Opinion polls consistently show that a strong majority of Americans take Israel’s side in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is equally clear that U.S. college campuses are a focal point of pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel activism. Some of the pro-Palestinian programs and protests have been viciously anti-Israel, leading to the question of whether they are in fact anti-Semitic.
This can create an environment of unease, isolation and even fear for Israeli and other Jewish students.
In 2010, University of California President Mark Yudof appointed an Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. The following year the council tasked two members, Anti-Defamation League National Education Chair Richard Barton and California NAACP President Alice Huffman, to investigate campus conditions for Jewish students, faculty and staff.
Barton and Huffman issued their report on July 9, 2012. They found that Jewish students felt that a double standard obtained: hostile language and imagery is used against Israel that would not be tolerated if directed at other campus groups. Because of the centrality of Israel to the identity of many Jews, slanders of Israel (e.g., Zionism is racism or comparable to Nazism) are not simply political discussions, but are perceived as personal attacks. While recognizing the importance of free speech and academic freedom, the report affirmed: “Words and accusations which at their core demean, defame and degrade must be addressed and denounced,” to protect students from harassment and intimidation. The report made several recommendations, including adopting a definition of anti-Semitism recognizing that there are “ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel including ‘using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis,’ ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,’ or ‘holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.’”
Shortly thereafter 27 UC faculty members formed the UC Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Campus Climate. They wrote a letter to President Yudof, which is now a petition on change.org, urging the president to table the report “and its problematic recommendations.” They questioned the methodology of the fact-finding process. They bemoaned the exclusion of the Jewish pro-Palestinian perspective. The fact that team member Richard Barton is a long-time leader in the ADL, a “well-known rightwing group,” gave them the vapors. They opposed a hate-speech ban. And they insisted that opposing Israeli policies is not anti-Semitic, evading the real issue of whether anti-Zionist activism can become so venomous, menacing and bullying as to become anti-Semitic.
In response, StandWithUs introduced a counter-petition, urging adoption of the report. StandWithUs CEO, Roz Rothstein, discusses the issue of anti-Semitism on California’s colleges.
Paul Kujawsky: Can you briefly describe the genesis of StandWithUs, and what it has accomplished in its eleven years of existence?
Roz Rothstein: StandWithUs has a clear mission. We are all about Israel, all the time. We educate people of all ages about Israel's challenges and achievements and we mainly focus on young adults: high school students, college and young professionals. We educate through social media, speakers that travel to campuses and communities, conferences that empower students to educate their peers, and missions to Israel. We are also probably the largest producer of hard copy booklets that address controversial topics related to Israel.
PK: StandWithUs has been active on colleges for a number of years. Does the UC report accurately take the temperature of California campuses? Or does it perhaps overstate, or understate, the problems Jewish students face?
RR: We felt it was a fair report that confirms what students have been witnessing and feeling for so many years. It did not overstate the case, and acknowledged that a small percentage of Jewish students participate or agree with the anti-Israel claims. We felt that it was thoughtful and had good suggestions. There must be a difference between hate speech and debate about important topics. Criticism of Israel is healthy unless it degrades into name calling and crosses the line into anti-Semitism, as it has on far too many campuses.
PK: The report doesn’t distinguish pro-Palestinian student activism from faculty anti-Zionism in the classroom, which arguably raises different and more serious concerns.
RR: The fact that certain professors abuse their positions in the classroom is cause for concern. The idea that a campus website is abused by professors who want to push their own political agenda should be considered wrong by university administrations but at UCLA and at Cal State Northridge, for example, professors are able to abuse their positions to proselytize on the official campus website. I know that this will not be allowed to continue in the future, but for now, students are forced to live with this kind of counter-intuitive behavior on the part of some professors.
PK: The members of the UC Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Campus Climate are Jewish; some of them teach Jewish Studies. Why are so many prominent anti-Zionists in this country Jewish?
RR: It’s a fascinating question. I think that Jews are certainly brought up to consider all angles of an issue, which is healthy. We are brought up to believe that debate is healthy. And as a result, Jews as a whole are certainly known to be a thoughtful, giving people. I think that some people go too far, however, and feel that in order to “give” to others, they may need to “give” themselves up. In other words, too many Jewish people have interpreted the meaning of “heal the world” to mean that they must ignore the rights of their own people.
PK: Is there anything to take seriously in the UC Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Campus Climate petition? Do any of its criticisms hold water?
RR: Frankly, I am somewhat shocked at their response. Instead of doing some soul-searching and trying to find more constructive, civil ways to carry out their activism, they are denying the legitimacy of the report and of pro-Israel students’ feelings in the face of bullying, intimidation, and defamation of Israel. The fact is, for the past 11 years, there has been a concerted, organized campaign on campuses to vilify and demonize Israel. These have not been criticism of Israel’s policies; they have been out and out distortions of facts meant to demonize Israel. You don’t invite speakers like Abdel Malik Ali, who spews anti-Semitic canards, if you simply want to debate Israel’s policies. It is a sad state of affairs when the petition’s signatories, who are faculty and students, can’t even recognize the difference between reasonable debate and bigotry, between the new anti-Semitism and criticism of a state’s policies. That being said, they are not wrong to raise concerns about freedom of speech. It must be protected. But UC has found ways to ensure that the right to free speech doesn’t cross the line into bigotry and defamation of other minorities—African Americans, the LGBT community, and others. The same can certainly be done to ensure Jewish students rights, and to ensure that the principles of community on campus apply to them as well. After all, anti-Semitism doesn’t just degrade the level of discourse on campus. It is an unacceptable form of racism that degrades all of us.
PK: On August 28, the California Assembly passed House Resolution 35. It condemns anti-Semitism on college campuses, which “is often cloaked as criticism of Israel.” Did StandWithUs play a role in the drafting or passage of HR 35?
RR: No, we did not play a direct role. However, our many articles, videos of extremist anti-Israel events on campus, and activism no doubt provided evidence and influenced them.
PK: Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, one of HR 35’s co-sponsors, has stated that she wants to “fix” the resolution to affirm free speech rights on campus. Does HR 35 need to be fixed?
RR: I don’t believe that the resolution, which resolves that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated in the classroom or on campus, undermines free speech rights. If people want to spew anti-Semitism, they can do it off campus and outside the classroom. But if some feel that free speech might be jeopardized, it would be fine to have the bill “fixed” so the principles of free speech are clear. However it is very odd that many supporters of the counter-petition complain that this resolution and the Campus climate report recommendations will interfere with their activism. That is a strange admission—that they can’t show their support for Palestinians without crossing the line into anti-Semitism.
PK: The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) complains that HR 35 “contributes to a climate of intimidation faced by Muslim and Arab students on California campuses.” An observer might conclude that Jews and Muslims are competing to be considered the most victimized. How would you respond to a suggestion that it would be better to reaffirm the value of vigorous debate, and focus on training Jewish students to defend Israel and Zionism, to toughen up, and not be intimidated (physical violence aside)?
RR: I couldn’t agree more that Jewish students should be educated on Israel issues, trained how to present their point of view, and empowered to do so. That is the StandWithUs mission and what we have done for the last eleven years. But when heinous accusations are flung at them, when they face fanatical hatred, when others tell them they refuse to engage in dialogue with them or work with them, in part because Israel has no right to exist, when attempts are made to shut down pro-Israel student programs, when efforts are made to twist a knife into the hearts of Israel’s supporters by accusing them of being like the Jewish people’s tormentors in the genocidal nightmare of the Holocaust, then it is time for the grown-ups to step in and lay some clear ground rules. That’s what this campus report and the Assembly bill attempt to do.