Over the past few weeks, The Daily Californian has featured half a dozen articles and opinion pieces discussing the UCSA’s resolution to condemn HR 35. However, conversation surrounding this contentious piece of legislation has been obfuscated by focusing on the UCSA’s process and not the contents of HR 35 itself. I find it deeply disappointing that, on a campus as intellectually verdant as UC Berkeley, the heart of this debate has been forgotten.
It’s true that the UCSA and the authors of the bill used political tactics that were intended to secure a particular voting outcome and succeeded in this end. By preventing any form of alternative perspective or counterargument, the UCSA did a disservice to many of the students it represents. How can a resolution claim to protect a “marketplace of ideas” when it intentionally hears only one voice?
Yet, it’s important to remember that the UCSA’s resolution was not written in a vacuum. It was a reaction to the problematic nature of HR 35. Ostensibly written to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism, HR 35 conflates legitimate, public criticism of Israeli policy with truly hateful examples of anti-Semitic activity. This erroneous comparison stifles political debate on campus, and potentially violates students’ First Amendment protections.
The text of HR 35 certainly does includes many real examples of anti-Semitic activity, behavior that all students should find repulsive. Yet, a close reading of the bill’s full text reveals its conflation of these abhorrent activities with legitimate political protest, including BDS campaigns, ruining the bill’s moral continuity. The resolution’s fifth paragraph lists examples of anti-Semitic activity. Delicately wedged between “… swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti in residential halls, public areas on campus, and Hillel houses …” and “… actions of student groups that encourage support for terrorist organizations …” are the words “student- and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel that are a means of demonizing Israel and seek to harm the Jewish state.” This paralleling of the BDS movement with Nazi imagery and terrorism is morally reprehensible.
Farther down, in the bill’s eighth paragraph, the state Assembly writes that it “… commends the initial actions taken by the University of California to address anti-Semitism on its campuses …” Fair enough, but the first example of such action taken again references “refusal by the UC Board of Regents and the President of UC to consider divesture (sic) from companies doing business with Israel,” explicitly labeling BDS campaigns as anti-Semitic. Lauding UC campuses for rejecting BDS may be the Assembly’s prerogative, but stating that they were rejected as anti-Semitic is dishonest at best.
I disagree with the BDS movement on a pragmatic and ideological level. Divestment advocates often fail to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a national homeland, and I don’t see such efforts as effective in creating the type of base necessary to influence the establishment of a two-state solution in the Middle East. Even so, I find it disturbing that a political community would attempt to confound its tactics with the other examples of repugnant anti-Semitism listed in the bill. This resolution, explicitly written to protect my community and me from oppression, equates valid political protest and disagreement with hate speech, effectively silencing a community of students on campus. The irony abounds.
The great English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I absolutely disapprove of BDS campaigns, and I will absolutely defend the right of students to use them. If certain types of political speech can be rejected, what protects others? If BDS is labeled hate speech and should be removed from our campuses as such, when will other political protest of Israeli policy follow suit?
As Berkeley students, we are unbelievably lucky to spend our time at one of the great global centers of knowledge. We are bright people, and we should strive for a thoughtful dialectic. We should seek it out, even when we are fundamentally opposed to one another. We should reject outright any attempt to silence one side of a debate, for, as scholars, we recognize that it is only through open, intellectual discourse that we can possibly grasp the truth. HR 35 purposefully seeks to stop the very dialogue that is necessary for solving such an incredibly complex and nuanced problem.
Many of my close friends in the Jewish community recognize the problems with HR 35 and have expressed their dismay to me in private. Unfortunately, their indignation has not extended to the public sphere, and their voices remain unheard. Resolution of such an important political issue demands public engagement from thoughtful, interested parties, and in this case, silence signifies tacit support of the bill.
I know we are smart enough to tell the difference between hate speech and political action, regardless of how severely we might disagree with it. I believe we are smart enough to recognize that BDS is the latter, not the former. For the sake of parity, for the sake of equity, for the sake of fairness, for the sake of my political speech, your political speech and their political speech — I must protest HR 35.
Isaiah Kirshner-Breen is a senior at UC Berkeley and a co-president of the campus group J Street U.
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