Last week, a group of 700 University of California alumni signed a petition urging UC President Janet Napolitano and the UC regents to adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. The petition was initially drafted by the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization seeking to combat anti-Semitism at higher education institutions, this past March in response to the increasing number of anti-Semitic activities happening across the UC campuses. Protecting students’ well-being and discouraging discrimination is imperative to providing a safe environment for growth and education. However, it is just as important to ensure that anti-discriminatory practices are applied evenly, extending their protections to students of all religions.
The petition came about after several distressing incidents wherein anti-Semitic slurs cropped up across five UC campuses. Most notably: the vandalism of the Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis, Nazi slurs being graffitied in the bathrooms at UC Berkeley, threats to shut down a Hillel event at UC Santa Cruz, UCLA’s student government initially rejecting a student from a board position because she is Jewish and the dissemination of flyers accusing Jews as being responsible for 9/11. However, the threatening phone calls and emails identifying the Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley with terrorist organizations are just as distressing. Additionally, redefining anti-Semitism in this newly proposed form is problematic because it could easily classify legitimate protests against Israel’s actions as being anti-Semitic.
The current definition of anti-Semitism would be expanded to include acts that demonize, employ double standards against or delegitimize Israel. Although these changes in the definition will hopefully curb vitriolic insults toward students at UC campuses, it is important that such provisions are extended to all religious groups, just as they currently extend to all ethnic and cultural groups. Expanding the definition of anti-Semitism alone, without expanding the definition of every anti-religious word, neglects the rights of other students. No individual should feel unsafe on campus because of personal affiliations and beliefs.
One of the terms in the new definition is accusing Israel as the cause for political and cross-religious tensions. Inhibiting individuals from criticizing Israel’s actions is censorship. As long as the speech does not present “a clear and present danger,” students should be able to express their First Amendment-protected opinions. While some students will be offended by these arguments, it does not give anyone the right to silence the voices of others. In addition, the AMCHA letter stated that the divestment from Israel resolutions and protests was the source of hate speech and harassment experienced by Jewish students across university campuses. Being able to criticize Israel and the Israeli government’s actions is important to keep debates and discussion alive. However, the graffiti and the slurs seen around UC campuses as of late are pure vitriol, and they discredit a potentially valid argument. The focus is instead redirected to the malice being inflicted on students who are not responsible for what’s happening thousands of miles away. These actions are inexcusable, but attempting to correct one offense with another is not the way to keep students safe or prevent future harms. Technically speaking, whatever anyone says can cause offense to someone, but this does not mean that the best course of action is silence and avoiding conflict altogether.
Discriminatory violence, mental and physical, and its potentially catastrophic effects is something everyone should be aware of. Limiting what is defined as hate speech to only specific groups, however, will inevitably exacerbate discriminatory practices. Thus, education and definitions about prejudice must be as inclusive as the campus culture that these types of educational programs are intended to propagate. Furthermore, higher education institutions are meant to teach people how to think critically not to remain passive out of fear of possibly offending others.