Capitol Alert

UC softens controversial ‘principles against intolerance’

The University of California is poised to adopt a statement of “principles against intolerance” condemning “anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination” on its campuses, but not before toning down language referencing Israel that mired the policy in controversy.

A new version of the statement advanced unanimously through its committee at a meeting of UC’s governing board Wednesday and the full board is expected to approve it on Thursday.

After hearing from dozens of speakers who gathered to protest or support the proposal – an eclectic group that included famous UC Berkeley professor and philosopher Judith Butler and Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach – the university attempted to sidestep their dispute with compromise. The committee amended a section of the statement naming anti-Zionism as an example of discrimination with three more words: “anti-Semitic forms of” anti-Zionism.

“I’m a passionate supporter of the state of Israel, but I’m an equally passionate supporter of the First Amendment,” regent Bonnie Reiss said. The statement “doesn’t mean we don’t want to welcome First Amendment dialogue for or against any country.”

The argument over the principles against intolerance stems from the question: Do criticisms of Israel constitute anti-Semitism?

A debate has been raging for months at the University of California, after a string of incidents last year targeting Jewish students prompted the development of the policy.

Jewish groups that pushed for the principles voiced concerns that a rise in anti-Semitic events at UC campuses – like a swastika spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity at UC Davis last year – is the result of a growing student movement demanding boycott and divestment from Israel. They alleged the activism represents thinly-veiled hate for Jews by routinely crossing into “anti-Zionist” calls for the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Pro-Palestine activists fiercely opposed the principles as an effort to silence their criticisms of Israeli policy. They were joined by many faculty, who fretted about threats to academic freedom and debate, and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which questioned whether the statement infringed upon free speech.

An initial draft of the statement was rejected rejected last fall for being too soft. Jewish groups – who had originally asked UC to adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism that includes comments demonizing Israel or denying its right to exist – were upset that it included no mentions of anti-Semitism at all.

The new version stops well short their demands, but it does explicitly denounce anti-Semitism amid a set of principles that otherwise broadly rejects prejudice, encourages “mutual respect and civility within debate” and asks university leaders to “challenge speech and action reflecting bias, stereotypes, and/or intolerance.”

A contextual statement introducing the policy also mentions the anti-Semitic incidents, notes that opposition to Israel can be expressed in “assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture,” and states, “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

AMCHA Initiative, a group that tracks anti-Semitism at college campuses and initiated the push for adopting the State Department definition at UC, praised the vote.

“What an important day for Jewish students in California, nationally and internationally,” director Tammi Rossman Benjamin said in a statement. “Far too often, anti-Israel activists single out, harass, intimidate and even assault Jewish students, regardless of how that student feels about Israel.”

But opponents maintained that their unease had not been addressed. They criticized UC for ignoring other discrimination on campuses, such as Islamophobia and racism, and said that proponents of the principles were advancing a false narrative to suppress their advocacy for Palestinian rights.

In a statement, activist organization Jewish Voice for Peace said, “The Regents’ new policy offers no clarity on how to determine when criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism crosses a line into antisemitism, and was predicated on the erroneous assumption that support for Palestinian rights is inherently antisemitic.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff