Is an attack on Israel an attack on individual Jewish identity?

A report by a University of California advisory council threatens to limit free speech on its campuses by determining that dissent of Israel can amount to an attack on one’s personal identification with the state. 

By Tom Pessah

In February of this year three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were jailed after they performed a song in a Moscow cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out.” The performance was condemned by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, who felt he was “under attack by persecutors” and called the song “blasphemy.” Charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility,” the women face up to seven years in prison if convicted. The case is being followed closely to determine whether in today’s Russia, offending religious feelings could merit serious restrictions on the freedom of speech.

Free speech is also facing a crucial test on American campuses. Last month, a University of California advisory council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion published a report on “Jewish student campus climate.” Requested by UC President Mark Yudof, the report calls for the dietary needs of Jews on campus to be adequately met. It also recognizes the need to accommodate students who wish to observe Jewish holidays.

Just as important are the distinctions that the report draws between Jewish identity and support of Israel’s current policies. The authors rightly point out that “the Jewish communities on the [UC] campuses are very diverse, making generalizations difficult.”  They state that “this is especially true when it comes to the issue of Israel.” They therefore describe “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” as “anti-semitism.”

However, the authors also emphasize that “for many Jewish students, their Jewish cultural and religious identity cannot be separated from their identity with Israel,” and that “pro-Zionist students see an attack on the State of Israel as an attack on the individual and personal identity.” The report makes no effort to discuss the validity of these “attacks.” Instead, it calls for “policies that give campus administrators authority to prohibit such activities on campus,” as well as “education” to address “the root causes of harassment.”

Since one of the authors of the report is a member of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization which opposes even criticism of Netanyahu, these recommendations could lead to unprecedented restrictions on students’ free speech.

Some examples that the report offers, such as “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy,“ are indeed not simply offensive, but demonstrably false. But it also very rare to hear such accusations on U.S. campuses. The report focuses on more common claims, like the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Jewish-only settlements with separate infrastructure, a separate legal status and separate voting rights, built on Palestinian land. This term has been used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a team of South African legal experts.

Mock checkpoints “in which Israeli soldiers are portrayed as engaging in indiscriminate acts of violence and degradation of Palestinians” are, in fact describing a harsh everyday reality for many Palestinians. “Ethnic cleansing” is not simply a slur, as the authors imply, but a description of the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from their land, both in 1948 and today.  These are all crimes, but the report would limit discussion of them by privileging the feelings of students attached to Israeli policies over the experiences of their Palestinian victims – as well as those of Israelis and internationals who hope to end these policies.

There is a real threat of criminalizing dissent on UC campuses. In 2011, eleven students at UC Irvine were convicted of misdemeanors after they had non-violently protested a speech by the Israeli ambassador on their campus. Some of the students had lost family members in the attack on Gaza in 2009, when the current ambassador served as the IDF’s media relations officer.

As some have noted, no Muslim students are requesting limitations on free speech about the Islamic Republic of Iran or about Saudi Arabia, despite the religious and national affiliation that some students feel with those countries. A new petition points out that claims of a hostile environment for Jewish students contradict all the available quantitative evidence. Restricting discussion of state policy in order to protect religious identity is wrong – both in Russia and in the U.S. As the petition emphasizes, it is essential to maintain free speech and debate about Israel on campus.

Tom Pessah is an Israeli graduate sociology student at the University of California, Berkeley