Representing students of the University of California, SJP West is pleased to have the opportunity to address you about our concerns over your consideration of adopting the U.S. State Department’s redefinition of anti-Semitism. President Napolitano, we strongly oppose its adoption, and want to ensure that it is not included in the Regents’ July meeting agenda. SJP West believes that the UC system needs to strongly oppose all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, but we believe that the adoption and implementation of this specific redefinition will contribute to the conflation of anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israeli state policies. Adoption of this redefinition would be a direct attack on the freedom of speech of all University of California students and set a dangerous precedent of privileging outside lobbies over our UC community.
Unfortunately, the current campaign, led by outside forces, to adopt the State Department’s redefinition of anti-Semitism is designed to silence our legitimate speech critical of Israeli policies. Criticism of Israel’s discriminatory and violent policies should not be conflated with anti-Semitism, which is defined in common use as prejudice or hostility against Jewish people. (1) Jewish people and the Israeli state are not one and the same. Many American Jewish organizations, have stated that conflating the Israeli government with the voice of all Jewish people worldwide is itself anti-Semitic. This is because it attributes Israel’s ideology, policies, and practices to all Jews, thus, depriving the Jewish people of their nuanced identities and generalizing them into one stereotype. The State Department’s redefinition of anti-Semitism might be interpreted by some political groups as prohibiting nearly any form of criticism of Israeli state policies. The definition in question is so vague that it will allow certain political groups to smear us as anti-Semitic along with any other student who conducts speech that is disapproved of by certain outside interest groups. It would have negative consequences for students and our constitutionally protected free speech—this is the ultimate goal of outside organizations that seek to impose, essentially, a gag order throughout the UC system. The UC Board of Regents must stay true to its mission to represent all students by protecting the ability of all students to engage in critical debate about Palestinian human rights.
Significantly, just a few days ago, Kenneth Stern, one of the primary authors of the European Monitoring Centre’s former “working definition” of anti-Semitism, on which the State Department’s redefinition is based, wrote in the Los Angeles Jewish Daily Forward that he opposes the adoption of this redefinition by the UC Regents. In the article, Stern writes, “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.” (2) It is clear to those most knowledgeable about this redefinition that the true purpose of the campaign to have it adopted is to silence our speech on campus regarding Palestinian human rights.
To conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism would be to accuse the United Nations and other top human rights organizations of being anti-Semitic, merely because they have openly opposed the human rights violations committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. The United Nations has condemned settlement construction as a violation of international law, creating serious barriers, obstructing Palestinian access to education, housing, water, and other natural resources. (3) Human Rights Watch condemned Israel’s system of segregation in the West Bank through mechanisms such as: separate legal systems based on race and ethnicity, separate roads, and segregated housing—as also being in violation of international law. (4) As noted by Amnesty International, Israel continues to impose a devastating blockade against the Gaza Strip, constituting collective punishment against 1.8 million people, stoking a humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, Israel maintains oppressive restrictions within the West Bank, indiscriminately and systematically bulldozes Palestinian homes, promotes illegal settlements and allows settlers to attack and destroy Palestinian property with near total impunity. (5) Other criticisms of Israel cite the human rights violations inherent in the Gaza bombing of 2014 and Israel’s systematic abuse against Palestinian children. These criticisms of a country’s policies should not be conflated with anti-Semitism, yet an adoption of this redefinition of anti-Semitism could be used to prohibit them. Are the UC Regents really prepared to prohibit the distribution of Amnesty International reports on campus by the student body?
Adopting the State Department’s redefinition of anti-Semitism would allow UC’s to employ the redefinition as a tool to silence all political criticisms of Israel, which will violate and infringe upon our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Students are criticizing a nation state entity, not a religious group. Criticizing Israel is not only protected speech under the United States Constitution, but on campus according to the United States Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights. In August of 2013, the DOE dismissed three complaints against the University of California Berkeley, Irvine, and Santa Cruz, each case claiming that fighting for Palestinian human rights created an anti-Semitic environment. The DOE dismissed those allegations because such events “constitute expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment.” (6)
Moreover, it is clear that the campaign in support of the adoption of this redefinition is intended to chill protected speech on UC campuses, as Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, one of the organizations leading the campaign to adopt this resolution, readily admits:
"Asked by the Forward about specific types of pro-Palestinian protest actions on campus, Rossman-Benjamin said that BDS would, in principle, be seen as anti-Semitic with the adoption of the State Department definition. So would protests in which activists erect a wall to symbolize Israel’s separation barrier, which is used to block Palestinians in the occupied West Bank from entering Israel and parts of the West Bank itself. Demonstrations in which activists distribute mock eviction notices — meant to mimic notices distributed by the Israeli army to Palestinian West Bank residents whose homes are slated for demolition — would also be deemed anti-Semitic, Rossman-Benjamin said." (7)
Thus, Rossman-Benjamin aims to shut down student activists who work diligently to put up the wall display and distribute mock eviction notices which represent the truth and oppression that Palestinians face every day due to the Israeli occupation, activities that are clearly protected speech and well within the rights of students on UC campuses. Direct action around issues of global and social justice has a long history at the University of California and is a protected freedom the University must ensure is not threatened.
Across all UC campuses, Students for Justice in Palestine—including a diverse array of other student organizations such as Black Student Unions, MEChA, LGBT organizations, and many others— are active in thinking critically about justice, human rights, and international political affairs. The diverse collaboration of students on campus not only utilizes freedom of speech to bring awareness of Palestinian human rights, but also to bring awareness of other abuses around the world. Therefore, SJP and other student organizations add to the critical thinking and discussion that’s expected at one of the most prestigious educational systems in the world. Furthermore, the university is a space where intellectuals can willingly question their own strongly held views in order to learn and grow.
It has been devastating and shocking to learn that this policy is even being considered by the UC Office of the President. Such an odious policy threatens the very integrity of the UC system and calls into questions the constituents the Regents are truly serving. President Napolitano, if you decide to place this on the agenda then you will not be representing the interests of the university community as a whole, including fellow UC students, alumni, faculty, and staff who are signing onto this letter, in promoting free and vigorous debate about important current issues. You will be placing in jeopardy civil protections hard fought by generations of student activists. You are responsible for representing all students, including the wide spectrum of students who identify strongly with the Palestinian struggle. If this agenda item is adopted, you will not be representing the best interests of the University of California. We are deeply committed to do all that we can within our right to ensure that our constitutional rights are equally respected and our voices are duly heard when addressing Palestinian human rights. Students for Justice in Palestine and other diverse student groups will not, under any circumstances, cease to condemn Israeli policy and human rights violation against the Palestinian people. SJP West will also continue to be critical of the United States, and now, the University of California if this redefinition of anti-Semitism is adopted. SJP West and the signers of this letter strongly urge you to protect students by making the —right—decision. President Napolitano, reject the proposal that the UC Regents adopt the State Department’s redefinition of anti-Semitism and protect the foundational freedoms imperative to institutions of higher learning.