Social justice advocates turned out in droves before the University of California Board of Regents on Wed., Mar. 23, the majority there to debate dangers and merits of anti-Zionist expression on campus.
Almost 90 individuals signed up to speak during last Wednesday’s public comment period, according to Secretary and Chief of Staff Anne Shaw. Under a third of those speakers were called to the podium, with speaking time limited to one minute per person or two-and-a-half minutes for groups that chose to pool their time.
At issue was a statement by the board’s working group on “principles against intolerance,” drafted in response to complaints of increased anti-Semitic offenses within the UC, from vandalism of Jewish students’ property to exclusion from social and political spheres on campus.
In its entirety, the document — adopted by a unanimous vote of the Regents — does little more than restate the university’s stance on all discrimination, broadly decrying acts of intolerance toward any individual or group.
However, many complainants have accused anti-Zionist movements on their campuses of acting as catalysts for the discrimination they’ve faced. Zionism is conventionally understood as a nationalist movement toward the permanent establishment of Israel as the official Jewish nation, a phenomenon to be assessed on political — not ethnic or religious — grounds.
“The State Department’s definition identifies demonizing Israel, [applying] a double standard to Israel, and delegitimizing Israel as all being manifestations of anti-Semitism,” California State Assemblymember Travis Allen said. In January, Allen introduced a bill to prohibit public contracts with firms engaged in discriminatory boycott of any business persons or entities.
But since Israel’s claim to its territory within the Middle Eastern region of Palestine rests largely on 19th- and 20th-century notions of the area as the Jewish ancestral “homeland,” the separation between anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic expression gets somewhat tricky, especially because Palestinians have largely rejected those notions.
Palestinian natives and their descendants — the latter category including many university students across the globe — often see the state of Israel as an imperial occupation, prompting political opposition with reach to UC campuses halfway across the world.
“Do you mean to say that there is no place in the UC for the stories of graduate students like myself, whose relatives were among the over 750,000 Palestinians forcibly expelled from their homes in 1948?” UCLA graduate student Omar Zalza said.
The various Jewish groups present stood divided on the matter. “The university is a place where contested views can be articulated and understood, where we stand a chance of gaining informed understanding of conflicts at the center of public debate,” Professor Judith Butler of UC Berkeley’s Department of Comparative Literature said. Butler also serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice For Peace.
Careful to avoid a blanket ban on all anti-Zionist expression, the Regents’ statement highlights a distinction at the heart of the debate by acknowledging that, “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.” The assertion positions anti-Zionism as something of a gateway drug to religious intolerance in the instances of prejudice described.
Though clear in its denouncement of anti-Semitic expressions against Zionism, this language nonetheless affirms the core argument of the document’s opponents, who claim supporters and critics of Zionism are protected by the fundamental right to free speech. But should political discourse veer toward more culturally-based prejudice, the board recommends university leaders have efficient processes in place at the highest levels of jurisdiction possible.
“The principles are aspirational, rather than prohibitory, and they seek to define the type of environment the university strives to establish and support of its mission,” Charles Robinson, who serves as general counsel to the UC Office of the President, said. “They do not impose a ban on any speech or behavior, but rather call on administrators to contest and challenge intolerant or discriminatory conduct and speech.”
Top billing given to Zionist and anti-Zionist speakers during Wednesday’s morning session did not escape the notice of other causes vying for redress at a systemwide level. Shaw closed the public comment period after little more than 20 speakers — several of whom had pooled their time with others — but that didn’t silence UC Berkeley senior Blake Simons, deputy communications director for the Afrikan Black Coalition.
“Do our voices matter at this university system?” he said from the audience, once Board Chair Monica Lozano had turned command over to Napolitano. “You invest in prisons, but you won’t let us speak. What is going on?”
His statements, which prompted a brief chant of the mantra “Black lives matter” among audience members, targeted the UC’s $425 million investment in Wells Fargo. Simons argued the bank’s $1.2 billion in private prison holdings — “blood money,” as he put it — contribute indirectly to continued human rights abuses within the walls of those facilities.
This out-of-turn exchange with the Regents — namely Lozano, who made repeated efforts to establish order — did not prevent Simons from speaking Thursday morning, when he was called first to the microphone. The ABC representative presented 8,000 signatures in support of UC prison divestment and commended the board’s chief financial officer, Nathan Brostrom, for agreeing to examine university holdings in Wells Fargo.
“Use your moral power not just to sever ties with a business partner or remove hundreds of millions of dollars from a ruthless bank, but to send a message,” one UCLA alumna said. “A message not just to Wells Fargo, but to the industry of private prisons.”