The board of regents of the University of California recently adopted a set of principles on campus intolerance that condemned anti-Semitism, but not before deciding what constitutes anti-Semitism — and what doesn’t.
The board unanimously approved on March 24 the 12-page document, “Principles Against Intolerance,” which stated that anti-Semitism has “no place at the University of California.” In doing so, the University of California became the first public university system to condemn anti-Semitism since activities of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel turned up on U.S. college campuses.
The move was hailed as groundbreaking. Ken Waltzer, professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, said that label fits.
Unlike other universities, the University of California has provided clear language and reaffirmed its commitment to free speech and academic freedom, he said.
The document also called for university leaders to be “active responders” to anti-Semitism in speech and action, said Waltzer, who is also executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, formed to enlist academics who oppose BDS.
“It really defined as part of the role of university leaders to set a moral tone and respond openly and actively to intolerance when it happens and we think that’s a very good and clear signal to university leaders about how they are supposed to respond to this and all other forms of bias and discrimination,” said Waltzer.
An early draft condemned both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The final draft condemned anti-Semitism and “anti-Semitic forms” of anti-Zionism.
Waltzer is comfortable with the final wording.
“We thought that was a more precise formulation and it indicated more clearly what we thought, that some forms of anti-Zionism are not anti-Semitic but there are other forms that are anti-Semitic,” he said.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the BDS issue is “fraught,” and that the original proposal would have condemned all criticism of the State of Israel, some of which he wouldn’t consider anti-Zionism.
“I consider myself a loyal Zionist, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve never been critical of actions of the State of Israel,” he said. “I happen to consider myself a very loyal American in the same way.”
Still, it is clear that there are Jewish and pro-Israel college students who feel that there is a hostile environment on their campuses, and that criticism of Israel veers into hate speech and calling for the destruction of the Jewish state, he said.
“The question, which is not restricted to the case of BDS, but is a broader question for college administrators, is where do we follow the Louis Brandeis dictum that the proper antidote to bad speech is more speech?” Sarna said.
The university should be a place where unpopular views are aired and where there is an open debate on all sorts of issues, and unpopular points of view are welcome, he added.
Waltzer said the decision by the University of California board of regents could influence the debate on college campuses regarding the BDS movement and other forms of anti-Zionist activity, perhaps in a positive way that contributes to more constructive dialogue.
“We’re not interested in closing down the BDS movement. We’re interested in having conversation about Israel and Palestine on campus. Maybe this will permit it while also suggesting to people that they’ve got to cool it in terms of some of the ways they come at it.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.