University rebuffs pleas to limit criticism of Israel

In a move likely to reassure free-speech advocates and anger some Jewish groups, the University of California has opted not to consider equating certain types of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitic harassment or bias.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Instead, the university’s Board of Regents plans next week to discuss a “statement of principles against intolerance” that rejects certain expressions of hatred or prejudice, such as vandalism involving swastikas, but makes clear that faculty members and students will not be subject to discipline for statements covered by the First Amendment’s protections of academic freedom and free speech.

Hundreds of the university’s students, faculty members, donors and alumni had joined more than 50 Jewish organisations in formally urging the regents to take a much stronger stand against certain speech directed at Israel, by adopting the definition of anti-Semitism used by the US State Department.

That definition encompasses speech that demonises Israel, compares Israel’s policies to the policies of Nazi Germany, holds Israel to standards not applied to other democratic nations, or denies Israel’s right to exist.

Those urging the university to adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism had argued that campus debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had devolved into the harassment and intimidation of many Jewish students. Other students and faculty members had argued, however, that the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism is too vague and could be misused to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.

Although Janet Napolitano, the university’s president, personally had supported using the State Department’s definition, the regents put off discussing it at their last meeting, in July, and make no explicit reference to it in the proposed statement against intolerance on their agenda next week.

Steve Montiel, a university spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times, that he expected a “robust discussion” of the statement at the board’s meeting. He also said its wording might change before any possible board vote on it in the coming months.

As currently written, the statement declares that the university values both the tolerance and the free exchange of ideas, and says everyone there “has the right to study, teach, conduct research, and work free from acts and expressions of intolerance”. It says the university “will respond promptly and effectively to reports of intolerant behaviour”, but makes clear that its focus is on “attacks on individuals or groups”, and that it does not apply to the free exchange of ideas.