State Senate resolution urging UC to condemn anti-Semitism draws objections over language

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A state Senate resolution that would urge the University of California to condemn anti-Semitism and racism on its campuses has drawn objections from organizations that say the legislation’s definition of anti-Semitism would stifle free speech.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 35, a bill introduced by state Senator Jeff Stone, R-Murrieta, that is set for a vote Monday by the California State Assembly, would express the Legislature’s condemnation of anti-Semitic acts at all publicly funded state schools and encourage the UC system to do the same. Opponents of the bill, however, allege that the bill’s invocation of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and contend that using the definition opens the door to curtailing free speech in the future.

“(The bill) challenges the real definition of anti-Semitism by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism itself,” said Carol Sanders, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the opponents of the bill. “It dilutes the real meaning of anti-Semitism — it will make it more difficult to confront actual incidents of anti-Semitism.”

The State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism originated from a working definition developed by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia in 2005, which noted that incidents of anti-Semitism “could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” The State Department’s definition provides examples such as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and defines demonizing, delegitimizing or applying a double standard to the state of Israel as anti-Semitic but notes that criticism of Israel similar to that of any other country does not qualify.

In 2013, however, the European agency removed the working definition from its website. One of the definition’s authors, Kenneth Stern, penned an op-ed arguing against officially adopting it on college campuses after UC President Janet Napolitano announced that the UC Board of Regents may consider adopting the definition at its July meeting.

Former ASUC senator Ori Herschmann, who was asked to testify on behalf of the bill, said the State Department’s definition is intended to ensure that criticism of Israel doesn’t “verge on criticizing Jews and being anti-Semitic.”

“No one is saying that you can’t criticize Israel,” he said. “Furthermore, this definition isn’t from a random source online. … It just, to me, puts a sort of official stamp on it.”

Because of the characterization of SCR 35 as a resolution, it does not have the force of law, which means it places no restrictions on speech. According to Jesse Choper, a professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Law, the Legislature can take most kinds of symbolic action as long as it doesn’t amount to telling citizens what they can and cannot do.

Since SCR 35 was first introduced, it has also been amended to include a clause stating that the resolution is not intended to diminish anyone’s rights to free speech.

In 2013, a swastika was scratched into a door at Clark Kerr Campus, and in January, two swastikas were spray painted onto a Jewish fraternity building near the UC Davis campus. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin — director of the AMCHA Initiative, which supports the bill — also cited an incident at UCLA in which sophomore Rachel Beyda was asked how she would be able to “maintain an unbiased view” during a confirmation hearing for the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council’s judicial board, given her active role in the Jewish community.

“There has to be a starting point,” Herschmann said about the bill’s efforts. “It will assure Jewish students and other students in the California public school system that there is an issue and that we are taking steps to address that issue.”

But Palestine Legal attorney Liz Jackson, a Berkeley Law alumna, said the resolution painted an inaccurate picture of anti-Semitism on college campuses in California by listing instances of violence against Jews in Europe alongside isolated instances on state campuses.

“I condemn anti-Semitism and appreciate thoughtful efforts to address it,” Jackson said. “(But) there has not been anything like what happened in Europe, and to suggest that is an exaggeration and a mischaracterization of the climate.”

SCR 35 is scheduled for a third reading by the Assembly on Monday. If the resolution passes, it will return to the Senate for a final vote.

Contact Katy Abbott at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katyeabbott.