U.C. principles give needed protection to Jewish students

Former tennis star John McEnroe, when vociferously contesting a linesman’s call that his shot was out of bounds, famously remarked: “You can’t be serious!” The regents of the University of California similarly have called foul after multiple incidents of anti-Semitism and violations of free speech at several U.C. campuses. And, yes, they are deadly serious. I applaud the path-breaking resolution on Principles Against Intolerance unanimously adopted by the regents on March 24.

Incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti, calls for an intifada in America, the cross-examination of Jewish students putting themselves up for student government offices, and blood libels uttered in the heat of student debates over boycott, divestment and sanctions movement resolutions have been widely reported.

But this is not merely a California phenomenon; it is national. At the University of Texas, the University of Minnesota and elsewhere, demonstrators have attempted unsuccessfully to prevent speakers perceived as pro-Israel from addressing audiences and have shut down events sponsored by Jewish studies departments. At Brown University, Students for Justice in Palestine torpedoed the talk by a highly regarded LGBT civil rights advocate by trying to proscribe the campus Hillel as co-sponsor of a progressive event, charging it was engaged in “pinkwashing” Israeli crimes, and, as such, a Jewish institution could not be part of a progressive coalition. Rather than be caught up in the local conflict, the speaker canceled her speech at Brown.

The prevailing tropes in such campus skirmishes are often deeply offensive to Jews. But at many universities, administrators may be less sensitive to such anti-Semitism than to other seemingly more pressing –isms, such as racism and sexism. They may lack understanding of the newest forms of anti-Semitism. It is surely not that they are hostile to Jews. The problem is often the press of multiple things simultaneously, or perhaps there is a little indifference. Many perhaps perceive that Jews are doing well and can take care of themselves. Less empathy exists toward those seemingly less in need of administrative support and protection. Perhaps many administrators lack knowledge of the historic treatment of Jews, or full awareness of the hurt such language and accusations inflict on Jewish students.

The U.C. Principles Against Intolerance seeks creatively to address this situation. It calls attention to anti-Semitic narratives in an effort to educate the campus communities about anti-Semitism. The statement is largely aspirational and does not include provisions for enforcement or for disciplining faculty, staff or students. The document instead takes the high ground of insisting that university leaders exert moral leadership and eschew either coercion or censorship. It honors freedom of expression even when such expression is abhorrent, prejudiced or distasteful.

The linchpin of the regents’ resolution on intolerance is this: “Commentators noted that historic manifestations of anti-Semitism have changed and that expressions of anti-Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify. In particular, opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.

“Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

This is pretty straightforward and exceedingly clear, and it is the first time a public university has said it. So what do the critics say in response? One complaint is that there is too much emphasis on anti-Semitism, i.e., too much attention paid to the Jews. When I was president at the University of California, I condemned racist incidents at U.C. San Diego and homophobic graffiti at U.C. Davis. No criticism was forthcoming for those pronouncements. But whenever I challenged anti-Semitic speech or efforts to drown out pro-Israel speakers, I received many chastising comments. Apparently the consensus of support for challenging racism or homophobia is stronger than that for challenging anti-Semitism

Another is that the policy on intolerance violates the First Amendment. This is odd. The U.C. statement includes no enforcement mechanisms. It explicitly states: “First Amendment principles and academic freedom principles must be paramount in guiding the university’s response to instances of bias, prejudice and intolerance.” The appropriate response is “more speech — to educate the members of our community.” Still the critics worry about things that are not there in the Principles.

Another creative approach to the First Amendment: It is said by some that the regents are intimidating those who would speak out against Jews and Israel by taking a position themselves. Do the detractors have such fragile temperaments that they are despondent when anyone disagrees with them? Do they fear sanctions? The Supreme Court has never embraced this odd interpretation of freedom of expression.

And, of course, there is no constitutional right to prevent others from speaking. The underlying assumption of those who advocate this position is that only the self-appointed righteous possess civil liberties, and not their opponents. Those who speak first win the day; any criticism by those in power is ruled out as intimidating.

Finally, the resolution does not criticize all forms of anti-Zionism, only those forms that are tainted with an anti-Semitic narrative or that include anti-Semitic claims or tropes. That is sufficient for most purposes. But isn’t it odd that of all the groups in the world that have sought national self-determination, only the Jewish people and the Jewish state come in for this type of treatment on university campuses?

The people of California should be proud of the action of the University of California in adopting this resolution against intolerance. The board has provided a model for universities elsewhere in our country.

Mark G. Yudof is the chair of the national advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network. He was president of the University of California from 2008 to 2013. This op-ed was co-written with Kenneth Waltzer, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network.