Adopting Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism would be irresponsible

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The article originally appeared in the The Daily Californian. It was co-authored by Jonathan Koch. Photo by Willow Yang/Staff.

The U.S. Department of State seems an unlikely source for university policy regarding intolerance. The State Department after all, is not tasked with promoting equity in higher education — the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education does that. And yet, a working group of the UC regents tasked with countering campus intolerance is being asked to adopt State Department language regarding anti-Semitism into its policy. We support the goal of the working group and the inclusion of anti-Semitism under the rubric of intolerance. But the State Department language on anti-Semitism is inappropriate for university policy. If adopted into university policy, it would harm our freedom of speech and our freedom of academic inquiry.

The stated purpose of the working group is honorable and necessary. Already this year, the UC schools have seen several racist incidents on their campuses. A statement against intolerance could be a helpful tool for future efforts to make the UC system more equitable. Anti-Semitism, as a form of bigotry to be combatted, naturally ought to be included in such a statement.

Neither the working group’s mission nor the inclusion of anti-Semitism in its statement is the subject of controversy. The present controversy stems from an ongoing effort to redefine anti-Semitism to encompass criticism of Israel.

The definition promoted by leaders of campus groups Hillel and AMCHA would reproduce a factsheet published by the U.S. State Department entitled “Defining Antisemitism.” The first half of the factsheet advances several contemporary examples of anti-Semitism — this section of the statement we consider unobjectionable. The second half of the factsheet, headlined “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” is the sole source of our objection. It holds that anti-Semitism is manifested through “demoniz(ing),” “delegitimiz(ing)” or “applying double standards” for the state of Israel. These “three Ds,” as they’ve come to be known, pose a challenge to free speech and thus to the academic and political activity of the students: They are broad enough to invite censorship of any view criticizing Israel.

To demonstrate the censoriousness of the three Ds is simple. Take the veridical statement, “Israel conducts the longest-standing military occupation in the world.” Though a bare statement of verifiable fact, it potentially fulfills all three criteria. One might claim it “demonizes” or “sets a double standard” by focusing on Israel to the exclusion of other countries. Some who advocate the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories might even claim that it “delegitimizes” Israel. While we think these would be obvious mischaracterizations, there is nothing preventing the three Ds’ ambiguous language from being used to validate such preposterous charges by labeling the statement anti-Semitic..

In fact, the first UC document to recommend the three Ds language, the 2012 Jewish Student Campus Climate Report, contained just such a mischaracterization. To support the claim that pro-Palestinian organizing contributed to a negative atmosphere for Jewish students, the report cited “the dissemination of literature and information which accuse Israel of ‘genocide,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and the imposition of an ‘apartheid state.’ ” Here, speech meant to criticize a government was construed as being harmful to Jewish students as a whole. But for us, a Palestinian and a Jew, pro-Palestinian advocacy is never an excuse to spread bigotry; rather, it is a duty for us to stand up for the people and ideas that we care about. The three Ds language would shut us, and our colleagues, out of the debate. This would be a serious harm to Palestinian students.

The damage would extend beyond the Palestinian community, however. Any policy that attempts to censor political criticism, or to misrepresent it as racist, harms the student body. It would prevent students from carrying out critical research and it would impede the freedom of political speech. Without the ability to function as a place of independent, critical thought, the university’s mission would be severely compromised.

There are no shortcuts to educating about, challenging and reducing any form of bigotry. It takes community engagement and educational work. Simply labeling speech in a vague manner or prohibiting it won’t do anything to change bigotry or misperceptions. We will continue to advocate a strong policy on intolerance that specifically calls out anti-Semitism. To ensure a robust and actionable policy, our union colleagues have asked for a more transparent process that formally includes students, beyond the student regent, in its crafting. Without that inclusion, we are unsure how the regents aim to craft an effective policy.

Free discourse continues to be our greatest tool in combating racism and bigotry. Whatever policy the working group recommends must uphold it.

Jonathan Koch is a teaching assistant in the UCLA department of music and the recording secretary of UAW 2865. Yacoub Kureh is a teaching assistant in the UCLA department of math and the head steward of UAW 2865.

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