Criticizing Israel Is Not Anti-Semitism

Many black, Arab, gay and other students who experience daily acts of racist violence and blatant discrimination will be aghast at Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s opening declaration in a recent Viewpoints article (“Jewish students need more protection on California campuses,” April 10) that “Jewish students are the single most vulnerable minority” at the state’s universities.

As a Jewish alumna of UC Berkeley, I am alarmed at this attempt to elevate Jewish suffering over the experiences of other victims. To defeat one form of racism, we have to oppose them all.

As an attorney for Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, I helped organize efforts to renounce the Campus Climate Report and House Resolution 35, which Rossman-Benjamin cites, because both measures mischaracterized the campus climate for Jewish students, falsely branded advocacy for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic and made patently unconstitutional recommendations to restrict campus speech.

I applaud the Department of Education’s dismissals of complaints against three UCs alleging that advocacy for Palestinian rights creates a hostile environment for Jewish students. Department civil rights officers conducted lengthy investigations and soundly rejected the theory that criticism of Israeli policy is anti-Semitic. The department got it right in saying that Palestinian rights advocacy is protected speech, and that “robust and discordant expressions” are to be expected on college campuses.

Jewish students do not need new or extra protections beyond the civil rights laws that safeguard every other ethnic and religious minority. What upsets Benjamin is that authorities have rightfully refused to distort those laws to censor criticism of the Israeli government. A newly proposed state Senate resolution, SCR 35, is again raising eyebrows for its widely rebuked definition that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Rather than heed Rossman-Benjamin’s call to punish and restrict student speech favoring Palestinian rights, legislators should take note of the warning sounded in another Viewpoints article that appeared the same day: (“Violate student free speech rights, prepare to be sued.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has sued multiple California public schools that “learned about the First Amendment the hard way.”

Legislators, university administrators, students and civil rights advocates should all remain vigilant stewards of our public campuses where advocacy for all minority rights – including Palestinian rights – is protected and even welcomed.

This was first published in the Sacramento Bee on 4-17-15.


About the Author

Liz-head-shot-2-150x150Liz Jackson is a founding Staff Attorney for Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Her work includes representing students, professors and activists on free speech and academic freedom issues, documenting the chilling effect of repression campaigns, and educating activists on their rights.