Free speech is being attacked throughout the University of California (“U.C.”) and at public and private college campuses across the country. Speech and association rights of the student groups Students for Justice in Palestine (“SJP”) and the Muslim Student Association (“MSA”) are being threatened by University administrators, a baseless lawsuit, and problematic Department of Education investigations.1 Speech activities clearly protected by the First Amendment that grapple with important political questions relating to Israel’s policies are being improperly characterized as anti-Semitic. These “legal bullying” tactics must be recognized and stopped. While the focus of this briefing is on speech at the University of California at Berkeley (“Cal”), other troubling incidents of repression of expressive speech have taken place across the country, including the criminal prosecution of students at the University of California at Irvine, and administrative responses to students at Columbia University, Florida Atlantic University, and many other campuses.
Federal officials are investigating a complaint filed against UC Berkeley alleging that protests staged on campus have created an anti-Semitic environment.
The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office confirmed this week that it is investigating allegations from a complaint filed in July by attorneys representing UC Berkeley alumni Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy.
“(The civil rights office) received a complaint alleging that Jewish students at the university were harassed and subjected to a hostile environment on the basis of their national origin,” reads a statement released by the U.S. Department of Education Press Office. “And, that the university failed to respond promptly and effectively to notice of the hostile environment. The complaint is under investigation.”
The complaint alleges that the campus has persistently failed to curtail anti-Semitic behavior from annual Israeli Apartheid Week demonstrations, which are organized by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine to raise awareness of the conditions of Palestinians in Israel.
The complaint cites a 2010 Apartheid Week demonstration in which students from SJP and the campus Muslim Student Association participated in a mock checkpoint that included fake barbed wire and fake AK-47 firearms.
SJP member Tom Pessah said the aim of Israeli Apartheid Week is to demonstrate inequalities in Israel.
“No one is stopped at checkpoints other than the actors in the demonstration — everyone knows that,” said SJP member Mariah Lewis.
Felber and Maissy filed a lawsuit against the university in March 2011 alleging that it had failed to mitigate a climate averse to Jewish students. The suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in December of 2011.
“The administration has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the opposing parties in an attempt to ensure that the rights of all persons are respected, and to minimize the potential for violence and unsafe conditions,” the dismissal ruling stated.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said campus officials have remained committed to maintaining a safe and welcoming climate for all students and to protecting free speech rights.
“Speech criticism of Israeli governmental policy is not necessarily anti-Semitic,” Mogulof said. “One can object deeply to the policies of Israel. Our students should have a right to protest what they believe to be an unlawful and immoral action.”
Mogulof said that the campus will provide the same information to the civil rights office that it provided judges with during the Felber and Maissy lawsuit and said the complaint seems to be a way to shop for more venues and courtrooms to tell the university to violate the constitutional rights of students involved in the demonstrations.
“The real story here is a massive assault on free speech and a coordinated effort to silence the legitimate political speech of students critical of Israel,” said Liz Jackson, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, in an email. “The factual allegations are simply untrue.”
Ben White: Israel lobby uses discredited anti-Semitism definition to muzzle debate
Top administrators at the University of California are considering what action to take against speech and activities alleged to be anti-Semitic. As part of their discussions, the university may endorse a seven-year-old document, which — despite not having an official status — is often called the European Union’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism.
Although the administrators have indicated that their motive is to protect Jewish students, a careful examination of the definition indicates that the real agenda may be to stifle Palestine solidarity activism and criticism of Israel in the classroom.
In early July, a report commissioned by the University of California’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion was published (“U. of Calif. Weighs Banning ‘Hate’ Speech,” Forward, 2 August 2012).
The council has been co-directed by Richard Barton, national education chairman of the Anti-Defamation League — one of the most powerful groups in America’s pro-Israel lobby. Its report claims that Palestine solidarity activities were “undermining Jewish students’ sense of belonging” and creating a hostile environment.
The report’s recommendations include the adoption by the administration of a definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to “identify contemporary incidents” which would then “be sanctioned by University non-discrimination or anti-harassment policies.”
Specifically, the report mentions “a working definition of anti-Semitism” developed by “the European Union,” a reference to the 2005 draft working definition of anti-Semitism published by the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. Based in Vienna, the center has subsequently been renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency.
One of the Zionist groups to enthusiastically welcome the findings was StandWithUs, whose chief executive Roz Rothstein called the idea of a definition of anti-Semitism “one of [the report’s] most important recommendations” (“StandWithUs Welcomes UC Report On Campus Climate For Jewish Students,” 23 July 2012).
Rothstein noted the reference to “the EU’s working definition,” which she claimed “recognizes that anti-Israel extremism is a form of what is called the ‘new anti-Semitism.’”
The month after the publication of the report, at the end of August, California’s assembly passed a non-binding resolution “urging California colleges and universities to squelch nascent anti-Semitism … [and] to crack down on demonstrations against Israel” (“Calif lawmakers denounce anti-Semitism in colleges,” Associated Press, 29 August 2012).
Like the University of California report, this resolution calls on the university administration to “utilize” the EU agency’s “working definition of anti-Semitism.”
Rebecca Pierce: U.C. report on Jewish campus climate: Results marginalize, misrepresent students critical of Israel
The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has long been a controversial topic in the United States, especially on college campuses. Personal identity can influence how people view the conflict, causing some to assume that this discussion is, or should be, conducted strictly along ethno-religious lines. This assumption, however, has the potential to chill speech and push dissenters out of their communities. As a Jewish and African American student critical of Israeli policy and involved in Palestinian solidarity organizing at U.C. Santa Cruz, I experience this firsthand.
Since coming to UCSC, my ability to participate in Jewish student programming while active in the campus Committee for Justice in Palestine has met constant challenges. Last year, I was repeatedly subjected to abusive online comments by a staff member at a center for Jewish life because of my decision to be in CJP and participate in Jewish student programming. This is not the only time I’ve been targeted, and I’m not the only Jewish student to experience something like this. Unfortunately, recent steps by the University of California to “improve campus climate” appear poised to make this situation even worse.
On July 9, U.C. President Mark Yudof’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion presented the “University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact-Finding Team Report & Recommendations.” Authored by Rick Barton of the Anti-Defamation League and Alice Huffman of the California NAACP, it is ostensibly based on testimony from meetings with Jewish students at six U.C. campuses. I was part of a Jewish student panel that discussed the report when it was released, and had no choice but to dispute much of its findings.
I was present at the UCSC meeting in fall 2011 and discussed the difficulties of maintaining involvement in both CJP and my campus Jewish community. But upon receiving the report, I discovered my experiences, and those of other Jewish students critical of Israel, were almost entirely absent.
In fact, while the authors note there are some Jewish students involved in what they label “the anti-Zionism movement,” the document portrays Palestinian campus organizing as problematic, or even anti-Semitic by nature, often through unchecked generalizations.
Yaman Salahi: How UC devalues Arab and Muslim student voices
Los Angeles, CA – For years, University of California (UC) leaders have walked a fine line between complying with First Amendment limitations on their power and placating pro-Israel interest groups agitating against the growing clout of Palestinian solidarity activism.
Under pressure, UC President Mark Yudof in 2010 commissioned two committees to issue reports on the so-called “campus climate”. One focusing on Jewish students and the other on Arab and Muslim students, the new reports – which characterise criticism of Israel as an affront to Jewish students – have prompted many to believe that the UC intends to curb campus speech critical of Israel.
At their core, however, the reports demonstrate that UC not only has a free speech problem, but an equality problem.
Normalising support for Israel
The report about Jewish students is laden with ideological predispositions that undermine the credibility of its findings and recommendations regarding campus activism. One section of the report, for example, addresses what is called “The Anti-Zionism/Anti-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate” (but which proponents of this movement call a movement for freedom, justice and equality).
By framing the issue in this way, the authors presume that Palestinian solidarity has an “impact” on campus climate, as if, prior to this movement’s emergence, university campuses were characterised by some “normal” state of affairs in which all students felt welcome and equal. But that could not be further from the truth and the fact that this forms the starting point explains some of the report’s findings.
Although the report inquires into such matters as whether mock checkpoints and walls, die-ins and other demonstrations criticising human rights violations by Israel’s occupying army negatively affect Jewish students, there is no similar inquiry into the “impact” frequent celebrations of Israel’s creation and speeches by Israeli combatant soldiers and government officials might have on Jewish students who do not identify with Israel and its policies, or on Arab or Palestinian students whose families were killed or exiled as a result.
There is similarly no inquiry into whether on-campus recruitment for Jewish-only Birthright trips has an impact on non-Jewish students who have attempted to apply.
Instead, pro-Israel activities are described as such: “Israel advocacy organisations play an active role on each campus and have engaged outside agencies such as AIPAC, J Street, ADL, Stand With Us and many others in the effort to promote a deeper understanding for all students of the challenges which confront Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole.”
Compare the way these movements are described – “Israel advocacy organisations” vs “Anti-Israel Movement” – and how their missions are understood, promoting a deeper understanding vs possibly creating a hostile climate.
The silence about the “impact” of pro-Israel events reflects an attitude that pro-Israel expressions are simply a positive part of the normal, benign landscape of campus life. At the same time, events presenting a critical view of Israel are perceived to be anomalous and alien, or, worse, divisive, as if students were previously unified in their love and support for Israel.
There is no recognition that different groups of students might perceive these events very differently, or an explanation of why one group’s perceptions should trump the others’.
Remi Kanazi: Silencing pro-Palestinian speech on campus
On July 9, 2012, the University of California’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion presented its fact-finding report and recommendations on Jewish Student Campus Climate. According to a letter written by UC President Mark Yudof, the report was launched in response to the 2010 Berkeley student government vote to divest from companies selling weapons to the Israeli military and the 2010 UC Irvine protest against Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.
The “climate report” was tasked with “fact-finding about the challenges and positive campus experiences of Jewish students at UC and to identify steps needed to make campuses more inclusive and welcoming for Jewish students”. The council also presented a fact-finding report on Muslim and Arab Student Campus Climate.From the outset, the Jewish Student Campus Climate report focuses on non-violent protests and speeches critical of Israel, a state in clear violation of international law, not anti-Jewish bigotry. In fact, nearly 50 per cent of the report (excluding the introduction and recommendations) covered “the Anti-Zionism/Anti-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate”.
Specifically, the use of the words “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policies are presented as problematic, while anti-Zionism and the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel are referred to as “manifestations of anti-Israel sentiment on campus”.
What is the definition of “anti-Israel”? We are never told. Imagine a UC report referring to protests against the war on Iraq as “manifestations of anti-American sentiment on campus”. One of the three key demands in the BDS call is equality for all Palestinians living inside the state of Israel. Imagine referring to the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an “anti-American” period in our history.
The report further presents Palestine Awareness Week as a “negative experience” for Jewish students, a framing that disregards the viewpoints of many Jewish students involved in organising and planning the event.
Adam Horowitz: Dept of Education opens investigation into anti-Semitism following events protesting the occupation