Students, faculty and members of the community shared their thoughts about free speech and anti-Semitism during a public forum held on Monday Oct. 26 at UCLA by a group of UC Regents members seeking to draft a new Statement of Principles Against Intolerance.
In the UC Regents meeting held last September, the Regents rejected the first draft of the proposed Statement declaring that it did not specifically address the issue of anti-Semitism on UC campuses, and appointed a working group of eight Regents to draft a new Statement.
The working group, led by UC Regent Eddie Island, hoped the public forum would allow speakers to voice their concerns about a new Statement in a safe environment.
Much like during September’s meeting, many speakers urged the UC system to adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which considers acts that demonize Israel or deny the country’s right to exist to be anti-Semitic.
Gary Fouse, an adjunct teacher at UC Irvine’s extension program, cited a few incidents faced by the Jewish community at UCI and on other UC campuses over the past fifteen years, holding that anti-Semitism is the “worst ‘ism’ today on UC and US college campuses.”
“In the past year, swastikas appeared on a UC Davis Jewish frat house (following a BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] vote) and just a week or so ago, cars were defaced with swastikas and anti-Jewish slurs at UC Davis,” said Fouse.
Other speakers were concerned that the State Department definition would stymie students’ First Amendment rights and would prevent academic discourse in the campus environment.
Estee Chandler, the coordinator of the LA chapter of Jews for Peace discussed that the State Department definition would be an extreme measure preventing criticism of Israel’s government policies and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In a written statement to the UC Regents working group, LA Jews For Peace held that most criticism is “not anti-Semitic because it does not attack Jews as Jews, rather the attacks are focused on the inhumane and likely criminal policies of Israel, a national government.”
The public forum was attended by approximately 20 members of the public. This was a smaller turnout than the open session of the UC Regents’ meeting held last September, in which most speakers also shared their thoughts on free speech and anti-Semitism.
Many attendees believed the lower turnout was not because this was no longer an important issue on UC campuses, but because the working group forum was held during midterm week.
“I wanted to attend the public forum, but it would be very inconvenient for me to go up to UCLA the day before my midterms,” said Sabrina Kuo, a second-year public health science major at UCI.
According to Rebecca Trounson, spokesperson of UC Office of the President, even many students who registered to speak failed to attend. As a result, the forum ended earlier than anticipated.
Outside of the public forum, over 8,500 students signed a RootsAction petition to prevent the Regents from banning criticism of Israel as a state. The petition was presented to the working group during the forum by Chandler as well.
“How sad that some of our Regents have forgotten the importance of the Free Speech Movement and the hard-won struggle to exercise First Amendment rights at the University of California,” said Marcy Winograd, creator of the petition and co-founder of LA Jews for Peace. “I hope presentation of this petition at UCLA and the knowledge that thousands are signing it will dissuade the Regents from censoring, or worse, criminalizing political debate.”
Still, in a petition conducted by AMCHA initiative, which seeks to eliminate anti-Semitism on campuses across the country, approximately 3,000 UC stakeholders urged UC to adopt the State Department definition.
On UCI’s campus, concerns about creating a new statement to address anti-Semitism divides students on campus as well.
Jewish campus movement Hillel, which includes over 500 college campuses, including Hillel of UCI, believes that anti-Semitism hinders the education and lives of Jewish students.
“The rise of anti-Semitism is directly linked to the rise of virulent anti-Israel activity on college campuses,” said two UC Hillel directors at the public forum, addressing the situation of the UCs as a whole. “When one Jewish state is obsessively singled out for relentless demonization and delegitimization, Jewish students understand that their religious and cultural identity is being called into question.”
UCI campus organization Students for Justice in Palestine believe that the State Department definition would prevent debate about Palestinian human rights. This sentiment is also shared by UC Student-Workers at UCI.
In a letter presented to President Janet Napolitano last May, SJP held that “to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism would be to accuse the United Nations and other top human organizations of being anti-Semitic, merely because they have openly opposed the human rights violations committed by Israel against the Palestinian people.”
The working group will present updates during the UC Regents meeting to be held at UC San Francisco later this month, and they hope to have a new draft of the Statement completed by March 2016.