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September 17, 2015 7:07 am

Why the UC Regents Must Adopt State Department Definition of Antisemitism

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avatar by Abraham H. Miller

Jack Langson Library at UC Irvine. Photo: wiki commons.

Jack Langson Library at UC Irvine. Photo: wiki commons.

Antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred. Even today, the Uniform Crime Reports show that more than 60 percent of religious hate crimes are directed against Jews.

In contrast, Islamophobia, which has gotten a substantial amount of media attention, is a distant second, accounting for 14% of religion-inspired hate crimes.

Nowhere in America has the surge of antisemitism been as visible as on college campuses. To deal with the problem, the Amcha Initiative, an antisemitism watchdog group, has spearheaded an effort to get the University of California Board of Regents to adopt the U.S. Department of State’s definition of antisemitism.

Criticism of Israel is protected speech, but a definition of antisemitism provides the teaching moment that universities are supposed to embrace. Universities capture such a moment when hate speech is directed at other groups. It should do so for Jewish students as well.

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Typically perceived as the province of right-wing extremism, antisemitism has been taken over by the political left, whose vaunted concerns about sensitivity to ethnic and racial identity groups and gender orientations have been cast aside when it comes to Jews.

Many see this is a new phenomenon, but it is not. Leftist intolerance for Jews dates to the 1917 Russian Revolution, if not before. Communism had its own brand of antisemitism, in the form of traditional hatred of Jews based on religion.

The other root of campus-based antisemitism comes from the increased population of radical Muslim and Arab student activists whose antipathy toward Israel has crossed the boundary from criticism of Israel’s policies to harassment of Jewish students and a change in the cultural climate of acceptable anti-Jewish behavior.

Anti-Zionist organizations, which all too often have crossed the line from criticism of the Jewish state to antisemitism, argue that the proposal would violate their right to criticize Israeli policies.

This is nonsense. Criticism of Israeli policies can be heard in any coffeehouse in Tel Aviv or in any Hillel lounge. Jews understand that Israeli policies are neither ordained by the Almighty nor beyond reproach. Indeed, healthy criticism is the lifeblood of democracy, a concept that is foreign and incomprehensible to those whose cultural or political imperative is to block speakers whose opinions they do not support.

If the University of California adopts the State Department definition of antisemitism, then it will codify a cultural norm that identifies antisemitism. It will not supersede the First Amendment.

Why is the cultural norm important? Because it enables people to say that you have the right to do this, but maybe you should think about the consequences of your expression. Many naive students do not comprehend that criticizing Israel’s policies does not demonize the state or its leaders. Nor does it deny Israel the right to defend its citizens from aggression or the right to exist.

If the UC Regents embrace this policy, they will be taking a stand against the perpetuation on campus of the world’s oldest hatred and saying, “You have a right to engage in this kind of speech, but maybe you should exercise the common sense and decency to take this discourse to a higher level.”

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a senior fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. Twitter: @salomoncenter

This article was originally published by The San Francisco Chronicle. 


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