Universities Face Another Push to Criminalize Speech Criticizing Israel

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Universities Face Another Push to Criminalize Speech Criticizing Israel

Students say they should be allowed to engage in human rights advocacy in defense of Palestinians

 In this Sept. 17, 2015, photo, Alumni Regents Rod Davis, left, and Yolanda Gorman address the University of California’s Board of Regents meeting at the UC Irvine Student Center to discuss a controversial policy statement on intolerance in Irvine, Calif. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)

In this Sept. 17, 2015, photo, Alumni Regents Rod Davis, left, and Yolanda Gorman address the University of California’s Board of Regents meeting at the UC Irvine Student Center to discuss a controversial policy statement on intolerance in Irvine, Calif. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)

A revived effort at the University of California system to criminalize speech critical of the state of Israel by deeming it "anti-Semitic" is being met with considerable push-back from students and social justice campaigners, who say there is nothing intolerant about human rights advocacy.

A Monday night forum at the University of California Los Angeles campus was framed by the state system as a public hearing on an initiative—undertaken by an eight-member working group of university regents, faculty, and administrators—to redraft a statement of principles against intolerance.

But the hearing itself was denounced as the product of efforts by Israel advocates to press the system to brand criticism of Israel as "anti-Semitic" and "intolerant."

"The controversy is not about intolerance. That is a canard," Liz Jackson, a staff attorney for Palestine Legal and a Jewish University of California alum, told Common Dreams. "Really there are some people who want to engage in critical discussion of Israeli policy, and there are others that want to suppress it."

"What we should be talking about is the experience of Palestinian and Arab students at UC who see their own tuition dollars invested in state violence against their families," Jackson continued. "And then they experience intimidation and suppression when they engage in protest."

"We are struggling to live and to be Palestinian and when we are denied the basic freedoms that are so called enshrined in the U.S. constitution and the universal values of the University, such as the right to think, to words, and to speak," Loubna Qutami, a Palestinian graduate student at UC Riverside, told Common Dreams. "We are denied our own history, peoplehood, sense of self, commitment to social justice, and position as an equal on UC campuses."

Palestine Legal reported Tuesday that, over the past few weeks alone, the organization has responded to "a spate of incidents including a physical assault and death threats against students expressing support for Palestinian rights." This included at least one incident at the University of California Santa Barbara last week, when a member of Students for Justice in Palestine was physically attacked at a protest against ongoing Israeli violence.

But these incidents were not the focus of the discussion Monday night, when Israel advocacy organizations pressed the university to adopt the U.S. State Department's definition of anti-Semitism, which has been widely criticized for muddying the distinction between real anti-Semitism and criticism of a nation-state.

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"This shuts down one side of an important debate," said Jackson. "Applying the definition to restrict speech would violate the First Amendment; but even adopting the definition as a reference tool silences those who wish to criticize Israel’s well-documented human rights violations by making it taboo."

What's more, Israel advocates are referencing real anti-Semitic acts—including the January vandalism of a UC Davis fraternity with swastikas—to build the case for the crackdown on speech. But according to Jackson, these incidents "have been condemned by all activists, including Palestine solidarity activists, and there is no evidence of a connection between principled human rights activism and anti-Semitism."

Leore Ben David, a campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America, charged at Monday's hearing that "Jewish students are fearful to show their support for Israel."

But Mandy Cohen, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, declared: "I am part of a community of Jews and scholars who are critical of Israel. They are, in fact, seeking to silence me."

"It’s a shame that one of the most prestigious university systems in the world would seriously have a debate about whether or not it should literally ban criticism of a nation-state to shield it from charges of human rights abuses and colonization in the illegally occupied territories of Palestine," said Robert Gardner, a UCLA undergraduate, on Monday.

The latest push to adopt and enforce the State Department's definition springs from years-long campaigns against Palestine solidarity activism at the University of California system, including a "campus climate" process in 2012 and unsuccessful Title VI claims in 2013. Each effort has been met with widespread opposition.

The UC crackdown reflects a broader trend nationwide. A report released last month by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal revealed that, in in 2014 alone, the latter organization responded to 152 incidents of "censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights and received 68 additional requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such actions." Just halfway through 2015, the organization had responded to 140 such incidents, marking a considerable increase.

Another report released by Jewish Voice for Peace last month found that Israel advocates are conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, and equating all Jews with the Israeli state, in an effort to shut down debate on universities and campuses across the United States. This often takes the form of bullying within Jewish communities, the report states, as well as claims that the emotional discomfort of Israel supporters amounts to targeted harassment.

But the new push for strict "anti-Semitism" standards has powerful supporters. One of the regents strongly advocating for the "speech code" is Richard Blum, a wealthy defense contractor and husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Last month, Blum threatened that his wife will unleash political consequences if the UC system fails to adopt the strict standards. UC President Janet Napolitano advocated in May for the adoption of the State Department definition.

It is not immediately clear what next steps will emerge from Monday's meeting. The working group told the Associated Press that it will meet with "experts on tolerance and anti-Semitism, with the aim of drafting a new policy to present to the board of regents in March.

Qutami emphasized: "While the UC regents has heard many reasons why the intolerance statement must not infringe on free speech, academic freedom, the rights of students to engage in activism and so much more, we as Palestinians also say that equating any critique of Israel with anti-Semitism is as much a part of the settler colonial project working to erase us as the military occupation."

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