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The Red Herring of the Definition Debate


David Gemunder, The Jewish Press

September 2nd, 2015
 

As we all know, anti-Semitism is on the rise globally. Here in the U.S., it is our campuses and students that are experiencing the brunt of it. A recent study published by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law found that 54% of Jewish college students had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism in the past year. That is a staggering number, requiring urgent action. Having one of our largest public university systems, where some of most grievous incidents have occurred, improve its ability to recognize anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic conduct is a good place to start.

To this end, a few months ago thousands of students, faculty, rabbis, alumni and concerned citizens asked University of California President Janet Napolitano to formally adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism in order to identify all forms of anti-Semitic expression on UC campuses.

Since this request, there has been a great deal of commentary regarding both the intention of the appeal and the possible impact of its adoption by the UC Board of Regents. As the date of consideration of this issue by the Board of Regents grows near, it would be useful to address the most serious concern of its critics: the alleged impact on the Freedom of Speech.

There is little doubt of what would take place if demonstrators came to a UC campus chanting racist slogans, or supporting misogynistic or homophobic beliefs. While their right to publicly proclaim their hate likely would be protected under the Constitution, their pronouncements clearly would be recognized for the bile that they are. The rest of the campus community then could elect to ignore the demonstrators, or could use their own First Amendment rights to oppose their statements. However, there would be no debate about whether or not the demonstrators’ assertions were hateful.

This stands in marked contrast to instances of anti-Semitism on today’s colleges and universities. In America, at least, the naked expressions of prejudice from our grandparents’ time no longer are in vogue. What have taken their place, however, are shaded references to the ‘Israel Lobby,’ or assaults against Zionism and its supporters.

While spirited debates on Israeli politics are perfectly appropriate (and probably more common in Israel itself than anywhere else in the world), conflating opposition to Israel’s government with the rejection of Israel’s right to exist, or even an antipathy towards Jews, crosses the line. Attacking Jews for the actions of the Knesset makes no more sense than attacking Episcopalians for those of the British parliament - yet such episodes are increasingly common on campus. To cite just one example, we all are familiar with the plight of our brethren in Europe, who are afraid to wear kippot or Jewish stars in public. Now, unfortunately, students on campuses here in America are starting to express the same concern. That is entirely unacceptable, and must be addressed now.

This is why a definition of anti-Semitism desperately is needed - to set a standard for when legitimate political discourse descends into hate speech. Or, in Jewish terms, to determine what is Kosher, and what is not.

As the State Department definition states explicitly, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” However, denying Israel’s right to exist, holding Israel to a double standard not expected of any other democratic nation or demonizing Israel (or its supporters) most certainly is.

The issue before the Board of Regents in passing a definition of anti-Semitism is not one of suppressing Free Speech. Rather, it is one of defining perhaps the oldest form of hate, so that those on campus who are exposed to it will be able to recognize it and respond as their conscience dictates - just as they would if racial minorities, women or members of the LGBQT community were the targets.

The UC Board of Regents should adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.

{David Gemunder is an attorney who serves on the boards of several Jewish organizations throughout the country, including those focused on supporting Jewish life on campus. The viewpoints expressed herein are solely those of the author.}

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Over 50% of Jewish American college students report that they experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-2014 academic year. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has announced that campus anti-Semitism “is a serious problem which warrants further attention.” Campus anti-Semitism can include subjecting Jewish students to different treatment, harassment, violence or a hostile environment. In some cases, campus anti-Semitism is related to anti-Israel sentiment. In other cases, it is not. For most purposes, we define anti-Semitism according to the U.S. Department of State definition of anti-Semitism. .
 
 
 
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Alan Gura, Esq.
Alan Gura is a founder and partner in Gura & Possessky, PLLC. Previously, Mr. Gura served as Counsel to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Oversight; as Deputy Attorney General for the State of California; and as an attorney with Sidley & Austin.
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