After years of escalating conflict between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists at the University of California—including provocative “Israel Apartheid Week” demonstrations, BDS campaigns, and credible claims of anti-Semitic harassment by Jewish students—the nation’s pre-eminent public university is “proposing to include ‘anti-Zionism’ as a form of discrimination that is unacceptable on campus,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The arguments for the proposal are straightforward: That many of UC’s Jewish students, from Irvine to Berkeley, are legitimately distressed by the increasingly aggressive tactics of anti-Israel activists; that the University should naturally condemn anti-Semitism just as it condemns other forms of hatred and prejudice; and that—seeing as pro-Palestinian activists have collapsed the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism by incorporating anti-Semitic tropes into their appeals—it’s not so much of a stretch to declare that opposition to the existence of a Jewish state is beyond the pale as well.
But while it’s clearly backed by noble intentions, the current proposal goes too far. “Anti-Zionism” is a complicated position with a long history that is currently most associated with anti-Semites seeking Israel’s destruction, but that also has been alternately embraced in turn by secular Jewish intellectuals and ultra-Orthodox Haredi. It is not necessarily congruent with anti-Semitism, even if campus activists are arguing in ways that makes it hard to tell them apart. The meaning of (anti) Zionism is a legitimate area for debate and contestation, and for a university administration to intervene with this kind of blunt proclamation harms its standing as a vehicle for free scholarly inquiry.
More broadly, defining anti-Zionism as “discrimination” is probably a bad bet for Israel’s lonely defenders in the Ivory Tower. It’s easy to see why the Jewish community has adopted this vocabulary: Not only is genuine anti-Jewish harassment increasing, but campus left-wing activists have shown that “safe space”-style arguments can be extremely effective; indeed, they sometimes seem like the only ones that can get a hearing on the modern campus. But Jewish students are likely to be disappointed if they think that casting their opponents’ arguments as discrimination is a winning strategy in the long run. Many of the students and faculty peddling militant anti-Israelism believe that creating an “unsafe space” is necessary to disabuse Zionists of their support for the Jewish state. The campus Left perceives Jews as higher up on the privilege hierarchy than other minority groups, and therefore does not and will not feel bound by the same rules of P.C., offensiveness, and civility it has set on other contentious issues.
None of this is to say that the UC community doesn’t need to be more vigilant about confronting brazen anti-Semitism, or denouncing the anti-Semitic tropes that make their way into “anti-Israel” arguments. But when it comes to the tortured nexus between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, those of us who support Israel would probably do best to assume, where possible, that our opponents are arguing in good faith. After all, the case for Zionism is principled and compelling. Making that case is a difficult and involved project, but it will persuade more people than simple appeals to discrimination and offense.