right of others to speak will not be tolerated. But it does not single out examples of hate as the previous proposal did, such as swastikas and nooses.

"It does seem like they tried to strike a balance," said Robert Shibley of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "The proof will be in how they apply the policy." 

Teresa.watanabe@latimes.com 

For more education news, follow me @TeresaWatanabe

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