a water tower that says UC Davis in blue writing
(Photo/Flickr-UC Davis Arboretum & Public Garden CC BY-SA 2.0)

UC Davis resists pro-Israel faculty’s calls to condemn ‘extremist’ statement 

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Faced with legal questions surrounding a staunchly pro-Palestinian statement endorsed by a cross-section of academic departments in May, UC Davis is dismissing demands to remove or condemn it.

Last week 58 pro-Israel faculty members at the university made public what had been an internal back-and-forth with administrators since late May. The group, known as Davis Faculty for Israel, released a July 19 letter sent to a university lawyer outlining concerns over what DFI’s chair called “extremist anti-Israel propaganda” published on a university website.

The controversy began on May 27, when the six-paragraph statement appeared on the Asian American Studies department page in the wake of intense violence in Gaza and Israel.

Titled “UCD Faculty Statement of Solidarity with Palestinians,” it sides squarely with the Palestinian cause, painting Israel as a deeply malevolent force in the region with reverberations in the U.S. It tells of “suffering inflicted on Palestinians” by Israeli airstrikes without mentioning Hamas-fired rockets; condemns “marauding Jewish extremists” who were filmed “lynching and beating Palestinians” without mentioning violence directed at Jews; refers to Human Rights Watch calling Israel an “apartheid state”; and mourns billions spent on aid for Israel that could and should be directed toward “public education” and “building safer communities” in the United States.

The statement came as other institutions in the Bay Area were dealing with angst from Jewish and pro-Israel constituents over statements made during and after the violence. At the University of San Francisco, a graduate student filed a complaint when a School of Education email promoted a “Nakba Day” protest; earlier the user of a university social media account shared an Instagram post criticizing “coexistence” in Israel and supporting “violent resistance,” prompting an apology from the university president. Lori Roniger, the Jewish mom of a fifth-grader at the San Francisco Spanish immersion school Buena Vista Horace Mann, complained of anti-Israel bias after receiving a message from the principal saying he was “heartsick about the horrific state of violence directed against Palestinian children and families.”

And yet the UC Davis statement went further, its opponents say, because it bore endorsements not only from individual faculty members or administrators speaking for themselves, but purported to speak for nine academic departments and programs, including American Studies; Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; and the departments of French and Italian.

“I have been following a lot of these issues across the country,” said Ethan Katz, an associate professor of Jewish and European history at UC Berkeley, who himself organized a written response to statements from Berkeley colleagues he said bore inaccurate and vilifying information about Israel recently. “It is very unusual for entire departments to be signing statements,” he said.

“It raises a host of questions,” Katz added: “Are all affiliate faculty even aware of the statement (almost surely not)? What does the department plan to say to students in that department who are deeply offended by certain parts of the statement? Does it worry at all that the perspectives of Jews and Jewish Israelis are entirely absent?”

It raises legal questions, too, according to the group of pro-Israel faculty, whose members range across departments and fields from linguistics to political science to veterinary medicine. They argue the university is in violation of state regulations against its name being used (without permission) to endorse a political position. In their view, this constitutes a misdemeanor under the California Education Code.

“We fully support the right of any individual to express their viewpoints, even if those views are vile, even if they are based on ignorance, and even if they are motivated by hate,” wrote mathematics professor Joel Hass, Davis Faculty for Israel chair, in an email to J. “But it is another thing altogether for UC employees to use university resources and official university websites to give the impression that their views are those of the University of California.”

UC Davis did take one concrete step in response to the pro-Israel faculty members’ complaints. A disclaimer has been added to the controversial statement on the Asian American Studies Department website, reading: “The statements below are part of our educational mission and reflect the views of the faculty in the department and not official University policy.”

DFI criticized the disclaimer, saying it provides “a protective cover” for departments to publish “personal views” and may even encourage more in the future. The faculty members are asking that the entire statement be removed.

A spokesperson for the university told J. in an email Wednesday that Davis “is committed to ensuring that all persons may exercise their constitutionally protected rights of free expression, speech, assembly and worship, even in instances in which the positions expressed may be viewed by some as controversial and unpopular.”

The spokesperson, Melissa Lutz Blouin, wrote that UC Davis had “consulted with University lawyers and learned that, provided that these statements do not engage in electioneering, including advocating for or against political candidates or ballot measures, these statements do not violate the law.”

She added that campus leadership is “consulting with campus stakeholders about whether there needs to be more regulation” in the area of “who may speak for a department” and “what may be posted on academic websites.”

The office of University of California president Michael Drake, expressing support for free speech and inclusion at Davis, did not address DFI’s legal complaint directly in a response to questions from J.

“University of California President Michael V. Drake, M.D., appreciates the concerns raised by the authors of the letter,” the statement read. “The University will continue to ensure that its campuses are welcoming, inclusive spaces for all students as UC continues its rich tradition of free speech and diversity of thought.”

To help orchestrate its advocacy efforts, DFI is collaborating with the pro-Israel nonprofit the Academic Engagement Network, a 6-year-old, D.C.-based organization that builds networks among faculty on college campuses to mount campaigns against practices perceived to be biased against the Jewish state.

AEN executive director Miriam Elman said the disclaimer is “like a Band-Aid.” Her organization, she told J., would like to see the university condemn the controversial statement in a statement of its own. “To be a moral compass and to defend the rights of all students, including Jewish students, to be respected and welcomed,” she added.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.