Nearly 50 years ago, students at the University of California fought to win the right to free speech on their campuses. It is deplorable that today, pro-Palestinian students must find themselves fighting once again for their basic rights.
As the Ad Hoc Steering Committee for the National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference, we write to express our solidarity with organizers and academics at California public universities advocating for Palestinian rights, and decry the troubling pattern of institutional intimidation and silencing of Palestine solidarity work taken by the University of California Office of the President, the California State Assembly, and non-university pressure groups. This includes a disputed UC “campus climate report” and State Assembly bill that both openly conflate Palestinian solidarity with hate speech, and ongoing Federal investigations at several UC campuses based on similar allegations. While proponents of these efforts present them as attempts to combat anti-Semitism, they fail to provide evidence supporting their claims, and ignore the long history of anti-racist work undertaken by the very groups they target. These efforts instead represent an attack on the Palestine solidarity movement and an attempt to slow the growing campaign to divest California universities from corporations that enable and profit from Israel’s abuses of Palestinian human rights.
These developments are particularly disturbing because the proposals offered specifically target Palestine solidarity activists, threatening to subject them to special monitoring and censorship. Prescribing selective restrictions on political speech in this manner could create a de-facto second class of students who are systematically denied their first amendment rights on campus.
In light of these troubling developments, we:
1. Reiterate our long-standing position against anti-Semitism along with all forms of bigotry. We believe that Universities have an ethical and legal obligation to protect all students from harassment and intimidation based on their race, nationality, or religion. We highlight our prior public statements, history of anti-racist work, and ongoing collaboration with diverse allies to confirm our clear anti-racist organizing principles. Accordingly, we find this attempt to label all campus support for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic to be false, misleading and dangerous, both for the fight against anti-Semitism and the fight for human rights for all.
2. Call on the university to heed student calls to officially table the controversial “campus climate report” that has been criticized by academics and civil rights groups alike. We also ask that balanced and credible task forces to be given the responsibility of reviewing and studying these issues, rather than stacked with individuals with a demonstrated history of bias.
3. Call on the UC Administration to condemn HR 35, not only for flouting the First Amendment, but for suggesting a politicized definition of Anti-Semitism that is designed to curb criticism of Israel rather than isolate real instances of bigotry and discrimination. The UC should also clarify its prior support for the bill and involvement in its writing and passage.
4. Call on the University of California Administration to cease misrepresenting and stifling advocacy for Palestinian rights, and call for clear and consistent policies that support the academic freedom and free speech rights of all members of the UC/CSU community.
5. Call for greater transparency from the University of California Administration regarding its institutional links and collaboration with outside pressure groups, especially those with histories of attacking students in support of Palestinian rights.
We thank the numerous civil rights groups that have written and advocated for the rights of students and faculty at the University of California. Below we include specific explanations and criticism of each major aspect of censorship that SJPs face at the university.
Additional Background Information:
On July 9, the University of California released a document titled ”University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact-Finding Team Report & Recommendations”. The report conflates Palestinian solidarity organizing with anti-Semitism, and makes several recommendations for curtailing campus speech deemed too critical of Israel. Civil rights groups have widely condemned the report for its unsound methodology and potentially unconstitutional recommendations, and 2,500 people signed a UC student-led petition asking for it to be tabled. Additionally, Jewish SJP organizers at multiple UC campuses have reported that they were not informed of the meetings that led to the creation of the document, or that their testimonies were omitted from its findings.
The report was co-authored by Rick Barton, National Education Chair of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that has targeted SJP in the past. In 2010 the organization attacked SJPs as a anti-Israel hate group, and wrote a letter to the UC Berkeley Admin, calling Berkeley SJP’s divestment bill anti-Semitic. The ADL has also been discredited as an organization that serves the needs of all, as evidenced by their troubling history of spying on Arab and Muslim community groups, targeting critics of Israeli policies, and support of several attempts to thwart the construction of Muslim community spaces. Therefore the ADL’s involvement in campus climate matters is wholly inappropriate.
In August of 2012, the California State Assembly passed House Resolution 35. The non-binding bill labels campus events and divestment campaigns that criticize Israel as a racist or Apartheid state as “anti-Semitic” and puts them in the same category as vandalism and violent anti-Jewish hate crimes. HR 35 praises the flawed UC campus climate report on Jewish students, and utilizes a discredited definition of anti-Semitism frequently promoted by hardline pro-Israel groups. The bill also makes the unchecked and inflammatory implication that student groups critical of Israeli policy support terrorism. Finally it calls on California’s public universities to redouble efforts to silence pro-Palestinian speech under the guise of combating anti-Semitism. Several human rights groups have criticized HR 35 as a threat to free speech, and the University of California Student Association has passed a resolution condemning the bill, and recognizing the first amendment rights of Palestinian solidarity groups.
In October 2012, the Department of Education civil rights office announced that it was launching an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley. The investigation was prompted by a Title VI complaint filed by Jessica Felber, a co-plaintiff in a failed lawsuit against the university based on similar accusations. The Felber complaint claims campus events like the mock checkpoints associated with Israel Apartheid Week are anti-Jewish, and makes inflammatory statements associating SJP and MSA groups with terrorism. There are also ongoing DoE investigations into UC Santa Cruz and Irvine, based on Title VI complaints that similarly present Palestinian activism and academic speech critical of Israel as a threat to Jewish students. The ACLU of Northern California recently notedthat these long-term investigations into student and faculty First Amendment activity have a potential chilling effect on student speech.