By Suleiman Hodali
The UC Students Association should be commended for courageously standing in opposition to HR 35, the recently passed California Assembly bill that equates legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and seeks to censor free speech and political activism across California’s public universities.
It should go without saying that all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, should be vigorously opposed by all members of the University. But one glance at the language of the bill reveals that HR 35 is less concerned with combating bigotry than it is with claiming that criticism of Israeli state policy is anti-Semitic, a position that is strongly opposed by many prominent Jewish groups on both sides of the political spectrum.
HR 35 is an attempt to silence and intimidate the growing student movement for Palestinian equal rights and, more specifically, to stifle the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel for its continued violations of human rights and international law.
While HR 35 bypasses decades of academic and legal scholarship in order to stifle criticism of Israel at the University (a space whose most intrinsic function is to allow for the free exchange of ideas), groups like Students for Justice in Palestine base their positions on equal rights and international law. We believe that HR 35 is a reaction to the growing public consensus that Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians is wrong.
The brutal military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the systematic discrimination against Palestinians inside Israel’s own borders and the denial of the right to return for civilians who endured ethnic cleansing in 1948 are objectionable behaviors that increasing numbers of students are standing up against on campuses across the United States.
The effort to stifle criticism of Israel on campuses has already resulted in attacks on the academic freedom of professors at UCLA and other campuses.
And now, as groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the National MEChA have endorsed calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions, defenders of Israeli apartheid have become so desperate as to support criminalizing free speech.
The UCSA was quick to respond to this, expressing their “strong opposition to HR 35 and expressing the UCSA’s opposition to all racism, whether it be the racism of campus and global anti-Semitism or the racism of Israel’s human rights violations, neither of which our campuses should tolerate, support, or profit from.”
The UCSA isn’t the only group opposed to HR 35 and other attempts to stifle criticism of Israel on campus. California Scholars for Academic Freedom, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement Archives, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Asian Law Caucus, the National Lawyers Guild, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the UC Student-Workers Union, Angela Davis and, most recently, David Myers, chair of the UCLA history department, have all weighed in to criticise HR 35 or other similar efforts.
As UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof put it, “One can object deeply to the policies of Israel. Our students should have a right to protest what they believe to be an unlawful and immoral action.”
When our critics oppose fake checkpoints and mock walls on campus because they make students uncomfortable, we remember that the discomfort felt by looking at the wall or seeing a student dressed up as a soldier is just a fraction of the discomfort felt by Palestinians who face real checkpoints, real walls and real soldiers on a daily basis.
When they argue that boycotts are extreme measures, we reply that boycotts are a tactic that UCLA students have used many times before, most notably to pressure the South African government to abandon its apartheid policies.
And when opponents of Palestinian rights claim that we are singling out Israel for special criticism, we remind them that this was a common claim made by defenders of apartheid in South Africa.
As Desmond Tutu wrote in 2010, “The same issue of equality is what motivates the divestment movement of today, which tries to end Israel’s 43-year long occupation and the unequal treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them. The abuses they face are real, and no person should be offended by principled, morally consistent, nonviolent acts to oppose them. It is no more wrong to call out Israel in particular for its abuses than it was to call out the Apartheid regime in particular for its abuses.”
Hodali is a graduate student in comparative literature and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA.