Dear University of California Regents:
The University of California Regents will discuss the newest draft of the Regents Statement of Principles Against Intolerance, released on Monday, March 14th, 2016. As a Black youth organization with constituents in the University of California system, the Afrikan Black Coalition supports Principles Against Intolerance that seek to protect students from hate speech and harm. However the “Contextual Statement” and the “Working Group Observations” are particularly concerning.
The regental working group’s contextual statement reveals a continued attempt to silence criticism of the Israeli government and stifle Palestine solidarity activism by labeling it as anti-Semitism. We note that there have been attempts to get the UC Regents to adopt the controversial State Department Definition of Anti-Semitism, and enforce it with penalties including suspension or expulsion. This definition says any demonization, delegitimization, or double standard applied to the state of Israel is anti-Semitism. These terms are vague, and would themselves apply a double-standard to Israel, as no other country enjoys similar standards or special protections from criticism. Criticism of the Iranian or Saudi Arabian governments, for instance, is not necessarily Islamophobic. The University Regents thankfully did not adopt the State Department Definition, but the context of the Regents Statement of Principles Against Intolerance seems to align with the same political agenda; an issue of grave concern for all those who are concerned with justice and fairness.
The Afrikan Black Coalition is in solidarity with Students for Justice in Palestine, United Auto Workers Local 2865, (UAW2865), Jewish Voice for Peace and hundreds of UC faculty in condemning the explicit conflation of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism that is included in the introduction to the proposed statement. Section C of the proposed Principles Against Intolerance states that “The Regents call on University leaders actively to challenge anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination when and wherever they emerge within the University community.” We agree with this statement. As Black students who contend with hostile and anti-Black campus climate on a daily basis, we understand very clearly the need to eliminate bigotry from the UC system. However, by including anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism in their contextual statement, the working group sets a dangerous precedent. Zionism is a political movement and ideology that must be subject to vigorous assessment and criticism just like all political movements and ideologies. We reject in the strongest terms possible the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Such conflation can only arise from blatant historical ignorance about the origins of Zionism as a political ideology and movement. We recognize the specificity of calling out anti-Zionism as a craven attempt to chill constitutionally-protected speech and legitimate human rights activism. Zionism is a controversial nationalist political ideology that calls for the creation of an explicitly Jewish homeland in the biblical land of Israel. It is not the same as Judaism, which is the religion of the Jewish people. Just as Zionism and Judaism aren’t the same, neither are anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
The improper conflation of these concepts is being pushed by off-campus political advocacy organizations in order to stifle criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the unjust treatment of non-Jewish Israeli citizens and Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. It is clear that the state of Israel has been engaged in several atrocities against the Palestinians in violation of international law. These activities are documented by the United Nations and should always be subject to vigorous criticism just like any other nation. To conflate all criticisms of the state of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic is false and dangerous. To be clear, anti-Semitic rhetoric or action is not the same as or equivalent to pro-Palestine rhetoric or action. This sentiment is echoed and elaborated upon in a letter, signed by well over 200 UC faculty members, many of whom are themselves Jewish.
In conversations with representatives from UAW2865, the UC Student Workers’ union, we have learned more about the Regents Statement of Principles Against Intolerance. An officer with the union spoke to UCOP Deputy General Counsel Julia Friedlander last Friday, at which point she said that there were “conflicting opinions” among University lawyers about whether the introduction to the statement was enforceable. The Regents have had many months to draft and evaluate this statement. The Regents still intend to vote in two days, even though their own lawyer admits they don’t know how this statement will be applied.
Additionally, for a motion to address what constitutes Principles of Intolerance, the process has not been inclusive. A quick glance at the Statement of Principles Against Intolerance shows that the vast majority of the document focuses on bigotry facing Jewish students, with brief mention of the serious concerns of Black, Muslim, Latin@, and LGBTQ students. Further, other groups like students with disabilities are not explicitly mentioned in their opening statement, only in Section B of the principles. This clear rhetorical focus on the needs of Jewish students over other identity groups doesn’t reflect actual data on the campus climate concerns expressed by various student communities. The Regents would do well to remember that Black students face the highest levels of intolerance and disrespect as well as a hostile campus climate more than any other group on the University of California campuses, as verified by the UC’s own campus climate surveys several times.
The experts chosen by the working group responsible for drafting this statement are more than questionable, with no women, Muslims, or experts on Palestine consulted. Experts on anti-blackness, LGBTQ hatred, or other forms of identity-based hatred were not interviewed either. Four “experts” were consulted by the working group drafting the statement, with two of them being open pro-Israel partisans. A third “expert” was Eugene Volokh, a conservative lawyer who was one of the main architects of Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in California. For those who do not know, Prop 209 decimated the numbers of Black and Latin@ students on UC campuses, and none have recovered since. The inclusion of Volokh is a slap in the face to Black and Latin@ UC students and demonstrates that the Regents do not care about addressing structural racism plaguing the UC system. Volokh’s inclusion in this process is the kind of historic blunder that can only be explained as calculated cruelty towards and blatant disregard of Black students due to the role he played in systematically excluding Black students from the University of California. We find it unjustifiable that the UC regents made a conscious choice to include such a person to draft a statement of intolerance, something Black students endure the most of; partially as a result of our severe underrepresentation in the UC system. The irony is too thick.
According to the 2014 Campus Climate Survey which garnered feedback from over 100,000 community members from across the UC system, Jewish students reported higher levels of comfort in classrooms and departments than students who identified with any other religious group. Muslim and Christian students reported significantly lower levels of comfort (pg. 58-59). According to the same survey, underrepresented minority students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities reported the highest levels of discomfort with campus climate. This is not to argue that Jewish students don’t face discrimination, nor to play oppression olympics. One only needs to look at the vicious rhetoric of Trump supporters to know that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are alive and well, alongside other forms of identity-based hatred that must be condemned. That said, it is clear that other groups face just as much if not more discrimination within the UC system, but one would have no idea this was the case from reading the statement as currently written.
This issue does not just affect the University of California system. What the UC does often set a precedent for other universities, and this is no different. The Afrikan Black Coalition does not support the Regents Statement of Principles Against Intolerance so long as it conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism or Palestine solidarity activism. We oppose in the strongest terms possible the conflations of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
In Solidarity & Struggle,
The Afrikan Black Coalition