February 22, 2019

Should the UC define anti-Semitism? No, protect free speech

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

That’s what is being asked of the University of California’s Board of Regents. Two dozen groups, led 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 anti-Semitism 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 on Racism and Xenophobia’s (EUMC) “working definition on anti-Semitism,” 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 anti-Semitism, and to have a common frame of reference so that data might be compared across borders. It was used by Special Envoy Gregg Rickman in the department’s 2008 Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism report, and then Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal instituted a training program on the definition, so U.S. diplomats could better raise the issue with their counterparts. Although 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 anti-Semitism have urged its adoption, beginning with a 2009 declaration in London. 

No definition of something as complex as anti-Semitism can be perfect, but this one, 10 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
anti-Semitism 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, 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 anti-Semitism 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 and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel would be classified as anti-Semitic, as would the erection of fake walls imitating Israel’s separation barrier. So, if the definition is adopted, administrators presumably would be expected to label such political speech as anti-Semitic, 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 anti-Semitism — 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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitic. 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, why cheapen the word “anti-Semitism,” 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 State Department to label that anti-Semitism. 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 say?

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 anti-Semitism, 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 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 Rossman-Benjamin would define as anti-Semitism 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 to suppress speech they don’t like — here speech supposedly advocating for stateless Palestinians. Historically, anti-Semitism thrives in environments in which Jews are painted as dangers to sacred values. One can argue that anti-Semites 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 in tuition if not to shake up 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 likely will 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 classmate’s mouth is labeled anti-Semitic 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 that 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 anti-Semitism? 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 UC Regents would be better advised to think of ways to increase the teaching and scholarship about anti-Semitism 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 (jkrfoundation.org).