Will University of California’s New Anti-Semitism Policy Target Hate Speech or Criticism of Israel?

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Middle East in Focus Host Estee Chandler says the conflation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is meant to shut down debate

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Students, activists, professors, and a committee of the Board of Regents that’s the governing body of the University of California gathered in a forum on Monday to come up with a better tolerance policy after a version of it was rejected by Jewish organizations, saying that it doesn’t go far enough to address anti-semitism on their campuses. Jewish organizations want a more precise definition, and the University of California president Janet Napolitano, who was the former United States secretary of homeland security until 2013 under President Obama thinks the university should adopt the controversial State Department definition of anti-semitism.

Now joining me to address all of this from Los Angeles is Estee Chandler. She is an organizer for Jewish Voices for Peace. Also a producer and co-host of Middle East in Focus on KPFK. Thank you for joining us, Estee.

ESTEE CHANDLER: Thank you for inviting me.

PERIES: So let’s get right down to it. Why did a new policy become necessary on campus?

CHANDLER: I think that many pro-Israel organizations have been pushing the UCs to clamp down on speech in regards to challenging Israel’s policies and actions, and as has been widely reported in the news there is over $100 million been raised to combat the BDS movement. That’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Which is a civil society called by the Palestinian civil society to civil societies around the world to engage in targeted boycotts, calls to divest their pension plans, and to call upon their governments to sanction Israel until they meet their obligations under international law and humanitarian law vis-a-vis their treatment of the Palestinian people.

PERIES: Some, of course, on campus argue that the proposed new definition, this is a definition that the State Department uses, and it is on their website, amounts to censorship. What are your thoughts on that?

CHANDLER: Sure. The State Department definition, which was instituted in the EU and then ultimately taken away because it’s so problematic, conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bias. It includes what have been come to known as the three Ds, the demonization of Israel, the delegitimization of Israel, and treating Israel with a double standard. And they would like those things to be seen as anti-semitic. But clearly that’s a conflation. Israel is a state, not a person. So challenging policies of a state are not the same as bias against a person or anti-semitism, which is hatred or bias against a Jewish person or Jewish people.

So they would like to say that if you criticize this nation-state of Israel that that’s anti-semitic. And of course that’s preposterous. But if you were able to institute a definition like that, of course, you wouldn’t be able to have any discussion about the policies of the state of Israel or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Or it would even restrict speech about Palestinian human rights.

PERIES: Now, some of the Jewish students say that when there is criticism launched against the state of Israel, often it slips into anti-semitism in the sense that individual Jews get criticized in the process. What do you make of that?

CHANDLER: Well, I think from what we see on college campuses, and I’ve spent a lot of time on them in the past five years since I started doing this work, is that there are Jewish students who feel a great affinity for Israel or are supporters of Israel’s policy who do feel hurt. Their feelings feel hurt, they feel like criticism of Israel, whether it’s discussion of the number of children that were killed in the assault on Gaza last year or other policies, hurts them personally.

But again, I think that is because unfortunately they have been taught or they have assumed a conflation between Israel and Judaism, and they see Israel as part of their Judaism, when that’s possibly on purpose by Israel’s supporters and the state of Israel, to claim themselves as the Jewish state. The Israeli prime minister often claims to speak for all Jewish people. I can tell you as a proud Jewish American whose family is Israeli, my father is Israeli and that whole side of my family lives there, that they are not one and the same. Not all Jews have the same opinion about Israel or hold it as part of their Jewish religion. And they don’t have the same feelings about Zionism. So I think that we have to separate what is really the hurt feelings, or discomfort, brought to some Jewish students or Jewish educators or administrators on campus in discussing the policies and actions of the state of Israel with actual anti-semitism, which is discrimination or hatred of Jewish people.

PERIES: Now, could these two things, which is criticism of Israel and anti-semitism, not simply be separated in terms of, in the policy, to deal with the two different kinds of issues that the university is now facing?

CHANDLER: They should be separated. They absolutely–they are two separate things. If a Jewish person happens to identify with the state of Israel then I could see how their feelings would be hurt when the policies and actions of Israel are criticized. But it’s not the same as fomenting hatred against a Jewish people. The criticisms of Israel are about their state policy and their actions, not against the people, the religion, or the ethnic makeup of the people within it. Twenty percent of citizens of Israel are actually Palestinian, and most of them are Christian or Muslim.

So the conflation is really, I think, a cynical attempt to shut down conversation about Israel. It seems evident from the time I spend doing this that many, many Americans who get their news through the American mainstream media are very confused about Israel and the policies, and even what the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are. They’re not aware of the fact that when Israel was founded, approximately 750,000 people, indigenous Palestinians, Christians, and Muslims, were driven out of the land. And it’s their yearning to come back home to their homeland that is in fact at the basis of the conflict, as well as the way that Palestinians don’t have equal rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t share equal rights. Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem have been living under occupation since 1967, and Palestinians living in the diaspora around the world don’t have the right to freely travel there and go home and see their relatives that might live in Israel and the occupied territories.

PERIES: Now, Estee, isn’t the best policy of tolerance to encourage debate, discussion, educate, promote a dialog between those who might be resisting on both sides of this debate? I think a policy that constrains that kind of a discussion through punitive action might be counterproductive to that. Your thoughts?

CHANDLER: We agree completely on that point, that if people are unhappy with speech, the antidote is more speech. That there should be more discussion about these things. And I might add that it’s troubling to me as a Jewish American that within the Jewish community there has been a policy of not having any discussion about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. In fact, BDS has become like a bad word in the Jewish community, and I think that’s bad for the community. I think that it should be spoken about. Nobody’s going to dictate the position that somebody should take, but I do agree with you completely that more speech, more discussion, more dialog, more understanding about what are the roots of the conflict and can only bring for a better future for all people in that land.

PERIES: All right. Estee, I thank you so much for joining us today and addressing this very important issue with us.

CHANDLER: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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