In June, I sharply criticized University of California documents that condemned a wide range of political opinion as racial or sex-based “microaggressions.” (See also this Los Angeles Times op-ed.) UC had put out documents labeling as microaggressions statements such as:

“Affirmative action is racist.”

To a person of color: “Are you sure you were being followed in the store? I can’t believe it.”

“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

“Of course he’ll get tenure, even though he hasn’t published much — he’s Black!”

“Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.”

“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”

Though UC didn’t forbid such statements, labeling them as racial and sex-based “microaggressions” tended to send a powerful message to faculty members and students, especially ones who weren’t protected under tenure — a message that you had better not express certain views if you want to stay on the administration’s good side. That’s a serious blow to academic freedom and to freedom of discourse more generally.

I take the same view about the proposals to get the UC Board of Regents to adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism with regard to criticism of Israel. (UC President Janet Napolitano said this year that she would support the adoption of that definition.) Here’s the relevant part of that definition:

What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?

EXAMPLES of the ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel, taking into account the overall context could include:

DEMONIZE ISRAEL:

Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions

DOUBLE STANDARD FOR ISRAEL:

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations

DELEGITIMIZE ISRAEL:

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist

However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic. [Italics in original.]

Now I generally support Israel, and I do think that much of the criticism of Israel is unfair and quite likely anti-Semitic. But I don’t think the UC administration has any business condemning this sort of political expression related to Israel, whether fair or otherwise, and regardless of what we suspect might be in the hearts of those who make these arguments. What is the right view and what is the wrong view of the conflict in the Middle East should be a matter for academics and students to debate, without the university condemning one side as bigots — which, as with the “microaggressions,” sends a strong message to untenured faculty members, graduate students and others that they had better not say certain things. (Of course, actual discrimination against Jewish students should indeed be spoken out against, and physical attacks, vandalism and disruption of events should be forbidden; but that doesn’t require the adoption of the State Department definition.)

Thus, for instance, consider “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” Whether Jews as an ethnic group should have a right to self-determination should be as open to discussion — whether from people who say “yes” or who say “no” — as whether Basques, Kurds, Catalonians, Taiwanese, Falkland Islanders, Eastern Ukrainians, Northern Cypriots or Palestinian residents of the West Bank should have a right to self-determination. I think that on balance it’s good that Israel exists and that it exists as a distinctively Jewish state. And I certainly think that, now that it exists, abolition of Israel as a separate country and its incorporation into any of its neighbors would be extraordinarily bad. But again, that’s a subject that should be freely debated within UC, without the administration condemning one side.

Nor am I comforted by the proviso that, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” The overall State Department definition puts people who harshly criticize Israel in a position where they are basically presumed to be anti-Semitic unless their motives are somehow shown to be pure by a comparison of the criticism of Israel with that leveled at other countries. But any such comparisons are almost always subjective and highly contestable. People’s criticisms of different countries will necessarily be different in many ways, because the situations that the countries face are different, because the critics might think that some kinds of criticisms are more effective at changing the behavior of one country than another, or just because many people understandably focus their energies on one conflict rather than trying to learn about and talk about many different conflicts.

Again, I sometimes do look at some critics of Israel and conclude for myself that they may well be anti-Semitic, given the difference between how they react to the Israeli government and how they react to other governments (especially other governments involved in the same conflict). But that’s me as a citizen and (sometimes) me as a commentator. When the UC administration makes broad pronouncements on this subject, those pronouncements aren’t just people’s opinions, academic or otherwise — they are an implicit push toward an orthodoxy on the subject.

Now it may well be that the State Department definition works for the State Department’s purposes. But the State Department’s job is to promote American foreign policy. That a definition is good for promoting American foreign policy doesn’t make it good for a university.