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Opinion

Op-Ed: In going after UCLA, the Trump administration is attempting to chill free speech about Israel

Students stand in front of UCLA’s Royce Hall on March 5, 2014, to protest a university decision not to divest from companies that conduct business with Israel.
Students stand in front of UCLA’s Royce Hall on March 5, 2014, to protest a university decision not to divest from companies that conduct business with Israel.
(Los Angeles Times)

The “longest hatred,” as one historian called anti-Semitism, is in the midst of a resurgence. Murderous acts of violence against Jews in recent weeks come on the heels of an alarming rise in anti-Jewish incidents worldwide over the last five years.

A good deal of recent attention has focused on college campuses, which have been identified as sites of anti-Semitism. Some observers have suggested that fierce criticism of Israel, including support for the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanction) movement, is the equivalent of a hateful and racist act. But as real as the attacks on Jews have been, it’s important not to extend the label of anti-Semitism to all criticism of Zionism and Israel.

At our campus, UCLA, we received news last week that the U.S. Department of Education was investigating an episode from the spring of 2019, when a guest speaker in an anthropology class made sharply critical remarks about Zionism, including the assertion that Israel engaged in atrocities and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians. A Jewish student in the class confronted the visitor after the lecture, alleging that her claims amounted to anti-Semitism. As the guest and student went back and forth, the host professor did not moderate the Q&A session nor intervene in the heated exchange.

In October 2019, a conservative Israel advocacy organization, Stand With Us, wrote to the federal Education Department alleging that the student was the victim of “discrimination and harassment … as a result of her perceived Jewish ethnicity.” Three months later, on Jan. 9, the Education Department announced that it would proceed with an investigation of the case through its Office of Civil Rights.

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The investigation is among the first to be undertaken in the wake of President Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism, issued on Dec. 11. The order did two things: First, it extended the protection against racial or national discrimination of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to Jews, even though Jews may consider themselves members of a religious group. And second, it relied on a definition of anti-Semitism that, as Trump’s son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner put it, “makes clear what our administration has stated publicly and on the record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

We can understand the discomfort of the student in the UCLA class last spring. It is not easy for people identified with Zionism and Israel to have charges of racism or white supremacism cast upon them. And we can readily understand why the student might have expected her professor to play a more active role in managing the classroom conversation.

But we should not use this case to upend some of the most important principles of the university, especially the right to free and open expression, even when it makes people uncomfortable. UCLA’s own administration undertook an examination of the case and determined that it did not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment. From our own review of the classroom videotape, we agree.

We should be honest: This case is really not about a single incident. Stand With Us and its partner in litigation, the Zachor Legal Institute, have a larger agenda. They want to treat as discriminatory — and even anti-Semitic — claims that Israel treats Jews and Palestinians differently, that its occupation of the West Bank is illegal and has come to resemble apartheid or that Israel should be a state of all of its citizens rather than a state of Jews. They also want to curtail expressions of support for the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement. In short, they want to chill free speech about Israel on college campuses.

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We, for our part, oppose BDS and believe firmly in the right of Israel to exist. But we don’t think that those who disagree with us should be branded as Jew-haters or subject to federal discrimination claims.

This attempt to chill speech around Israel-Palestine is part of a larger conservative attack on U.S. universities, which are being accused of brainwashing impressionable young students. It is also alarmingly consistent with a national and even global pattern to roll back basic pillars of liberal democracy. We see the tendency in the U.S., Russia, Poland, Turkey, India, England and Israel itself, where government leaders have created a political ecosystem in which dissenting voices are silenced and harassed.

What is so wrong-headed about the focus on American college campuses as sites of anti-Semitism is the deflection of attention from the truly grave threats around us today. In this regard, we can’t fail to notice the recent wave of attacks on Jews by African Americans in the New York area. But the main source of toxic anti-Semitism in the U.S. today is the white nationalist movement whose attacks have nothing to do with anti-Israel sentiments. It is that ideology and its delivery system — the internet — that must occupy us. A group of undergraduate researchers working at the Luskin Center for History and Policy at UCLA have been studying the proliferation of white nationalism in Southern California, and it is truly alarming.

Yes, there are some critics of Israel on campus whose words have lapsed into anti-Semitic stereotyping. We should condemn them when they do and be vigilant in calling out the hostility that these pronouncements may nurture. But we should also be clear-eyed in recognizing that these campus actors are not the ones attacking and killing Jews; nor are they trying to foment a race war in America as white nationalists are.

Let us not be deterred from addressing the real and present danger — and from joining forces with people of goodwill to fight the forces of racism and anti-Semitism that remain alive in our society today.

David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA and director of the Luskin Center for History and Policy. He is president of the New Israel Fund. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller served for 40 years as campus rabbi at UCLA and is a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.


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