Judith Butler’s Statement on UC Regents Principles Against Intolerance

Most of the text below was read at the University of California Regents Public Comment session March 23 in San Francisco.  Following public comment, the regents amended the original text of the “Principles Against Intolerance” to which this statement refers. The revised policy was adopted without further debate today by the full board.  The new preamble text reads, “Anti-Semitism, Anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California” (the underlined phrase is the modification). The new language was suggested by the Academic Senate Universitywide Committee on Academic Freedom (UCAF); its recommendation to modify “other forms of discrimination” to “other forms of unlawful discrimination” seems not to have been taken up.

I agree with Professor Butler that the amended language does not resolve the academic freedom problems associated with the statement.  Moreover, I also think that John Wilson’s comment to a previous post on this blog makes a valid point about blanket condemnations of intolerance that may bracket bigoted, but protected, speech with discriminatory behavior.  Just to be certain, I should also stress once more that the AAUP takes no position on Zionism, anti-Zionism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Our concern is to defend the free exchange of ideas among scholars of all points of view. 

Professor Butler’s remarks were originally posted on the Remaking the University blog. 

Statement by Judith Butler, Maxine Elliott Professor of Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley

We would like to congratulate the Regents for trying to develop principles that can guide us as we identify and oppose intolerance and bigotry on the UC campuses.  Any document that seeks to elucidate those principles, however, should be as comprehensive as possible, identifying and opposing all forms of discrimination.  This document goes part of the way in doing that, but by foregrounding anti-Semitism, it backgrounds other forms of discrimination, including those suffered by racial minorities and Arab and Muslim students who too often encounter prejudice on campuses.  We oppose anti-Semitism of all kinds, just as we oppose all forms of racism and discrimination.   The problem at the center of this document is that anti-Zionism is conflated with anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism names a political viewpoint that individuals have a right to express under the First Amendment and to debate according to the principles of academic freedom; indeed, the topic is at the center of many public debates on and off campus.  Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is a despicable form of discrimination, and it has no place on college campuses, and must be clearly opposed as we would oppose any and all forms of racism and discrimination.  The university is a place where contested views can be articulated and understood, and where we stand a chance of gaining an informed understanding of conflicts at the center of public debate.  If the Regents accept the language of the preamble that names anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, they agree to the censorship of particular viewpoints, and that is viewpoint discrimination; further, they undermine the role of the university as a place where free and open inquiry can take place on matters of common public concern, even when those matters are contentious.

If accepted, the language of the preamble becomes the official position of the University of California, and provides a rationale for anyone to decide that a particular criticism of the Israeli state or its policies constitutes anti-Semitism.  If this language is accepted, what would be the implications for instructors who wish to include the work of Edward Said, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, or the early reflections of Martin Buber or Hans Cohen, all of whom might be deemed anti-Zionist in contemporary terms?  Would students who seek rights for Palestine be banned from organizing on campus?  Would scholarship deemed critical of Zionism be dismissed as discriminatory writing, undermining chances of tenure and promotion and destroying hallowed principles of academic freedom?

[Let us remember that Zionism and anti-Zionism have been part of Jewish life for more than a century, that debates about Zionism have broken up many a Jewish dinner table and constituted a matter of ongoing dispute within the Jewish community. Jewish internationalists, communists, and those who favor binational or federated forms of government for Israel and Palestine, and many orthodox Jews have openly opposed some version of Zionism – do we no longer count that as part of Jewish history?  Even the respected Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, sponsors debates for and against Zionism. What grounds, then, do we have for censoring such debates on the UC campus?  Our mission at the university is to consider all points of view and make informed decisions and grounded judgments on the basis of what we hear and read. We do not censor viewpoints from the start. That leaves us ignorant and ill-equipped to interpret our complex world.   Rather than produce an instrument for censorship and limit the activities of students, staff, and faculty, ban meetings and debates, and demean scholarship that represents a range of views about Palestine and Israel, we should instead be safeguarding this most important task of the university as one of the few places where conflictual issues such as these can be articulated, debated, and understood over time.  Let us not betray this most important public task of the university.]

We respectfully submit that the Regents accept our proposal to amend the document before you, deleting those sentences referring to anti-Zionism and replacing the first reference with the following formulation: “Anti-Semitism, all forms of racism, and other forms of unlawful discrimination have no place at the University of California.”  These strong and inclusive principles would claim wide consensus and would give us balanced and fair guidance rather than sacrificing basic rights of political expression and academic freedom.

Additional remark:

If we think that we solve the problem by distinguishing forms of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, then we are left with the question of who identifies such a position, and what are their operative definitions?  These terms are vague and overbroad and run the risk of suppressing speech and violating principles of academic freedom. We have principles that oppose anti-Semitism on the same grounds as we would oppose all forms of discrimination. There already exists University policy and state and federal law, developed over many years that provide an effective framework for resolving these issues. If we start to associate anti-Semitism with specific political positions, then perhaps we should include forms of anti-Semitism that are associated with, say, the Republican Party, Christian evangelicals, right wing Catholicism, various forms of nationalism and fundamentalism, versions of anti-capitalism as well as versions of anti-communism.  The list would be long, so why stay focused on anti-Zionism, a position that now includes a number of Jews, such as those represented by Jewish Voice for Peace, who seek to affirm principles of justice and equality over and against a state structure engaged in discrimination and dispossession. Indeed, it is probably important to note that some groups that favor Zionism, including some forms of Christian Zionism, seek to separate Jews from Christians as a way of purifying the population – a clearly anti-Semitic action.  So it is not only arbitrary to associate anti-Semitism with a political position called anti-Zionism, it misrepresents the meanings of anti-Zionism as a political set of views. And it ignores the various places where anti-Semitism actually exists.   The abuse of the allegation of anti-Semitism deprives it of its power and meaning. It ought not to be exploited for political purposes.

Finally, let us remember that in August 2013, the Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) closed three investigations against three University of California schools, at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Irvine, which falsely alleged that Palestinian rights activism created an anti-Semitic climate. The complaints underlying the investigation claimed that student protests and academic programing in support of Palestinian rights and critical of Israel “created a hostile environment for Jewish students.”  There was no evidence to support this claim, and the Department of Education rightly dismissed the charges.  As with the current proposal, there is no sound empirical evidence to support the claim that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

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