Jewish groups seek changes in anti-Semitism definition at California universities

University of California President and former US secretary of homeland security director Janet Napolitano has already come out in favor of the proposed definition.

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August 13, 2015 02:40
4 minute read.
University of California

A student walks on the University of California Los Angeles campus.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A coalition of Jewish organizations has asked the University of California to update its definition of anti-Semitism to include the delegitimization of Israel, “as a first step in addressing the alarming rise in anti-Semitic activity on UC campuses.”

More than 30 organizations, including Jewish fraternity AEPI, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America wrote to University of California regent Bruce D. Varner last month, requesting that substantive measures, such as adopting the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, be taken.

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In a 2010 fact sheet, Washington’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism adopted Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s ”three Ds” benchmark for assessing potentially anti-Semitic criticism of Israel, stating that efforts to demonize, delegitimize and apply double standards to Israel qualified as anti-Semitism.

The university’s regents are expected to vote on a statement regarding anti-Semitism in September.

“As you know, campus debate on Israel is increasingly slipping into anti-Semitism,” the coalition wrote in its letter, citing several recent events that had garnered the Jewish community’s attention as proof.

Among these were incidents in which “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” was found written on a bathroom wall at UC Berkeley, a Jew applying for a student union position found her suitability questioned on the basis of her religion, and swastikas were painted on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis.

“The State Department definition of anti-Semitism addresses the unique nature of contemporary Jew-hatred by recognizing that language or behavior which demonizes and delegitimizes the Jewish state or denies its right to exist may cross the line into anti-Semitism. Such a definition is essential for adequately understanding and identifying anti-Semitism as experienced by Jewish students today,” the groups asserted.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said that it is working tirelessly, through meetings with UC Regents and officials, to urge them to adopt and vote in favor of the resolution. A spokesperson for the organization told The Jerusalem Post that “public officials have a right and duty to weigh in on and express their viewpoint on important social issues. Anti-Israel harassment and discrimination on campus has reached unacceptable levels and needs to be decried for what it is – anti-Semitism.”

Responding to opponents who have accused the Jewish coalition of seeking to stifle free speech, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the director of the AMCHA initiative – the organization spearheading the campaign– told the Post that the statement on which regents will vote “will not be university policy,” but rather an expression of their collective will.

“While the statement is not official policy, we believe it will have a decisive impact on how administrators of all 10 UC campuses identify anti-Semitism and work toward addressing it, as they do all other forms of bigotry such as racism and homophobia,” she said.

“Our goal is to have the university adopt and use a definition of anti-Semitism that will be a necessary tool in accurately identifying its contemporary forms on UC campuses and educating the campus community about it, much as they educate the cam - pus community about racism, sexism and homophobia. We are not advocating the suppression of speech, which would of course be a violation of the first amendment. Through education, we want to change the campus culture, so that anti-Semitism is seen as equally reprehensible as racism, homophobia, etc., and in this way is naturally diminished.”

Understanding the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is “really essential to understanding the kind of anti-Semitic activity that exists on campuses and that’s creating a hostile environment for Jewish students,” Rossman-Benjamin continued.

University of California President and former US secretary of homeland security director Janet Napolitano has already come out in favor of the proposed definition, Rossman-Benjamin said.

Given Napolitano’s support and promises that the matter will be brought up during the regents’ July meeting, “we were very excited and we began to then begin to sort of lobby the regents.”

However, the matter was postponed until September and “the president and regent really stepped back from the question, the clear question about the State Department definition and even specifically speaking about anti-Semitism. Now it was couched as a broader array of different kinds of bigotry that they going to be discussing. And it’s clear that the state department definition is not off the table, they said as much in an interview in the LA Times , but the question is very different.

“We know that there has been a tremendous backlash [from pro-Palestinian organizations],” she said.

“Again, what we’re trying to do is protect Jewish students and ensure they have protection from the kind of anti-Israelism and blatant anti-Semitism. And just by trying to do that, just by trying to have some metric system to sort of look at how this works, what anti-Semitism is so people could identify anti-Semitism, or to educate the community about it, we’re put into the role of being human rights viola - tors and definitely free speech violators.

“If you step back, it’s a struggle about who gets to define anti-Semitism. They claim that the definition, the State Department definition, which is what we promote, is not a real definition of anti-Semitism. And they want to tell every - one, the university regents and the UN and the state and federal legislators, they want to tell them that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Israel. Because Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. But yet, from my perspective personally, it’s like, well, you know, how dare you tell me what it means to be a Jew? How dare you tell me what Judaism is?” Rossman-Benjamin concluded


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