Almost no one objects to non-coercive denunciations of anti-Semitism. But the declaration that anti-Zionism has no place on campus has divided the UC system’s faculty:
One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel's right to exist.”
But another letter from more than 250 UC professors expressed fear that the proposed statement would restrict free speech and academic freedom to teach, debate and research about the complex and tumultuous history of Israel and the Zionist movement.
The latter group has the better argument. The UC regents’ position seems like “a warning to those students or faculty members who have fundamental disagreements with the state of Israel,” the Los Angeles Times editorializes. “It apparently rules out of bounds an assertion by, say, a Palestinian professor that Israel's creation was unfair and unjustifiable, or by a Jewish student that Israel should be replaced by a nonsectarian state. Both are ideas that this page opposes but they are fully entitled to protection at a public university under the 1st Amendment.”
The newspaper adds that “pro-Palestinian activists on campus are right to fear that such a statement would target their advocacy even when it doesn’t involve anti-Semitic language or harassing behavior.” I condemn anti-Semitism and have no objection to the University of California doing the same, so long as it acknowledges that some anti-Semitic speech is protected and does not punish it. And I acknowledge that anti-Semites sometimes cloak their bigotry in anti-Zionism.
But the UC regents should not declare anti-Zionism to be verboten.
The UCLA Professor Eugene Volokh, a supporter of Israel who believes “a good deal of anti-Zionism is indeed anti-Semitic,” offers a particularly strong argument for that conclusion:
Even though they’re not outright banning anti-Zionist speech, but rather trying to sharply condemn it, I think such statements by the regents chill debate, especially by university employees and students who (unlike me) lack tenure. (For more on that, see here.) And this debate must remain free, regardless of what the regents or I think is the right position in the debate.
Whether the Jewish people should have an independent state in Israel is a perfectly legitimate question to discuss — just as it’s perfectly legitimate to discuss whether Basques, Kurds, Taiwanese, Tibetans, Northern Cypriots, Flemish Belgians, Walloon Belgians, Faroese, Northern Italians, Kosovars, Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Transnistrians, Chechens, Catalonians, Eastern Ukranians and so on should have a right to have independent states.
Sometimes the answer might be “yes.” Sometimes it might be “no.” Sometimes the answer might be “it depends.” But there’s no uncontroversial principle on which these questions can be decided. They have to be constantly up for inquiry and debate, especially in places that are set up for inquiry and debate: universities. Whether Israel is entitled to exist as an independent Jewish state is just as fitting a subject for discussion as whether Kosovo or Northern Cyprus or Kurdistan or Taiwan or Tibet or a Basque nation should exist as an independent state for those ethnic groups.
Leftist campus activists might usefully reflect on this controversy.