Thursday, June 4, 2020
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Proposed UC Policy Threatens Free Speech

By Kurt Horner

The UC Regents are in the process of crafting a policy to protect students from anti-semitism. In general, this is a positive development, and hate crimes targeting Jewish students deserve specific attention in UC policy. Sadly, the campaign pushing for this policy is not content to simply prevent acts of intolerance and extends to a blatant attempt to shut down any campus organization critical of the state of Israel.

The key point of contention is the so-called “State Department” definition of antisemitism. This definition conflates criticism of Israel with attacks on Jews, but has never formally been adopted by any arm of the U.S. government due to serious potential conflicts with the First Amendment. In fact, the only formal U.S. government ruling on this definition rejected it and affirmed that criticism of Israel is protected political speech. Despite the fact that this flawed definition of antisemitism infringes upon free speech, Israeli government apologists continue to promote it in an attempt to label campus organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as enablers of antisemitism in the hopes of suppressing them.

The UC student workers union, UAW 2865, has sent a letter to the Regents demanding a place on the working group crafting this policy. Many UC teaching assistants discuss topics that directly touch on the situation in Palestine. A policy that placed sanctions on anyone criticizing Israel would do serious damage to academic freedom. The union hopes that an anti-semitism policy can be crafted that avoids free speech concerns while properly protecting students from intolerance.

The definition of antisemitism favored by Israel apologists claims that delegitimizing Israel is a form of antisemitism. But the legitimacy of any government is a complicated question which numerous theories in political science try to tackle.

One common view is that governments should be democratic and emerge from the consent of the governed. Under that theory, Israel would be an illegitimate government, since it denies three million Palestinian adults the option of forming their own government and also denies them the ability to vote in Israeli elections. This conclusion of illegitimacy would hold regardless of the religious or ethnic identity of the majority of Israeli citizens.

Another view of legitimacy is instrumental — that the outcomes of government policy matter. Here as well, Israel would be on shaky ground given the checkpoints and blockades that restrict Palestinians’ movement and their ability to trade. Serious disparities in education and housing access also exist, even within Israel proper, and are based in law. Again, the religious and cultural identity of the dominant group is irrelevant to the theory.

Apologists for the occupation also claim that anti-semitism can entail holding Israel to a double standard. At face value, this would seem to be a reasonable indicator of prejudice. However, one of the examples of this given in the original State Department memo is “organizations focusing on Israel only.” But most human rights organizations focus on a specific cause. Is the Free Tibet movement racist against the Chinese? Does Armenian genocide awareness spread hatred against Turks? This is obviously not a reasonable definition of what constitutes intolerance. If the UC Regents were to adopt an anti-semitism policy using this standard, students who participate in activism critical of Israel could be suspended or expelled from the university.

Of course, these pernicious speech effects are perhaps the entire point of the proposed policy. Apologists for Israel have long used Jewish identity as a shield to protect the Israeli government from criticism. Now that these arguments have begun to wear thin, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining strength, some pro-Israel groups have set out to try and ban the movement for Palestinian justice. What does it say about a supposedly free and democratic Israel if the first instinct of its defenders is to ban political speech when the going gets tough?

It is important to maintain the crucial distinction between acts of hatred and political debate. Academic freedom depends upon intolerance being restrained, so that all can safely participate. Thus it depends upon dissent and discussion being embraced so that no one is excluded. The “State Department” definition of antisemitism fails to make this distinction by conflating hate with dissent. The UC Regents can, and should, craft a policy which properly distinguishes hate speech from political speech.


Kurt Horner is a Head Steward in the UC Student-Workers Union, Irvine unit. He can be reached at