By Jared Sichel at Jewish Journal
After months of anticipation over whether the University of California’s Board of Regents would adopt a formal definition of anti-Semitism in the wake of several anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents across its campuses, the UC’s governing arm rejected the “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” drafted and submitted by the office of UC President Janet Napolitano at its Sept. 17 meeting in Irvine.
At the public meeting, regent after regent expressed disappointment with the proposed statement, which was released to the public on Sept. 15 and condemns “intolerance,” “discrimination” and “hatred” but does not directly address the concerns of the pro-Israel Jewish students who had pushed for a statement to clarify UC’s definition of unacceptable intolerance.
There was no vote on the table, but following the discussion, Napolitano and the regents instructed Eddie Island, a regent who is a retired attorney and business executive, to lead an eight-person “working group” composed of regents, chancellors, faculty and students in drafting a new statement that should have “an articulated set of principles,” Napolitano said. There is no timeline for the new proposed statement.
“We all recognize that more work needs to be done,” Napolitano said.
The issue is largely the result of a series of votes over the past two years on UC campuses on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In November 2014, UCLA’s student government passed a BDS resolution, and student governments at seven of UC’s 10 campuses have passed similar ones. On Jan. 31, the exterior of the house of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi at UC Davis was spray-painted with swastikas. In February, Rachel Beyda, a Jewish pre-law student at UCLA who had been nominated for a student judicial role, was asked at her nomination hearing whether she believed she could serve as an unbiased judge because she is Jewish. The student government initially denied her appointment,but then approved it in a revote.
“The reason this whole subject’s in front of us is for specific issues, and this statement doesn’t deal with them,” Chairman of the Board of Regents Bruce Varner, a partner with Varner & Brandt LLP, said at the Sept. 17 meeting.
Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for Napolitano, said on Sept. 21 that the president’s office “fully expected and welcomed comments” on the draft statement. “We needed to have something on paper. It was always billed as a discussion item,” Klein said.
Although the rejected statement points to swastikas and discriminatory questioning of a “student’s fitness for a leadership role” as examples of “behaviors that do not reflect the University’s values of inclusion and tolerance,” it doesn’t specifically use the terms “anti-Semitism” or “anti-Zionism,” nor does it call out any of the specific incidents that motivated the Jewish community to call for a clear statement on intolerance.
“To not recognize why this subject is even being brought up is to do a disservice to those who brought it up in the first place,” said regent Norman Pattiz, the founder of radio giant Westwood One. “The Jewish community has a right to bring up things that concern the Jewish community. I wouldn’t expect the Jewish community to be driving ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I wouldn’t expect the Jewish community to be driving cases of Islamophobia, but I expect those communities would do exactly what the Jewish community’s doing right now in terms of bringing up instances that are germane to them.”
During a public comment section before the regents’ discussion, students and activists presented their cases for and against adopting the proposed statement. Pro-Israel Jewish students argued the statement was insufficient and listed some particularly egregious anti-Semitic incidents on UC campuses in the past year, including Beyda’s nomination hearing as well as fliers posted at UC Santa Barbara blaming Jews for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
On the other side, Muslim and Jewish activists from Students for Justice in Palestine and the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace argued that adopting the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which pro-Israel students and groups want the UC to do, would stifle freedom of speech and academic freedom. “Jewish Voice for Peace commends the University of California Regents for considering today a statement of principles against intolerance that articulate opposition to all forms of bigotry and hatred,” a press release from the group said.
Pro-Israel campus activists, however, counter that they’re simply calling on the UC to identify what behaviors are wrong, not to punish students. “We don’t want a speech code,” Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told the Journal. Rossman-Benjamin is a UC Santa Cruz lecturer and a co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative, a pro-Israel campus watchdog. “To say that we can’t identify a macro-aggression against Jewish students when we talk about micro-aggressions? We can’t talk about the macro-aggressions against Jewish students, and we can’t have a definition which tells us when the line is crossed between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish students? That’s really hypocritical.”
But free-speech activists argue that new UC statements that expand upon existing anti-discrimination law and the UC’s existing controversial guide to micro-aggressions will ultimately lead to policies that suppress speech. Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said that even if a statement against intolerance doesn’t explicitly call for disciplinary actions against students for forms of speech, “It’s a first step toward a slippery slope of punishment for speech that institutions don’t like.”
“There are existing federal anti-discrimination laws that prevent schools from turning a blind eye to discriminatory harassment on the basis of protected class status, including religion and ethnic origin and nationality,” Creeley said. “This [statement] will begin a sort of race to the bottom ‘offendedness sweepstakes’ where groups on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide will accuse each other of violating the principles against intolerance and demand the university take action.”
In May, Napolitano said in an interview with Boston radio station 90.9 WBUR that her “personal view” is that the UC should adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition — which labels demonization and delegitimization of Israel as anti-Semitic — but that it’s ultimately something that the Board of Regents must decide.
Avi Oved, a UCLA undergraduate and the board’s designated student regent, in addressing the other regents at the meeting, said the “process of developing this language was flawed to its core.” He said staffers in Napolitano’s office were unresponsive to his requests for input during the drafting period and ultimately rejected his suggested revisions.
“Student communities need to have the ability to self-define instances of discrimination and intolerance,” Oved said. “We have to address the hateful invective.”
Klein, Napolitano’s spokeswoman, said Oved will be a member of the new working group. Asked when the new draft can be expected, she said, “There’s no timeline. It’s when it’s done, and when it’s right and when they feel they have something they can defend. There’s no sense [in] rushing this.”
Richard Blum, a regent who heads Blum Capital and is the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said that he and Feinstein had discussed the statement of intolerance prior to the Sept. 17 meeting, and that although Feinstein wants to “stay out of the conversation publicly, [she] is prepared to be critical of this university if we don’t have the kind of not only statement, but penalties” for certain discriminatory actions.
“Students that do the things that have been cited here today probably ought to have either a dismissal or a suspension from school,” Blum said. When reached for comment, a representative in Feinstein’s office responded, “This is a matter before the University of California,
and Sen. Feinstein has no comment at this time.”