To: The UC Regents
We, the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, representing over 150 scholars in California universities, urge you not to adopt the State Department definition of anti-Semitism as part of your policy on tolerance for the University of California. The State Department definition equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. It also equates a Jewish identity with the policies of the Israeli government. We urge you to make the strongest possible stance in support of academic freedom. The State Department definition was never meant to apply to universities, as it is quite clear that it will interfere with the university’s core mission: to pursue the truth through scholarly research and teaching. Debate and disagreement are part of the life of the university, whether one is discussing new scientific discoveries or the history and contemporary situation of international relations. Academic freedom means freedom of faculty and students from administrative interference and also freedom of the university from government interference.
In recent years, there have been numerous attempts to silence debate about the Israel/Palestine situation by using the charge of anti-Semitism. But all such charges have been dismissed. The charges brought in a court of law, under the Department of Education’s Civil Rights purview, against UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Irvine for supposedly fostering an anti-Semitic atmosphere were all dismissed for lack of compelling evidence. Should the University of California adopt a tolerance policy that equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, the door will be opened for a further flood of litigious cases that will continue to waste thousands and thousands of taxpayers’ money as well as the tuition fees that students work so hard to be able to pay.
Will the University of California really be able to distinguish “double standard” and “demonization” in the current debates taking place across the country as well as within the UC system about Israel? On what basis will the university decide which criticisms are legitimate and which are not? Or will a blanket exception be made in the case of Israel? Will the University of California accuse the numerous Jewish faculty and students who are critical of Israel of anti-Semitism? Or will they reserve that charge for non-Jewish faculty and students? Will the University of California then open the door to charges of “double standard” and “demonization” when criticisms of other countries face objections?
There has been a great deal of harassment on all University of California campuses in recent years, targeting those who criticize Israel. These attacks have included the threat to deny tenure; efforts to sanction or suppress the activities and even existence of organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine or the Muslim Students Association; attempts to “eliminate” classes deemed to be biased against Israel and to prevent speakers from appearing on campus; and threats to individual students and professors. The organization Palestine Legal as well as Jewish Voice for Peace have both documented the increasing harassment.
The charge of anti-Semitism has been opportunistically invoked, even when there is no evidence whatsoever that the criticisms of Israel have in fact been anti-Semitic. The charge is meant to harass and silence criticism and open debate. Nearly all of the harassment is one-sided: against those who are critical of Israel.
Despite the fact that much of this criticism is voiced equally by Jewish and Muslim faculty and students, it is the latter who have borne the brunt of the harassment. This harassment invokes Islamophobic rhetoric and is racist in its language and effects. This harassment interferes with academic freedom in that it stifles free inquiry and the pursuit of truth.
Academic freedom is the freedom of faculty and students to reach conclusions that contradict previous dogma, whether within the academy or throughout the larger society. Academic freedom is both the freedom of professors and students from administrative or political interference with research, teaching, and governance, and the constitutional academic freedom that insulates the university in core academic affairs from interference by the state.
First Amendment doctrine recognizes the danger to a democratic political process if officials proscribe some subjects or modes of expression. Government officials are not the best judges to decide which ideas are out of bounds. Academic freedom means that the way to challenge apparently dangerous ideas is to engage in debate, rather than suppression. Finally, many recognize the value to the individual citizen of being the sole legal arbiter of what she shall say, read or think; such freedom and responsibility defines a meaningful democracy.
Invoking the apparatus of the state to proscribe broad categories of speech in hubs of innovation and disruption like public universities will have the paradoxical effect of chilling public exchange while heating up zealotry.
As Rabbi Dev Noily recently stated: “When principled opposition to Israeli government actions is labelled as ‘anti-Semitic,’ the term itself loses its credibility.” (See JewishVoiceforPeace.org).
California Scholars for Academic Freedom urges the UC Regents to maintain their original statement on tolerance and not cave into pressure of any sort to make an exception for any speech.