U of California May Ban "Anti-Zionism" on Campus, Blurring Line Between Political Speech and Hate Speech

In the name of fighting intolerance, legitimate political debate is threatened.


The University of California (UC) Board of Regents

Hate speech?

is considering adding "anti-Zionism" to an ever-growing list of unacceptable forms of "discrimination" that will be outlawed on the state university system's 10 campuses.

The new proposal is an addendum to UC's still-under-consideration "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance," which Will Creeley of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) said in 2015 had the potential to lead to "a kind of race to the bottom, sooner or later, by public universities punishing students or faculty for a particular viewpoint." 

The AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit devoted to battling anti-Semitism on American college campuses, was the driving force behind the addition of anti-Zionism to the list of banned forms of "intolerant" expression, after deeming the previous UC statement to have insufficiently addressed anti-Semitism. In lobbying for the additional speech code, AMCHA cited a number of recent incidents where Jewish students were targeted, including the spraypainting of swastikas on the outside of a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis.

The latest report from the regents working group states:

Opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.

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

The UC regents are scheduled to discuss the report on March 23, but it seems that the working group is trying to have it both ways, because later in the report, they add that the university "will vigorously defend the principles of the First Amendment and academic freedom against any efforts to subvert or abridge them." 

It's hard to see how UC plans to square this circle, especially since Zionism, unlike Judaism, is not a religion but a specific political philosophy based on the belief that the land of Greater Israel is the rightful national homeland of the Jewish people. Zionism is not embraced by every person of the Jewish faith, nor is Zionism itself a monolith.

There are plenty of self-described Zionists who are vocally critical of the government of Israel's policies, which presently include building settlements in the occupied West Bank, actions that are officially opposed by nearly every nation in the world, including the US.

Additionally, holding the belief that the state of Israel's creation was misbegoten or unjust is a political position, one that is frequently debated in academia. While controversial, it is not necessarily motivated by anti-Semitism any more than someone opposed to Hamas running a de facto Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip is motivated by Islamophobia. 

On the legitimacy of debating Israel's right to exist, Eugene Volokh writes at The Washington Post:

Whether the Jewish people should have an independent state in Israel is a perfectly legitimate question to discuss — just as it's perfectly legitimate to discuss whether Basques, Kurds, Taiwanese, Tibetans, Northern Cypriots, Flemish Belgians, Walloon Belgians, Faroese, Northern Italians, Kosovars, Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Transnistrians, Chechens, Catalonians, Eastern Ukranians and so on should have a right to have independent states.

The regents' proposal bears the hallmarks of a classic case of overcompensation and would likely result in legitimate political grievances being prosecuted under the umbrella of "hate speech."

The roots of this prospective policy stem from a 2010 US State Department memo which attempted to define how "anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel." The memo lists the demonization of Israel, applying a double standard for Israel, and de-legitimizing Israel's right to exist as instances where political speech becomes hate speech.

In May 2015, UC President Janet Napolitano said she would support the application of these criteria, which have come to be known as "the 3 Ds," to university policy. The regents ultimately declined to go that far, but the addition of anti-Zionism to its list of intolerable forms of speech feels like their attempt at compromise. 

AMCHA's co-founder and director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told the Jewish-American journal Forward that "the 3 Ds" are the basis for AMCHA's efforts to change UC policy. Rossman-Benjamin said that advocating for the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement which protests Israeli businesses operating in the West Bank should be seen as a form of anti-Semitism. And that's just the start:

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.

Some pro-Israel groups opposed to the Israeli government's policies in the occupied territories have called for boycotting products manufactured on exclusively Jewish West Bank settlements. But this too would, under certain circumstances, be seen as anti-Semitic, according to Rossman-Benjamin. So would campus events in which former Israeli soldiers from the group Breaking the Silence speak about wrongdoings they claim to have witnessed by fellow soldiers during their military service, she said.

Arguing that anti-Semitism is always part and parcel with anti-Zionism is like saying opposition to Islamism, the political strain of morally conservative Islam that seeks to impose Islamic law on all aspects of life, is inherently Islamophobic, which would come as a suprise to the many Muslim critics who oppose sharia law, the subjugation of women, and the idea of Islamic supremacy.

This is not to say that racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia don't come into play in political debates or demonstrations on campus. But that's all the more reason to not take certain political arguments off the table. 

When students on the campus of UC Berkeley chanted "Long live the Intifada!" in 2014, some saw it as solidarity with the cause of Palestinian self-determination against almost a half-century of occupation. Others saw it as a celebration of terrorism against Israeli civilians.

The disparity in interpretation is precisely why the right to free, robust, and sometimes uncivil debate should always be prioritized over the risk of hurt feelings. Few topics arouse people's passions like Israel/Palestine and those passions will not be abated by disallowing criticism of a nation-state, a political movement, or any particular philosophy. 

As Reason's Robby Soave reported last year, the simple and fairly innocuous act of hanging a Palestinian flag in a George Washington University (GWU) dorm room window was deemed disrespectful to the community by a school administator, and campus police ordered the student who hung it to take it down. In many ways it's a perfect metaphor for the silencing of political speech: If an idea makes you uncomfortable, beseech the authorities remove it, and then it's no longer a problem for you. 

Watch Soave's visit to the GWU campus below: