As clashes between Israelis and Palestinians heat up overseas, a war over the words used to talk about the conflict is unfolding at the University of California.
The debate, which took over a school forum in Los Angeles on Monday, is as much about campus culture as it is about Israel, and it touches on all the topics that have made colleges the target of discussion and derision in recent months: diversity, tolerance, censorship, the increasingly unstable distinction between words that are unwelcome and speech that is truly threatening.
On one side are supporters of a new policy that would broaden the university system’s “speech code” definition of anti-Semitism to include denials of Israel’s right to exist and blaming Israel for the hostilities in the region. Citing a series of high-profile incidents targeting Jewish students — swastikas spray painted on a Jewish fraternity house; the pointed and, many thought, problematic grilling of a Jewish student government nominee about her religion — they say the system needs to take a firmer stand against intolerance.
On the other side are people who say that a proposed new definition of anti-Semitism, which is borrowed from the State Department, amounts to censorship.
It would “limit the range of political inquiry, awareness, expression and education on campus,” Estee Chandler, Los Angeles organizer for the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, told the Los Angeles Times.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, suggested to the Associated Press that a too-strict definition would violate the First Amendment.
University of California President Janet Napolitano said in a May interview on NPR that she supports adopting the State Department definition.
“I have my own personal view, and my personal view is that we should” adopt the State Department’s definition, Napolitano said.
But UC Regent John A. Pérez, a member of the committee who is otherwise supportive of explicitly addressing anti-Semitism in the university system’s new policy, said that definition “conflates criticism with unacceptable activity.”
“We’re smarter than that,” he told the Sacramento Bee last month.
At the public forum Monday, students and professors testified before a university committee tasked with drafting the UC system’s new anti-bias policy. This isn’t the system’s first attempt at the touchy task; an initial draft was discarded after Jewish groups criticized it for being too vague. That policy defined intolerance as “unwelcome conduct” motivated by hate or discrimination, but did not address particular groups as targets, according to the Associated Press.
In August, the California Assembly passed a resolution calling on the state’s public university systems to address anti-Semitism on its campuses.
“If it wasn’t difficult, we would be there already,” Pérez told the LA Times after Monday’s forum.
The committee heard from several Jewish students who said that criticism of Israel at the UC system’s 10 campuses often veers into criticism of Jews.
Recent UC Davis graduate Yaeli Steinberg said she struggled to fill spots in her Jewish sorority house because students feared they would be targeted, according to the AP.
“I’m being accused of doing something that has nothing to do with me,” she said, referencing Jewish students getting criticized about violence between Israelis and Palestinians. “That’s threatening.”
Student governments at seven UC campuses have passed resolutions in favor of Boycott Divestment Sanctions, a movement that calls on colleges and other groups to boycott Israeli academics and companies.
And recent years have seen an unusual number of hate crimes and uncomfortable encounters involving Jewish students. A May petition asking the system to change its anti-Semitism definition cited incidents from across the system’s campuses: the phrase “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” scrawled on a bathroom wall at UC Berkeley and fliers at UC Santa Barbara blaming Jews for the 9/11 terror attacks.
It also listed a painful debate at the confirmation hearing of a UCLA sophomore hoping to join the student government’s Judicial Board. Rachel Beyda was a member of a Jewish sorority and active in the campus Hillel, a fact her questioners kept returning to during the hearing.
“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” asked Fabienne Roth, a member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, according to the New York Times. Beyda’s nomination was initially rejected, but after an outcry on campus and off, four student council members wrote a letter of apology in the campus newspaper and Beyda was confirmed.
Still, concern about the incident lingered.
“I swear the word Israel was not said once,” Beyda’s roommate Rachel Frenklak, who was at the hearing, told the New York Times. “It was all about Jewish affiliations. It didn’t leave any doubt that what this is, is anti-Semitism. There has to be recognition that there is anti-Semitism on the campus, and it manifested itself first with the anti-Israel stuff.”
But opponents of the new speech policy say that linking anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel sets a worrying precedent that could be used to censor free speech.
“I am part of a community of Jews and scholars who are critical of Israel,” Mandy Cohen, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley, told the AP on Monday. “They are, in fact, seeking to silence me.”
This is not the first time that the University of California — the university system that gave birth to the free speech movement — has run afoul of free speech advocates. Earlier this year, UC Santa Barbara sent a letter to students asking them to report to the administration “acts of intolerance, disrespect, bullying, or violence, especially regarding sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity or religion.”
FIRE, a college free speech group, highlighted the speech code as having a “powerful chilling effect.”
“It’s as if administrators believe that if only they can stop students from saying hurtful things, the underlying conflicts will go away. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth,” wrote Samantha Harris, the organization’s director of speech code research. “By discouraging debate among new students out of the gate, UCSB is doing its students a terrible disservice in the name of tolerance and civility.”
The UC system has also been alternately criticized and praised for its new guidelines on microaggressions and its investigation of a “Kanye Western”-themed frat party at UCLA that many African American students found offensive.
The system likely has a ways to go before it finalizes its policy.
The working group will meet with experts on campus tolerance, the First Amendment and anti-Semitism in the coming weeks, Regent Norm Pattiz told the Associated Press, before drafting a new policy to be put before the Board of Regents in March.
“We’re here to listen,” Pattiz said. “What I’m feeling is there are an awful lot of people who have addressed the group who want to find a solution.”