SAN FRANCISCO ― The University of California’s governing board adopted a statement condemning anti-Semitic behavior on Thursday, becoming the first public university system to do so since campaigns for academic and economic boycotts of Israel have taken root on many U.S. college campuses.
The board also unanimously and without discussion adopted a companion report urging campus leaders to confront intolerant anti-Zionism, or the rejection of Israel’s right to exist. It stopped short of equating anti-Zionism with the hatred of Jewish people after that language alarmed critics.
Many have raised concerns that the statement and report will stifle free speech. Critics also were disappointed that the declaration singled out anti-Semitism for condemnation at a time when Muslims and other groups in the U.S. increasingly face discrimination, including hostile remarks from presidential candidates.
The board’s action comes amid growing campus tensions between Israeli supporters and backers of Palestinian rights. Some Jewish groups say they are concerned that anti-Semitic behavior is increasing because of the highly emotional debate. Last year, they urged the 10-campus UC system to affirm its opposition to anti-Semitism.
“For far too long, Jewish students have become victims in the often profoundly contentious anti-Zionist movement on campus,” Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew lecturer at the university’s Santa Cruz campus who led the campaign, said after the vote.
Liz Jackson, a staff attorney with Palestine Legal, praised board members for rejecting a blanket equation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but warned that civil rights organizations will sue if the principles are used to stifle or punish criticism of Israel.
She and others say the statement and report hardly touch on intolerance faced by other campus communities, underscoring a lack of equal treatment.
“If the Regents were really interested in creating a constructive environment for political debate, they would condemn intolerance wherever it arises,” said David McCleary, a board vice president of the student-workers union.
The system’s 10-paragraph declaration seeks to spell out the difference between the healthy intellectual debates that the university says it encourages and the “acts of hatred and other intolerant behavior” campus leaders have a duty to combat.
For example, one section says candidates for leadership positions should not be discredited based on bias or stereotyping. It was an apparent reference to a UCLA student who sought a seat on the student government’s judicial council and was asked whether she could be impartial given her Jewish heritage.
An initial statement presented to a board committee stirred criticism by condemning anti-Zionism. So the committee made a last-minute tweak Wednesday, adding language barring anti-Semitic “forms” of anti-Zionism activism.
Free speech advocates are concerned that the slight change does not go far enough and could seriously undermine legitimate discussion on campuses long celebrated for their diversity.
“There has been criticism of Zionism for as long as Zionism has existed, and silencing that debate is harmful to the values of free speech and academic inquiry,” said Tallie Ben Daniel, an academic advisory council coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace.
The statement does not outline sanctions for violating its terms but reminds faculty and staff to impose discipline in cases that violate existing anti-discrimination policies, UC officials said.