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March 24, 2016 7:24 am

The California Regents Provide a Purim Present, But There’s Still Work to Be Done

avatar by Kenneth L Marcus

University of California, Berkeley. Photo: wiki commons.

University of California, Berkeley. Photo: wiki commons.

Yesterday, on the eve of Purim, the Regents of the University of California unanimously adopted a historic statement against intolerance. The governing board for this 10-campus public institution could not have chosen a more auspicious date. After all, Purim is a holiday when the Jewish people celebrate a great victory over ancient genocidal antisemitism. In San Francisco, the Regents have given us reason to celebrate once again, but this time it is over a defeat for Jew-hatred’s most modern iteration. In a powerful report, the Regents announced that “antisemitism, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

This development had a long pre-history. For at least the last sixteen years, the University of California system has endured a reputation for antisemitism. Indeed, when I headed the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the very first campus antisemitism complaint we received under the agency’s 2004 antisemitism policy was based on incidents at the University of California at Irvine. That case, brought by the Zionist Organization of America, was ultimately dismissed, as were others at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, but it unearthed an enormous amount of anti-Zionist and antisemitic harassment. Unfortunately, neither the university nor the government was well equipped to deal with it.

Over the years, the problem persisted. In 2012, the university’s internal campus climate study identified substantial activities “which project hostility, engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.” Last year, a UCLA undergraduate was initially rejected for a position on the student judicial board based on concerns that, as “a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,” she might not be able to “maintain an unbiased view.” At the Louis D. Brandeis Center, we receive as many reports of antisemitic incidents from the University of California as from any other single system.

Last year, in response to complaints from numerous organizations, including the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center, the Regents decided to issue a policy statement. Their staff proposed an initial draft that was universally criticized, especially because it did not even mention antisemitism, although it was specifically drafted in response to anti-Jewish incidents. The Regents then took control over the process themselves, establishing a Regents’ working group to prepare a new statement. The Regents identified four national experts to brief them: Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and myself on antisemitism; UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh on the First Amendment; and UCLA Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang on intolerance. Then they heard from members of the public at various open sessions. Jewish students and faculty made impassioned pleas, describing the ordeals that they have endured. Jewish organizations supported them. Anti-Israel activists and civil libertarians also spoke out, arguing that the Regents shouldn’t do anything that would interfere with the freedom of speech.

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In the end, the Regents’ statement was a compromise. The Regents clearly and specifically recognized that “opposition to Zionism 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.” This is a big step forward at an institution where professors and students frequently deny that that there is any relationship between virulent Israel-hatred on the one hand and Jew-hatred on the other. The Regents explicitly denounced the “antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism,” characterizing them as “forms of discrimination,” and admonishing that they “have no place at the University of California.” At the same time, the Regents properly emphasized the need to protect freedom of speech.

The statement could have been even better. I would have preferred for the Regents to clarify precisely which forms of anti-Zionism are antisemitic within the meaning of their new policy. Many Jewish organizations urged the Regents to adopt a uniform definition of antisemitism, such as the State Department definition. Doing so would have provided far more clarity that what the Regents have achieved.

Now there is more work to be done. Next, we will need to clarify, at the University of California and throughout the country, which forms of anti-Zionism we are talking about when we discuss the ‘antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism.’ At the same time, we must take the momentum that we have coming out of California and to seek similar victories elsewhere.

Kenneth L. Marcus is President and General Counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and author, most recently, of The Definition of Antisemitism (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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