As an alum of UCLA, I was particularly interested when I learned that the working group for the Regents of the University of California Board had released their draft “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance,”
Having followed the news at my alma mater I knew that despite its title, this report wasn’t going to be merely a general statement about the importance of tolerance on campus. It was written in response to allegations of rising anti-Semitism at UCLA and other UC campuses.
On the face of it, there is much to admire about the report, particularly its strong support of campus environments “in which all are included, all are given an equal opportunity to learn and explore, in which differences as well as commonalities are celebrated, and in which dissenting viewpoints are not only tolerated but encouraged.”
In the end, however, this “Statement of Tolerance” actually achieves the exact opposite of its stated goals. If heeded, it would serve to silence dissent and open debate on college campuses.
At the beginning of the draft report, it states:
"Fundamentally, commenters noted that historic manifestations of anti‐Semitism have changed and that expressions of anti‐Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify.
"In particular, 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 thus concludes that “anti‐Semitism, anti‐Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
It is certainly important to state unequivocally that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated on UC campuses. But it is incorrect and even disingenuous of the report to make the unsupported claim that anti-Zionism is “often expressed (as) assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture,” and blithely conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism as a “form of discrimination”.
It is true that some anti-Semites lurk behind the label of anti-Zionism - and when they do they should rightly be exposed and condemned. But it is deeply problematic to label anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination.
In fact, growing numbers of Jews and others identify as anti-Zionists for legitimate ideological reasons. Many profess anti-Zionism because they do not believe Israel can be both a Jewish and democratic state.
Some don’t believe that the identity of a nation should be dependent upon the demographic majority of one people over another. Others choose not to put this highly militarized ethnic nation-state at the center of their Jewish identity. Far from being discriminatory, their beliefs are motivated by values of equality and human rights for all human beings.
Blurring the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism muddles the definition of anti-Semitism to the point that it becomes meaningless.
This conflation is irresponsible and harmful and invariably draws our attention away from real anti-Semitism, whether it be the targeting of Jews, the vandalization of synagogues and cemeteries or the proliferation of hate groups at home and abroad.
Certainly all forms of racism should be called out in no uncertain terms. But erasing the lines between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism only makes this task more difficult.
I can’t help but notice that this report’s broadside on anti-Zionism strongly evokes the right-wing agenda of groups such as the AMCHA initiative.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Director of the AMCHA Initiative has long made it clear that tarring anti-Zionists as anti-Semites is part of a larger strategy to ban Palestinian solidarity groups from campuses across the country.
Such a policy would have a devastating impact on Palestinian activists and their allies. It would prevent many Palestinian and Israeli human rights advocates from speaking on college campuses.
It would prevent students from displaying a model of Israel’s separation wall to demonstrate to the oppressive effects of Israel’s occupation. And it would forbid student efforts to hold Israel accountable through economic pressure, through campaigns to boycott and divest from settlements or from corporations that profit from the abusive policies of the state of Israel.
Having long worked in the Jewish community, I know that some Jewish organizations equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism because they seek to protect Israel’s image or because they do not want Jewish college students to have to tolerate criticism of Israel and Zionism.
Those who believe in a one state solution are accused of seeking “the destruction of the Jewish state” when they actually hold their position as a result of honest political analysis and a genuine concern for all who live in the land, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Yes, critics of Israel and Zionism can sometimes be harsh and their tactics confrontational, but I do believe we do our young people no favors when we attempt to silence them. Though I have come a long way since my UCLA days, I still remember all too well how uncomfortable it was to have one’s beliefs and opinions challenged.
But we should not confuse “uncomfortable” with “unsafe.” Forbidding debate and free speech will not create more comfortable campus environments - it will only marginalize students for legitimately expressing their beliefs.
The UC Regents claims to support the open exchange of ideas on their campuses. But they will never accomplish this if they teach students that their ideas only matter if they pass a political litmus test.
Rabbi Brant Rosen is an alum of UCLA, the Co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and the rabbi of newly founded congregation, Tzedek Chicago. He serves as the Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiBrant
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