A history of the Principles Against Intolerance
Late last month, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents adopted a revised “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance.” The adoption of the “Principles” comes after a months-long controversy over what references to Zionism or Israel, if any, would be present in the “Principles.” In the end, the Regents approved language that condemned anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism instead of condemning anti-Zionism outright.
Pro-Palestinian groups have generally considered this result a victory, as other possible alternatives would have likely issued blanket condemnation of anti-Zionism as a political position. However, time will tell exactly what purposes the “Principles” will serve.
Prior Attempts at Suppression of Pro-Palestinian Speech
The battle over how the UC system would tackle racial discrimination and hate crimes began heating up in the Spring of 2015, as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) victories continued to mount across the nation, including at a majority of UC campuses as well as the UC Student Association.
Last March, Senator Stone introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 35. The resolution condemned anti-Semitism and referenced “events in the Middle East or elsewhere.” The resolution was supported by pro-Israel groups, most notably the AMHCA Initiative, headed by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, who has a penchant for blacklisting professors and accusing foreign students of having “ties to terrorist organizations.”
Groups in the San Francisco and Sacramento Area, such as the Sacramento chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Palestine Legal, organized demonstrations against SCR 35. The resolution passed, but with significant amendments that condemned Islamophobia and made it clear that “nothing in this resolution is intended to diminish the rights of anyone, including students, to freely engage in speech or other activities protected by the United States constitution, including that which is critical or supportive of the policies of any country.”
In the wake of a significantly revised SCR 35, pro-Israel groups found another route by which to chill pro-Palestinian speech. UC President Janet Napolitano signaled that she was interested in adopting the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism and floated the idea of adopting the definition at the Summer 2015 regents meeting, held at the UCSF Mission Bay Campus.
Once again, pro-Palestinian groups organized to oppose the adoption of these standards. Students for Justice in Palestine-West created a petition against the proposal while UAW 2865 (the UC graduate student union) issued a letter of condemnation as did Palestine Legal and Fire (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Jewish Voice for Peace issued another petition and organized demonstrations in the San Francisco Bay Area in early July. In response, UC President Janet Napolitano abruptly dropped the issue from the agenda prior to the meeting and offered instead to discuss “various forms of intolerance, including issues of anti-Semitism, and issues of free speech” at the regents meeting in September 2015.
Facing a Hostile “Working Group”
It was at the meeting in September 2015 that brought about the “Principles Against Intolerance” Working Group. At the September meeting, pro-Israel students recounted stories of how pro-Palestinian speech harmed them and lumped those experiences in with legitimate instances of anti-Semitism. Pro-Palestinian students were faced with making the more difficult, but logically sound argument, that the Palestinian community and its supporters condemn all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-black racism that had all occurred recently on UC campuses, but that bigotry and hate speech should be considered distinct from political speech.
Besides having to argue a more complex case, pro-Palestinian students also had to face institutional and personnel hurdles. At least two of the “experts” consulted by the Working Group, Kenneth Marcus and Rabbi Marvin Hier, had clear records of arguing in favor of suppressing or actually attempting to suppress pro-Palestinian speech. Furthermore, members of the Working Group themselves had records that indicated a strong pro-Israel bias. Both Norm Pattiz and John A. Perez had spoken in favor of pro-Israel students at the September meeting.
Embattled UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has taken multiple trips to Israel and spoke out against the Associated Students of UC Davis Senate after they passed a divestment resolution targeting companies tied to the Israeli occupation. Student regent Avi Oved, who was openly pro-Israel and also had monetary ties to Islamophobic individuals, was also part of the Working Group. Pro-Israel Working Group members were plentiful while there was no clear pro-Palestinian advocate.
After much debate, on March 15, the final draft of the Working Group’s “Report on the Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” was released. It leaned decisively in the direction of condemning anti-Israel speech. One line in particular from the report claimed, “Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” The statement brought an immediate and strong response from the pro-Palestinian groups that had been at the forefront over what the “Principles” would look like. The wording even drew the attention of mainstream media outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times, which suggested that the UC Regents adopt only the actual “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance,” which did not conflate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, instead of adopting the Working Group’s entire report.
In the end, after renewed pressure from pro-Palestinian students and organizations as well as free speech advocates, the UC Regents adopted the Working Group’s final report in its entirety with an important amendment. Instead of a blanket condemnation of anti-Zionism, the new wording condemned “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism”. Once again the pattern of attempts at institutional suppression on the part of pro-Israel groups was met with resistance, and the more disastrous outcomes were mitigated.
However, “constant vigilance” (in the words of Alastor Moody) is necessary. When Avi Oved visited UC Davis weeks before the “Principles” were finalized, he told students that the “Principles” would not affect speech and that only “threatening” or “violent” hate speech would be targeted. When pushed on what would constitute such speech and what enforcement might look like, Oved only reiterated that the “Principles” would not target academic speech.
Little more than a week with the “Principles” in effect, Aggies for Israel, the pro-Israel student group at UC Davis has already challenged a historical and academic display for its anti-Zionist position. The timing of such a challenge would seem to be an obvious test of whether the “Principles” can be used as a bludgeon against rising pro-Palestinian solidarity on UC campuses. Only after such challenges have been resolved will it become apparent exactly what constitutes “threatening” or “violent” displays in the eyes of UC administrations.