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Submission: UC should not adopt anti-Semitism definition that endangers open debate

By Eitan Peled and Rahim Kurwa

September 16, 2015 2:32 pm

This summer has seen a debate over whether the UC Board of Regents should adopt a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that categorizes certain speech critical of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic. While anti-Semitism is understood to be prejudice, discrimination, or hatred toward Jewish people for being Jewish, this redefinition expands that notion to include three types of criticisms of Israel – “demonizing,” “applying a double standard” to or “delegitimizing” the state of Israel – also known as the “three D’s.”

The vague nature of these three D’s has prompted an intervention by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, which urged UC not to adopt the redefinition. “It’s hard to see how these standards could be transplanted to the campus of a public university committed to a robust exchange of views and subject to the free-speech provisions of the 1st Amendment,” the paper wrote. And Kenneth Stern, one of the definition’s original authors, recently argued against its adoption by the University of California, saying that the definition would “do more harm than good … damag(ing) the university as a whole.” Reviewing these standards can help illustrate how dangerous and fraught they are.

The first of the three D’s is “demonizing Israel,” a term which likely means something different to everyone who reads it. Although there are individuals who adopt views of Israel that are rooted in hatred, the term alone is vague, providing no clear idea of where to draw the line. Is criticizing Israel’s discriminatory policies demonizing? Is calling for social and economic pressure to change those policies demonizing? And who decides?

The second of the three D’s, “applying a double standard to Israel,” drew the harshest criticism from the Los Angeles Times, which asked, “Would pro-Palestinian students who mounted a protest against Israeli policies in the West Bank be judged anti-Semites because they didn’t also demonstrate against repression in Egypt or Russia?” This in itself would be a double standard, as other social justice campaigns are not asked to denounce various world problems before being allowed to make their specific cases.

The last of the three D’s is “delegitimizing Israel,” sometimes described as denying its “right to exist.” Again, the Los Angeles Times was quick to point out how open these statements are to interpretation, asking, “What about a student who wanted to argue that Israel should be replaced by a nonsectarian state? Even those who find such a position unrealistic or undesirable might agree that it needn’t be driven by hatred for Jews.” Indeed, campus debates about Israel and the Palestinians don’t center on Israel’s right to exist, but instead on what type of Israel should exist – a democratic state with equal rights for all that respects international law, or one that continues policies of exclusion and occupation.

What we should keep in mind is that principled criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, for two main reasons. First, criticism of Israel is targeted at a state and its government’s policies, not at the ethnic or religious groups living in the state. Second, conflating criticism of Israel with hatred toward Jews assumes a one-to-one relationship between the Jewish community and Israel as a state – an assumption that itself is based on harmful stereotypes. The state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and many Jews, including those with strong connections to Israel, support strong measures of social and economic pressure aimed at changing its treatment of the Palestinians.

Concerns about the legal and pedagogical implications of UC Regents adopting the three D’s are shared by many, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestine Legal, Students for Justice in Palestine, the UAW Local 2865 and free speech groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Using this definition would endanger open policy debate on campus – some prominent advocates of the redefinition have already stated that they wish to use it to stigmatize and suppress a wide range of political speech critical of Israel. Many faculty and students would likely avoid discussing political questions from fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. And should the definition be applied to restrict speech on campus, it would likely prompt lawsuits over free speech and censorship.

In his op-ed advising the UC not to adopt the three D’s, Stern supported promoting a more inclusive policy against intolerance in all its forms, including anti-Semitism, and creating more robust mechanisms for reporting and handling incidents of bias on campuses. The UC Regents have indicated an openness to this alternative, and it appears to be the wisest and most sensible route to take.

Peled is a fourth-year economics, global studies, and public affairs student and is the president of Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA and the programming director of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA. Kurwa is a graduate student in sociology and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA.

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