The University of California is being urged to adopt an expansive definition of anti-Semitism that critics say would equate criticism of the state of Israel with bigotry. UC should be vigilant about protecting Jewish students from bigotry, but embracing the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism — a foreign policy pronouncement that was not designed as a speech code for an American college campus — would be a mistake.
The document, issued in 2010, offers several obvious examples of anti-Semitism, including “calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews” and “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about Jews.” A section titled “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” includes “using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis.”
But other parts of the document stretch the definition of anti-Semitism to cover criticism of Israel that doesn’t contain such slurs. For example, it says that it’s anti-Semitic to subject Israel to “double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” or to deny Israel “the right to exist.”
It’s hard to see how these standards could be transplanted to the campus of a public university committed to a robust exchange of views and subject to the free-speech provisions of the 1st Amendment. Would pro-Palestinian students who mounted a protest against Israeli policies in the West Bank be judged anti-Semites because they didn’t also demonstrate against repression in Egypt or Russia? What about a student who wanted to argue that Israel should be replaced by a nonsectarian state? Even those who find such a position unrealistic or undesirable might agree that it needn’t be driven by hatred for Jews.
In an interview this year, UC President Janet Napolitano said it was her “personal view” that the university should embrace the definition, but a UC spokesman said this week that she won’t formally propose that action to the school’s Board of Regents. Instead, she is supporting an effort to have the regents consider a broader statement opposing intolerance “including, but not limited to, anti-Semitism.”
That is a far better approach. There is evidence that opposition to Israeli policies has sometimes spilled over into mistreatment of Jewish students. Earlier this year, a student applying for a seat on UCLA’s Judicial Board was asked whether, given her membership in a Jewish sorority, she could be unbiased. That was wrong. But UC can protect students from harassment without adopting an overly broad and constitutionally dubious definition of anti-Semitism.