Anti-Semitism Has ‘No Place’ on UC Campuses, Anti-Zionism Has No Place in Intolerance Statement

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Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

There’s no denying anti-Semitism occurs on UC campuses. Within the last year, swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis, a Jewish student was questioned about how she could remain unbiased on a judicial panel because of her religion at UCLA and the phrase “Zion­ists should be sent to the gas cham­ber” was written alongside a swastika in a restroom wall at UC Berkeley.

The UC regents have worked for over a year on formulating a response to ongoing acts of anti-Semitism. Their delay was in response to intense criticism from students, faculty and community members on how the UC would define anti-Semitism. On March 23, the regents unanimously adopted “Principles Against Intolerance,” a document stating that anti-Semitism has no place on campus, noticeably omitting anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination.

The UC was right to do so. Regarding the two as the same impedes necessary dialogue around holding institutions accountable for their actions. Though anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism do sometimes overlap, by definition, they are distinct.

Anti-Semitism is prejudice or discrimination against Jewish people, while anti-Zionism is opposition to the state of Israel, which includes speech critical of Israeli policies and treatment of Palestinian refugees. To consider anti-Zionist speech anti-Semitic would severely limit important discourse about Israel’s actions.

It’s possible to oppose Israel and its policies without being anti-Semitic, and recent acts of anti-Semitism on UC campuses do not all have anti-Zionist roots. The conflation of the two arises when hateful individuals don’t understand that the over 14.2 million Jewish people in the world are not responsible for the policies of one government.

The “Zion­ists should be sent to the gas cham­ber” incident proves that anti-Zionism can lead to anti-Semitism, but the critical debate surrounding boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS) demonstrates the concepts also occur separately.

UC administrators and regents should not have control or influence over political conversations like BDS movements. Including anti-Zionism in the regent’s statement would have hindered discussion of this nature. A government does not always speak for its people and equating the two is not only misguided but also potentially harmful. Free speech allows us to choose the extent of the connection between nationalism and cultural identity. Questioning politics and policies of organizations and countries is an essential component of free speech, particularly in academia, and the conflict surrounding Israel makes this dialogue even more necessary.

Anti-Semitism is a complicated issue that, among other forms of discrimination, needs to be addressed in more ways than a vague statement from the UC. The approved version of the principles “calls on university leaders actively to challenge anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination when and wherever they emerge within the university community.”

The UC is responsible for fostering a safe space for all students, and that requires more than the passage of a symbolic statement. The regents’ decision to specify anti-Semitism pits forms of discrimination against each other, instead of cultivating a safe environment for students from all marginalized communities.

If the UC prioritizes establishing inclusive spaces, it needs to take action, like allocating funding for Title IX, providing resource centers, supporting student organizations and hiring more staff in areas that promote retention. Any of these initiatives would yield more results than a year of conversation and conflict surrounding anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism only to state the obvious — that intolerance and hate speech are wrong.

Safe spaces are places where students can bring up contentious points of conversation or opinions without judgment or prejudice. They are spaces where students are challenged, not put down, and opinions are met with inquiry. Discrimination in all its forms should be condemned, and that doesn’t mean shutting down sensitive conversations.