On Tuesday, March 10, the Undergraduate Students Association Council passed a resolution to “condemn anti-Semitism” proposed by members of Hillel at UCLA, a Jewish organization linked to the U.S. pro-Israel lobby. Denouncing anti-Semitism is important, but buried in the resolution are clauses that attempt to redefine anti-Semitism by coupling Israel as a political entity with Jews as a people. This redefinition is so vague that any critique of Israel might be construed as anti-Semitic. Councilmembers, committed to oppose anti-Semitism and concerned about being themselves labeled anti-Semites, didn’t seriously discuss these clauses and passed them without any qualification. In this redefinition of anti-Semitism, Israel receives center stage while the question of racism is worryingly sidelined, making it in fact a redefinition of the limits of debate regarding Israel. As a Jewish citizen of Israel, social activist and UCLA graduate student, I see the passing of the resolution as a capitulation to right-wing politics of fear aimed at silencing criticism and activism on campus. Let’s consider some of the problematic clauses.
First, the resolution dubs any speech “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” as anti-Semitic. This assumes that the only way of exercising Jewish self-determination is embodied in the state of Israel. This is clearly false: Many Jews in the past and today reject the idea that Israel embodies their collective identity and are increasingly alienated by its policies. Moreover, Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories cannot be passed off as a necessary component of Jewish self-determination. The “right to exist” is actually about preserving the existing status quo in which Israel is an occupying power.
Many Jews believe, as I do, in the right of Jews and Palestinians to live peacefully with their collective and individual rights mutually respected. This entails a radical change in the political framework in Israel and Palestine today and an end to the domination of one group over another. Such a change, based on mutual commitment to equal rights, does not amount to questioning the right of Jews for collective national rights, but to the recognition that Jews are not the only people in today’s Israel and Palestine who deserve this right.
The resolution also states that anti-Semitism can come in the form of “applying double standards by requiring of (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.” Such “multilateral organizations,” like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly criticized and continue to criticize Israel’s violations of human rights and international law. Moreover, must we simultaneously criticize other countries every time we wish to condemn the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza?
These clauses have little to do with racism against Jews; rather, they serve as a gag order on criticism of Israel. They are meant to make people afraid of uttering their opinions for fear of being branded as anti-Semitic. But who gets to decide how these definitions are applied? According to the resolution, USAC “will respect the right of the organized Jewish Community at UCLA to define, within the guidelines of the national definition, what is and is not anti-Semitic.” In other words, despite the fact that no country, including Israel, accepts this definition as binding in law, the authors demand not only acceptance of this right-wing position but also the authority to decide when it applies. Despite such attempts to exclude us, there are many Jews on campus who disagree with this conflation of Jewishness with the Israeli state. A UCLA Jewish Voice for Peace chapter was established last year precisely to free progressive Jews from the monopolization of their public voice by the pro-Israeli lobby.
Dissenting Jews are dealt with by a special clause: “The fact that a small minority of Jews may disagree with aspects of the above definition does not render it invalid, as an accepted definition of racism against any community would be nearly impossible to create if it required the agreement of every single member of that community.” In other words, they, the established, well-funded organizations, shall decide for all Jews, regardless of their opinions, when an act is anti-Semitic.
Despite these clauses, I trust that people on campus can distinguish between criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment. Speaking out against and working to end Israel’s violations of human rights and international law is the obligation of everyone who seeks to combat racism.
Ball is a graduate student in the Department of History.