October 19, 2019

The UC’s new dilemma: to name or not to name

Dozens of speakers representing a variety of views testified last week at UCLA before a university committee tasked with crafting a University of California systemwide policy to combat anti-Semitism on campuses.

Many of the speakers favored adoption of the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes the demonizing of Israel and denial of its right to exist. They argued that, because the ultimate goal of anti-Jewish assaults on campus is to intimidate Israel’s supporters into silence, adopting the State Department’s definition would somehow temper the venom of those assaults.

Opponents, mostly from the anti-Israel camp, cited “freedom of speech” as a reason for ambiguity over clarity. I believe both camps are missing the point.

The issue is not how to define anti-Semitism, but whether to name the problem at hand, thus contributing to its solution, or to let the problem linger in ambiguity until incitements and hostilities get out of hand. As I have argued previously in these pages, among the phobias that currently drive campus racism, Zionophobia trumps anti-Semitism, and therefore, treating anti-Zionism as the lesser of the two evils gives racist forces the legitimacy to continue their assaults unabated, under the cover of a “political debate,” exempt from norms of discourse that protect other campus groups from similar attacks.

I believe not only UCLA, but also the University of California Regents, must explicitly name “anti-Zionism” as a major contributor to campus intolerance, and a major threat to the academic climate. When my turn came to speak before the committee, I said the following in an attempt to make this clear:

My name is Judea Pearl; I am a professor of engineering and applied science at UCLA, and I have served on the faculty since fall of 1969.

I came to speak here today because, after laboring my entire career to make this campus a center of academic excellence, I find that I am not exactly welcome here. I was awakened one day to discover that the university I knew was hijacked by proxies of a racist movement called BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], who turned our public square and many of our classrooms into a stage for incriminating me, my colleagues, my students, my scientific collaboration with Israel, and my identity as a Jew with one fabricated crime after another.

It has been part of their relentless and obsessive crusade to defame Israel, deny her right to exist, intimidate her supporters, and thus weaken her chances for survival. As a Jew, I am one with my people through the bonds of common history. Israel, the culmination of that history, is the central symbol of our identity as a people.

I submit to you that campus events such as “The World Without Israel,” “Anti-Zionist Week” or “Israel Apartheid Week,” organized by publicly funded student organizations and tolerated by the administration, are direct assaults on the identity of every Jew on this campus.

If you are serious about restoring academic reputation to this university, you must be EXPLICIT about the root cause of campus intolerance, which is not classical anti-Semitism but anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism or Zionophobia. I prefer the term Zionophobia because it rhymes with Islamophobia, and thus reminds us that all forms of racism should be equally deplored and all identity-forming symbols should be equally respected. 

Religion has no monopoly on human sensitivity.

Two words about free speech:

First, you will not be curtailing anyone’s right to free speech by recognizing “the denial of a Jewish homeland” as an unacceptable topic for public discourse on campus, no less unacceptable than “the denial of human rights to Blacks, women or Arabs.” Rather, you will be merely affirming the right of the Jewish people to a homeland — which is what Zionism is all about — no more, no less.

Second, no one expects the regents to police speech on campus. We ask only that you set the norms of civil discourse. This, I believe, is both your charter and responsibility: EXPLICITLY labeling anti-Zionism speeches as obstacles to a respectful academic climate is a necessary first step toward that goal. Not to silence such speeches, but to mark them as unbecoming.

Thank you.

Readers may ask why I emphasize the word “explicit” when it comes to Zionism or Zionophobia. The reason is obvious. The UC Regents know that Zionophobia is the main source of campus intolerance and hostility, and yet the word “Zionism” — a people’s quest for self determination — has never been identified as a moral imperative by those in charge of campus climate. You can’t cure a problem unless you name it! The effectiveness of any recommendation or report summing up the regents’ deliberations hinges upon one simple word: Zionism. Any attempt to circumvent this word through ambiguous, roundabout surrogates would mean abandoning the campus to amplified BDS megaphones and intensified anti-Jewish hostilities.

Judea Pearl is the Chancellor Professor of Computer Science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.