University of California regents said Wednesday that anti-Semitism has “no place” on a college campus but declined to issue a broad condemnation of anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination.
Instead, they unanimously approved a report on intolerance that decried only “anti-Semitic forms” of the political ideology, which challenges Israel’s right to exist in Palestine.
The move reflects the regents’ struggle to balance their desire to combat intolerance with their commitment to protect free speech. The report provides no sanctions for anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist speech, but calls on educators to “challenge” bias.
Israel advocacy groups had pushed for a broad censure of opposition to Zionism, which they said was needed to protect Jewish students from hostile attacks. Last year, a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis was defaced with a Nazi swastika and students at UCLA questioned whether a Jewish sophomore should be disqualified from serving on a campus judicial panel because of her religion.
But free-speech advocates said the original, broader version of the statement would have illegally restricted the right to criticize Israel and its actions. If the regents had approved it, they would have become the first governing board of any major U.S. university system to condemn the rejection of Zionism.
“Without a doubt, this is one of my proudest moments as a UC student,” said UCLA undergraduate and Bruins for Israel Vice President Arielle Mokhtarzadeh, who traveled from Westwood to address the regents.
But Liz Jackson, an attorney with Palestine Legal in Oakland, called the statement “absurd” and said reports of widespread anti-Semitism on campus have been grossly exaggerated. She said her organization has documented many more cases of suppression of students advocating for Palestinian rights, including 76 on California campuses last year.
The issue has sharply divided students and faculty throughout UC and prompted a flood of dueling petitions, letters and articles since the intolerance report was released last week. UC President Janet Napolitano said she had received roughly 1,000 emails about the matter.
At a packed board meeting here, Regent Norman J. Pattiz suggested that the statement be modified to address concerns raised by the UC Academic Council and others.
The council, which represents faculty across the 10-campus system, sent the regents a letter saying the unamended statement would harm academic freedom and cause “needless and expensive litigation, embarrassing to the university, to sort out the difference between intolerance on the one hand, and protected debate and study of Zionism and its alternatives on the other.”
Students and faculty who attended the meeting made passionate arguments for both sides. Several of them cited their family histories as Holocaust survivors or as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation of their traditional lands.
Omar Zahzah, a UCLA graduate student in comparative literature, told regents his relatives were forced from their homes with the creation of Israel in 1948. He said the original statement was an attempt to silence the voices of those advocating for Palestinian rights.
“Is there no place for us?” he asked the regents. “Are our stories and our struggles … simply meant to be built over, forgotten?”
But Abraham “Avi” Oved, a student regent whose parents were born in Israel, said the statement “unequivocally embraces the 1st Amendment” while protecting students who have been called “Zionist pigs” or been told that “Zionists should be sent back to the gas chambers.”
Charles F. Robinson, the board’s general counsel, told regents that the revised statements were “lawful on their face” as they did not impose a ban on any speech or behavior or provide a basis for sanctions against any UC member.
The drive for the UC statement was led by the Amcha Initiative, a group that combats anti-Jewish bias on college campuses. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the group’s director and a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, said campus demonstrations against Israeli policies and calls for the university to divest from firms with financial ties to Israel’s military have created blowback for Jewish students.
Rossman-Benjamin said supporters of the intolerance statement — including major American Jewish organizations, former UC President Mark Yudof and more than 4,000 UC students, faculty, alumni, parents and donors — had no intention of suppressing free speech. Rather, they aimed to raise awareness of how anti-Israel activities have led to harassment and hostility toward Jewish students, she said.
Students have complained about such campus actions as mock military checkpoints set up by Palestinian-rights activists during Israel Apartheid Week and comments by a professor about Israeli airstrikes.
But both the U.S. Department of Education’s civil-rights office and a federal judge have dismissed complaints by Jewish UC students that such activities have created a hostile climate and violated their educational rights.
“In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expression, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience,” the civil-rights office said in 2013.
The new report was prepared by an eight-person group representing regents, students, faculty and administrators. It includes a “contextual statement” that accepts a 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-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
But the statement also asserts that 1st Amendment principles must be paramount in guiding responses to acts of bias, including harassment, threats, assaults and vandalism. In addition to Jewish students, it includes concerns raised about bias directed at Muslims, African Americans, immigrant-rights supporters and the LGBT community.
The regents did not specify the kind of speech that would be considered out of bounds. But Rossman-Benjamin said any call for the destruction of Israel ought to be included.
Mokhtarzadeh, the UCLA student, said she would regard comparisons of Israelis to Nazis or of Gaza to concentration camps as unacceptable bias.
If confronted by such speech she said she would first try to talk with students to dissuade them from making such comparisons. But if that didn’t work, she said she would report the speech to administrators and hope they would condemn it.
Reem Suleiman, a 2014 UCLA graduate whose grandparents were forced from their home in Haifa in 1948, said the amended statement was “better.” But she and others remained uneasy over whether it would be used by Israel advocacy groups to shut down efforts to share Palestinian views.
Zahzah said that fear was quickly realized Wednesday, when someone in the crowd called him an anti-Semite when he asked regents if the Palestinian story would be snuffed out on campuses.
But Zahzah said he would not be cowed into silence. “The only thing to do is continue speaking out about the treatment of Palestinians under Israel.”
Dianne Klein, UC spokeswoman, said the report on intolerance was not university policy but reflected regents’ expression of their belief in tolerance and disapproval of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. She said she hoped it would prompt more education and nuanced conversations.
“The counterbalance [to anti-Semitism] is more talk,” she said. “This is what a university is about. People should be exposed to new talk and new ideas.”
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