Two bad resolutions

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This morning, a reader emailed me regarding the UC Student Association’s vote repudiating HR 35, a California Assembly resolution aimed at addressing anti-Semitism on state public university campuses.

Referring to recent Daily Cal op-eds on the issue, the reader asked for my opinion, “in particular on the attempt by some of those writing to cast this in the terms of a silencing of the Jewish community.”

I normally would not devote a blog post to respond to a reader’s question, but because my criticism of Israel in a previous column generated so many passionate responses, I’d like to weigh in on the current controversy.

I’ll start with HR 35, the state Assembly bill rejected by the UCSA. The bill cites a number of disturbing occurrences on UC campuses, including:

“(1)physical aggression, harassment, and intimidation by members of student or community groups in student-sponsored protests and rallies held on campus; (2) speakers, films, and exhibits sponsored by student, faculty, and community groups that engage in anti-Semitic discourse or use anti-Semitic imagery and language to falsely describe Israel, Zionists, and Jews, including … that the Jewish state should be destroyed, that violence against Jews is justified, that Jews exaggerate the Holocaust as a tool of Zionist propaganda … (3) swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti in residential halls, public areas on campus, and Hillel houses …”

This behavior is outrageous, and HR 35’s authors are right to call for public higher education institutions to “swiftly and unequivocally condemn acts of anti-Semitism on their campuses.”

But couched within this list of anti-Semitic behaviors is a clause that goes too far. The bill equates violence against Jews and Holocaust denial with “student- and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel.”

I don’t agree with the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaign that calls for institutions to divest funds from companies associated with alleged human rights violations in Israel. I think that it is intellectually dishonest and unproductive to single out Israel for criticism while ignoring human rights violations by China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and dozens of other countries.

Nonetheless, it is unfair to conflate a legitimate (if misguided) political movement with anti-Semitism. While some BDS proponents are probably motivated by anti-Semitism, the vast majority are driven by political and moral views about human rights. The movement, after all, was endorsed by 16 ASUC senators in 2010. Was 80 percent of our student senate really anti-Semitic?

Some Jews understandably feel personally attacked by the BDS movement. As ASUC Senator George Kadifa wrote in an op-ed today:

“BDS detractors argue that there is limited historical evidence that boycotts work, thus BDS advocates are not motivated by a desire to advocate for Palestinian rights but rather as a way to attack Israel out of spite. [They argue that] boycotting the Jewish state is inherently anti-Semitic as it is analogous to boycotts against Jewish businesses that took place throughout Europe in the early 20th century leading up to Holocaust.”

But as I have written before, the fact that speech offends some people does not justify censorship. HR 35, by putting forward an overly expansive definition of anti-Semitism, does have the effect of suppressing BDS advocates. The UCSA was right to condemn it.

But the UCSA was wrong to add to its resolution an implicit endorsement of BDS. It is particularly troubling that, as Joey Freeman pointed out, the UCSA passed the resolution without consulting any Jewish or Zionist groups, though advocates of BDS not only were invited to attend the meeting but delivered a presentation to UCSA delegates. It is precisely this type of exclusion of Jewish groups from formal campus discourse that leads to charges of anti-Semitism and resolutions like HR 35.

Image source: Takver via Creative Commons

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected]