The UC System Turns the Left's Logic Against Anti-Zionism

The officials who govern California’s public universities should abandon language that declares critics of Israel outside the bounds of legitimate discourse.

Noah Berger / Reuters

At the University of California, there are students who believe that Israel’s creation was a mistake, that its occupation of Palestinian territory is unjust, that it should cease to exist as a Jewish state, or even that it should cease to exist entirely. And there are students who believe that Israel’s creation was an indispensable lifeline for Jews, that its residents have been under siege for most of the country’s existence, that Arabs and Palestinians bear outsized responsibility for regional conflict, and that anti-Semitism lurks beneath many condemnations of Israel.

Thanks to liberal norms and speech protections, these students co-exist at public institutions of higher education, where all can voice their opinions. Yet the illiberal temptation to declare the other side’s position to be illegitimate is ever-present.

Enter the UC regents. As yet, the body that governs one of America’s largest systems of higher education hasn’t weighed in on whether human life begins at conception, whether or not God exists, or whether the Yankees or Red Sox are the better baseball team. But it just decided to declare that “anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

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.

“Following through and expanding on the logic of anti-discrimination law, which seeks to protect distinct classes of citizens from unequal treatment in public accommodations, the activist left increasingly uses a mixture of bureaucratic regulations, protest, and public disruption to get an ever-growing list of topics relegated to the category of the undiscussable,” Damon Linker observes. “These topics must not be raised because talking about them produces offense, which amounts to a form of discrimination. Those in the University of California system who are trying to rule anti-Zionism out of bounds are merely expanding this logic one further step, to get Zionists added to the list of groups officially protected from offense.” After all, Jews are a historically marginalized group that faced discrimination at many colleges and are still disproportionately victimized by hate crimes. And some Jewish students feel upset or unsafe when they hear anti-Zionist speech.

Liberals understand that such speech should be protected anyway.

Like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, I believe the UC regents should abandon efforts, prompted partly by speech restrictionists, to formulate new anti-discrimination language. Instead, as FIRE writes, they should “publish and enforce clear, constitutional definitions of discriminatory harassment.” FIRE has published a statement criticizing both the UC regents’ stance on anti-Zionism and other aspects of the “Final Report of the Regents Working Group on Principles Against Intolerance” that threaten free speech or academic freedom on campus. In turn, leftists who see the threat that the UC Regents pose to pro-Palestinian activism should join the larger fight for strong free speech norms and protections.

Doing so is entirely compatible with a broader commitment to anti-racism, just as standing against the UC regents’ statement on anti-Zionism is perfectly compatible with condemning anti-Semitism and its too-frequent appearances on campus.