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Opinion University of California Board of Regents is wrong about ‘anti-Zionism’ on campus

The University of California Board of Regents has just released its Final Report of the Regents Working Group on Principles Against Intolerance, which includes a proposed set of such principles. I hope to blog some more about the actual proposal in the coming days, but what has made the news is the passage in the introduction to the report’s “Contextual Statement” that says:

Fundamentally, commenters noted that historic manifestations of anti-Semitism have changed and that expressions of anti-Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify. In particular, opposition to Zionism[1] often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.
Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California….
[Footnote 1:] Merriam Webster defines Zionism as follows: an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel…. The Oxford American Dictionary defines Zionism as follows: A movement for (originally) the reestablishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.

I’m ethnically Jewish (I say “ethnically” because I’m not religious), and I support Israel. It’s the one democracy among its neighbors, and for all its flaws it’s doing a pretty good job faced with very difficult circumstances. Whatever one might say about whether Israel should have been created in 1948, it’s there, and undoing that decision would be a disaster in many ways. And I do think that a good deal of anti-Zionism is indeed anti-Semitic.

But I think the regents are flat wrong to say that “anti-Zionism” has “no place at the University of California.” Even though they’re not outright banning anti-Zionist speech, but rather trying to sharply condemn it, I think such statements by the regents chill debate, especially by university employees and students who (unlike me) lack tenure. (For more on that, see here.) And this debate must remain free, regardless of what the regents or I think is the right position in the debate.

Whether the Jewish people should have an independent state in Israel is a perfectly legitimate question to discuss — just as it’s perfectly legitimate to discuss whether Basques, Kurds, Taiwanese, Tibetans, Northern Cypriots, Flemish Belgians, Walloon Belgians, Faroese, Northern Italians, Kosovars, Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Transnistrians, Chechens, Catalonians, Eastern Ukranians and so on should have a right to have independent states.

Sometimes the answer might be “yes.” Sometimes it might be “no.” Sometimes the answer might be “it depends.” But there’s no uncontroversial principle on which these questions can be decided. They have to be constantly up for inquiry and debate, especially in places that are set up for inquiry and debate: universities. Whether Israel is entitled to exist as an independent Jewish state is just as fitting a subject for discussion as whether Kosovo or Northern Cyprus or Kurdistan or Tawain or Tibet or a Basque nation should exist as an independent state for those ethnic groups.

Of course, Israel is different from the other countries in that it has already been internationally recognized as an independent state. But while that’s an important practical argument, and an important argument under international law, it can’t determine what should be talked about at universities. International recognition can be granted, and it can be taken away. Certainly international recognition doesn’t conclusively resolve either moral or pragmatic questions about whether an ethnic group is entitled to a state of their own.

The United Nations of 1947, or the great majority of the governments of today, may have been right or they may have been wrong. We can’t decide even for ourselves whether they’re right or wrong without hearing a lively debate about the subject. And certainly the University of California Board of Regents ought not prejudge this debate.

I entirely agree that, to give an example given by the regents, “vandalism targeting property associated with Jewish people or Judaism” should be condemned and punished. I think that UCLA student government should not be allowed to discriminate against Jewish candidates for student government positions. And I agree, as I said, that some anti-Zionist speech and speakers are indeed hostile to Jews as an ethnic group, rather than just opposing a particular government or nation-state.

But the regents should not be telling professors and students that “there is no place” at the University of California for a political viewpoint on the existence of Israel as a nation-state — a statement that is likely to and intended to deter debate on that subject. Indeed, universities are the very places where such matters should indeed be discussed.