Should a major university system have a particular definition of anti-Semitism?

Two dozen groups, lead by the “AMCHA Initiative,” want the regents to adopt the definition used by the U.S Department of State. UC’s president, Janet Napolitano, has endorsed the idea.
June 22, 2015

That’s what is being asked of the University of California’s Board of Regents. Two dozen groups, lead by the “AMCHA Initiative,” want the regents to adopt the definition used by the U.S Department of State. UC’s president, Janet Napolitano, has endorsed the idea.

Clearly there have been incidents of antisemitism on some California campuses. Some of these have been jarring, such as a Jewish candidate for student government being questioned about whether, as a Jew, she could be unbiased (imagine this question being asked about a candidate who is gay, or a woman, or of color).

But official adoption of the State Department’s definition would do more harm than good. I say this sadly, as the lead author of the somewhat more detailed European Monitoring Centre’s (EUMC) “working definition on antisemitism,” upon which the State Department definition is based, and as a strong advocate of State’s use of the definition in its global work.

The EUMC definition was crafted as a tool for data collectors in European countries to identify what to include and exclude from their reports about antisemitism, and to have a common frame of reference so that data might be compared across borders. It was used by Special Envoy Gregg Richman in the Department’s 2008 Global Antisemitism Report, and then Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal instituted a training program on the definition, so that U.S diplomats could better raise the issue with their counterparts. While the EUMC’s successor organization has not been using the definition for a variety of political and other reasons, members of parliaments around the world concerned with antisemitism have urged its adoption, beginning with a 2009 declaration in London. 

No definition of something as complex as antisemitism can be perfect, but this one, ten years after its creation, remains a very good one. It is certainly a useful tool for college campuses, if used appropriately. It can, for example, be a starting point for needed discussions about antisemitism and how we define it (and how we might define other forms of hatred and bigotry too). Reference to it would certainly help students understand events, both across the world and locally.

But to enshrine such a definition on a college campus is an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole.

Those who want the university system to adopt the definition say it isn’t a speech code (presumably because they recognize that speech codes are likely unconstitutional and anathema to the ideals of academic freedom). But that is precisely what they are seeking. You don’t need a university endorsement of a particular definition in order to increase careful thought about difficult issues, such as when antisemitism is present in debates about Israel and Palestine. AMCHA’s leader, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin rather wants a rule of what is hateful to say and what is not. She has said that advocacy in favor of Boycotts/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) against Israel would be classified as antisemitic, as would the erection of fake walls imitating Israel’s separation barrier. So if the definition is adopted, presumably administrators would be expected to label such political speech as antisemitic, or face challenges (political and perhaps legal) from AMCHA and its colleagues that they were not doing their jobs.

Some legislative history is important here. BDS was already appearing when the EUMC definition was written. In 2002 there had been proposals on some U.S. campuses (all of which failed) to get universities to divest from Israel. In 2004 Palestinian groups issued a call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. I asked my fellow experts whether the definition we were drafting should mention such activities (and more broadly, the unfair attempt to paint Israel as the successor to Apartheid-era South Africa), and to the best of my recollection, no one thought that appropriate, in part because of the complexities and nuances involved with such political speech. (Holding all Jews responsible for the actions of Israel is clearly antisemitism – advocating a boycott of Golan wines is clearly of a different character.)

There is no doubt that many of the proponents of BDS have an antisemitic agenda: they want to deny Jews the right of self-determination in a land of their own, the same right they champion for Palestinians. In essence, they want to undo events of 1948, not just those of 1967.

But that does not translate into a blanket assertion that all support for BDS is antisemitic. Many committed Zionists, deeply troubled by the implications of nearly 50 years of occupation on Palestinians and Israelis alike and sickened by the racist rhetoric of some leading Israeli politicians, support aspects of BDS, such as labeling West Bank-linked goods or divesting from companies whose products are used in the occupation. Whether one agrees with their view or not, why cheapen the word “antisemitism,” let alone distort it, by applying it to such advocates, particularly on a college campus?

If a diplomat says that Israel – a member state of the United Nations – should not exist as the nation state of the Jewish people, it is appropriate for the Department to State to label that antisemitism. But on a college campus, do we really want a student (imagine yourself as a Palestinian student) to fear that anti-Zionism on their part (even if they are quoting Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt to make their case) will violate an administratively-imposed definition of what is ok to be said?

Of course it is important that members of the campus community, including its leadership, speak up when there are hate crimes (such as the rare but occasional swastika daubing). They should speak out if they sense a threat to academic freedom, such as if intimidation and harassment occur. And more schools should conduct surveys of their students to see if intergroup tensions and bigotry are experienced, and if they are, then institute educational, training, and other programs as appropriate. But administrators should not act as quality control officers on campus debate. Further, if a university adopts an official definition of antisemitism, how long would it be until other groups demand an official definition of Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian animus, homophobia and so forth, with the built-in expectation that speech transgressing such definitions requires an administrative response too? Consider what speech might run afoul of an official definition of “anti-Palestinian.” Perhaps when a student says that he does not believe Palestinians have a right to a country of their own, and that the West Bank instead should be part of a Greater Israel?

The rhetoric that troubles Ms. Rossman-Benjamin is not the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem. The problem is that debate has become binary, black and white – what Ms. Rossman-Benjamin would define as antisemtism some pro-Palestinian advocates say is simply seeking justice and opposing racism.

Would the labeling of one side of this debate as hateful do anything other than increase this paradigm? And then what happens? Jews are increasingly portrayed as not able to defend Israel, thus they have to try and suppress speech they don’t like – here speech supposedly advocating for stateless Palestinians. Historically, antisemitism thrives in environments in which Jews are painted as dangers to sacred values. One can argue that antisemites will describe Jews this way regardless, and twist history like a pretzel in the process, but that does not change the fact that the adoption of such a definition would be a self-inflicted wound. On a campus, proposals that are seen as diminishing academic freedom become rallying points, even for people who are not invested in the issue at hand. Solutions that incorporate and extol academic freedom are more likely to succeed.

Part of the challenge is also that some Jewish parents don’t want their children to see BDS proponents or mock walls, because this will make their children uncomfortable. I get it. I am made uncomfortable by such political speech too. But why are these parents paying hundreds of thousands of dollars of tuition in if not to shake their children’s thinking? Don’t they want their kids to work past their discomfort, to understand better why some of their classmates see Israel as inherently wrong? Don’t they want their children to be able to say and hear controversial things? Isn’t facing this challenge head on, using critical thinking skills, a precondition to engaging and countering such difficult and unsettling assertions on campus and in their adult lives?

This next academic year will likely see additional student-driven BDS resolutions (the catalysts are last summer’s war in Gaza, the troubling statements made during the Israeli election, and the success of a small number of student votes in favor of divestment [although not a single university has divested]). Will it really help Jewish students if what comes out of a classmates’ mouth is labeled antisemitic by administrators, or isn’t so labeled, and AMCHA and its colleagues from outside the campus make demands and threaten lawsuits? In either case other students and faculty will come to that student’s or administrator’s aid, make him or her a celebrity, and have a battle royal which not only cements previously held perceptions on both sides, but also labels Jews as bullies. For what? Circulating a petition to boycott a West Bank product?

Wouldn’t it be better for Jewish students worried about BDS and the campus as a whole if universities instead focused on what they might do to increase serious thinking and debate, rather than chill speech through adoption of official definitions? Shouldn’t they be creating more courses and programs helping students understand what this debate is about? Why are there so few (really only a handful) full-semester interdisciplinary courses on antisemitism? And why are there so few courses helping students understand what happens (on a neurobiological, social psychological level, etc.) when senses of identity get wrapped around an issue of justice (whether Israel/Palestine, Ferguson, abortion, immigration, etc.), and why too often empathy, nuance, and the ability to acknowledge one’s opinions might be wrong seem in short supply?

The Regents would be better advised to think of ways to increase the teaching and scholarship about antisemitism and hatred in general rather than adopt a definition that was never intended to regulate speech on a college campus. It takes only a small number of students on a campus to start a BDS petition. It should only take a small number of students who have a deeper understanding of the difficult issues in play to help guide more intelligent and meaningful campus discussion and debate.

Kenneth S. Stern is the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation – http://www.jkrfoundation.org

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.