Hate speech on campus against whom Misrepresenting campuses as anti-Semitic is a disservice

The state’s House Resolution No. 35 lauds the U.C. Jewish Student Campus Climate Report on which it is based, incorporates the report’s broad allegations of anti-Semitism on California college campuses “cloaked” as criticism of Israel, and calls for deterrent action that threatens free-speech rights.

Reaction to the report was swift. Among the first to formally challenge it were U.C. Jewish students and faculty. Among other things, they pointed to a flawed methodology that focused exclusively on the experiences of Israel-aligned students, the gross misrepresentation of student organizing on behalf of Palestinian rights as inherently anti-Semitic, and the extrapolation of rare and isolated incidents of anti-Semitic expression — disavowed and confronted by student organizers themselves — into commonplace features of campus life.

Their challenge was quickly joined by major First Amendment legal advocacy groups, and by Muslim and Arab community members, who the report implicitly blames for the anti-Semitic activity described. In response, U.C. President Mark Yudof has tabled the report’s policy recommendations for further review.

All this happened before the rushed-through passage of HR 35. Indeed, the lead author, Assemblymember Linda Halderman, had submitted a draft of the resolution to university officials for their support, which was withheld because they “had major concerns with the language regarding the First Amendment rights of students.”

Halderman did not advise her colleagues about this when the resolution came up for a vote in the last minutes of the final day of the Assembly session. Confronted again by protests from a broad segment of the community after the resolution was passed, some of the legislators clarified that their intent was to condemn anti-Semitism rather than to indict speech critical of Israel. Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal promised to introduce a bill affirming free-speech rights on campus.

In her Sept. 7 op-ed on HR 35, Jewish Community Federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz makes no mention of these concerns. Instead, she casts the hastily passed HR 35 as itself

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proving the truth of the unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism it echoes. She then goes further and spins those allegations into a veritable reign of terror against Jewish students: university campuses are roiling with anti-Semitic fervor and “overrun with anti-Semitic rhetoric” to such an extent that our “public education is in peril.” This affects her personally: “My heart was breaking,” she tells us.

Gorovitz’s lamentations will come as a surprise even to the authors of the report, who observed that:

• “Jewish students have thriving, open communities and occupy a prominent place” on campus

• “no [Jewish] students indicated feeling physically unsafe on UC campuses”

• “It would be a disservice to in any way describe the UC campus environment as one which does not offer Jewish students the opportunity to explore and express their Jewish identity in myriad ways.”

On Sept. 15 the University of California Student Association, which represents hundreds of thousands of students at all 10 U.C. campuses, passed a resolution condemning recent attempts to censure boycott and divestment efforts by Palestinian human rights activists on campus, and demanding that the U.C. stop profiting from Israel’s human rights violations.  The motion, which was a clear response to HR 35, passed without opposition by a vote of 12 to 0, with 2 abstentions.

Earlier this year, the David Project, an organization dedicated to advocacy for Israel in higher education, advised pro-Israel activists to refrain from bringing legal claims of anti-Semitism/anti-Israel activity on university campuses, both because not a single one has succeeded and because casting the issue in these terms “does not jive with the lived experience of many Jewish students…” Like the U.C. fact-finding group, the David Project recognized: “Campus is largely not a hostile environment for Jewish students. There has probably never been a richer array of ways for students to engage in meaningful Jewish activities today than there has ever been, including at schools where anti-Israelism is widespread.” (“A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy on America’s Universities and Colleges,” 2012)

It is true that the Bay Area is grappling with racist rhetoric, but anti-Semitism is not the culprit. Rather, it is hate speech against our Muslim and Arab communities, which came to shocking public visibility in Pam Geller’s pro-Israel “savage” ads on Muni buses. To its credit, the JCF has joined with other organizations in condemning such speech and supporting efforts to heal the harm that has been inflicted. It is most unfortunate that in the midst of this genuine crisis, Gorovitz, as CEO, has chosen to whip up hysteria in the Jewish community by misrepresenting our campuses as hotbeds of anti-Semitic activity.

Carol Sanders is a retired legal services attorney and advocate for low-income elderly clients.