February 20, 2020

Chilling debate or chilling hate on UC campuses?

The proposed UC Regents statement concerning anti-Zionism is a milestone in the struggle to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation on UC campuses. (The statement will be presented to the Regents for a vote on March 23.) While most commentaries focus on the implications of the statement:

“Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California,”

I would first like to applaud the decision to mention the word “anti-Zionism” in an official document of the University of California.

This may sound incredible to most readers, but, though everyone recognizes anti-Zionism as the main source of campus intolerance and hostility, the word “Zionism” has never been mentioned in any official communication of the university that I can remember (and I have been on the UCLA's faculty since 1969). The word “Zionism,” or even “Israel,” has been shunned by the UC administration like leprosy, possibly because it was considered “politically charged” or because it was judged  “controversial,” or because it could be interpreted as “taking sides.”

This is no longer the case.

The recent proposed report endows Zionism with a moral dimension and casts anti-Zionism as morally unacceptable. The statement recognizes “anti-Zionism” not merely as an arguable manifestation of anti-Semitism, but as an independent form of discrimination, carrying its own charge of bigotry and hate – at long last.

It reminds the university community, students and faculty, that all the ugly rhetoric of de-legitimization and de-humanization targets the fate of real people who seek life, security and dignity on this God-forsaken planet.

It is a paradigmatic shift of great symbolic value.

As is usual in paradigm-shifting situations, some people cannot stomach the shift. Israel eliminationists, taking cover in slogans of “human rights” and “social justice,” suddenly find themselves on the ugly side of the moral equation. The Regents report reminds them that conflicts have two sides, that there are human beings on both sides, and that morality and justice require more than just shouting: “Me, me, me.” In their bewilderment, these pseudo-guardians of morality now pull out two beaten-up mantras and chant: “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism” and “this report might chill debate.”

Every child knows that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism”; the first targets Jews as individuals, while the second targets Jews as a people. The first targets all Jews, while the second targets only Jews who demand their right to self determination. Accordingly, the report explicitly distinguishes  “anti-Zionism” from “anti-Semitism” as two independent “forms of discrimination,” each laden with its own claim on racism.

Let us examine now the second mantra, concerning “chilling the debate” which some alarmists view as an attack on the First Amendment. Nothing of the kind. It might sound surreal, but all of our ongoing debates are already “chilled,” since we are all operating within norms of discourse that society has imposed on us. For example, in debating the notion of “gender Equality,” we are not advocating “women’s inferiority,” and in debating the nature of racism, we certainly do not preach “white supremacy.” Preaching white supremacy is not forbidden by the university, it is actually protected by the First Amendment, yet it is considered to “have no place at the university,” exactly the way the proposed Regents report labels anti-Zionism. I do not know many of my colleagues who are disturbed by the temperature of the debates that are currently being “chilled.”

Some of my colleagues say that speech norms cannot be imposed by decree, they must emerge organically to reflect universal societal values, and Zionism is not universal yet. This opinion is incompatible, however, with the dynamic of norms, as I recall it. I still remember the days when women’s inferiority was not seen as “socially unacceptable” as it is today, and Islamophobia was not as deadly a sin as it is today.

These norms have not emerged on their own. They were shaped and became universal over the years by hardworking, visionary leaders using statements of principles, guidelines and recommendations, just like the one issued last week for consideration by the Regents.

This report now adds anti-Zionism to the list of “chilled debates,” and rightly so. Through this report, the working group has reassumed the Regents’ responsibility to set norms of civil discourse without limiting free speech; Zionophobic and Islamophobic hate speeches would both remain protected, but, like all hate speeches, would be shunned by students and faculty, and equally “chilled” by the unwritten norms of good judgment.

Judea Pearl is Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.