March 10, 2012: CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (CS4AF), a group of 150 scholars at twenty California institutions of higher learning, are concerned about the latest statements and actions of UC President Mark Yudof. The group believes that under the guise of promoting “civility and tolerance,” Yudof has in fact delivered a blow to the right to dissent and protest.
Our concerns are twofold: an apparent bias regarding the right of free speech and dissent on UC campuses, and a stated reliance on advice from two organizations that lack credible experience in dealing with academic freedom.
In a March 8 letter addressed to the UC community, President Yudof presented a one-sided argument about the problem of intolerance by focusing exclusively on protests against speakers who represent the Israeli government or whose presentations endorse the manner in which Israel maintains its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
In his letter, President Yudof treats characterizes the disruption of speeches at a UC Davis event titled “Israeli Soldiers Speak Out” as “hate-driven… attacks.” In so characterizing the event, he appears to have relied on a letter from the AMCHAI Intiative and made no further effort to determine the facts of the case.
At this February 27 event, which featured two members of the Israeli Defense Forces, there were two protests: an organized, peaceful protest by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and a sustained outburst by a university employee not associated with the group. The SJP protest was organized with the support of members of Jewish Voices for Peace and MECHA. According to UC Davis faculty who were present, this protest “did not disrupt the event, nor did any members of this diverse coalition interrupt the speakers.” Rather, the protesters carried out “a silent walkout” followed by “a small, peaceful discussion outside the building where they discussed the realities of life under occupation.” Yudof’s letter nevertheless characterizes all the protests as “verbal attacks.” It then compares them to hate crimes such as drawing swastikas on the doors of Jewish students, hanging nooses to intimidate African American Students, and spray-painting profanities across the entrance to the LGBT Resource Center at UC Davis.
We find this comparison appalling. Israel is a nation-state, not an ethnic or religious group, and protests against the policies of a government are entirely distinct from hate crimes. We believe that this criminalization of protest does a disservice to the entire UC community.
To persuade us that he seeks to foster toleration for everyone, the President might have condemned the documented instances of harassment and intimidation practiced by Stand With Us, including attacking bystanders with pepper spray and brandishing stun guns at UC Berkeley on February 25. He might also have condemned the monitoring of UC faculty by organizations such as Campus Watch. In one incident, a “monitor” fabricated a quotein order to depict UCLA professor Susan Slyomovics, the descendant of Auschwitz survivors, as a Holocaust denier – a podcast of the event refutes his claims. No member of the UC administration has ever responded to such outrages with calls for tolerance and respectful coexistence.
An equally disturbing element of Yudof’s letter is his announcement that his office is “working with the Museum of Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League to improve campus climate for all students and to take full advantage of our marvelous diversity.” The choice of these—and only these–particular entities amounts to taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues. By leaving out groups working on behalf of Palestinian human rights or human rights in general, but collaborating only with organizations whose mandates are devoted to supporting Israeli governmental interests and squelching criticism of Israeli policies in all public domains, including university campuses, President Yudof is in effect advocating for one party rather than promoting tolerance across the board.
Moreover, the selection of these two organizations is problematic regardless of whether other organizations are also to be involved. The Anti-Defamation League has led numerous campaigns to defame and harass academics and others who criticize Israeli policies. The League has been sued and lost several cases involving spying and harassment. For example, in 2011, it was ordered to pay $10 million in damages to William and Dorothy Quigley for libelously characterizing them as anti-Semites. The Museum of Tolerance, whose mandate focuses on public education about the Holocaust, has been implicated in the destruction of a Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem in order to construct a park featuring a monument to Zionism. Neither of these organizations is qualified to offer advice on academic freedom or freedom of speech at public universities, and it is our position that neither of them should be relied upon by the UC or involved in efforts to pursue the worthy goal of promoting tolerance.
The president of the University of California, the second largest university system in the United States, should speak for all his students, faculty and staff, not only for those whose political affiliations he may happen to support. According to the Jewish Journal, the President recently “met with all of the UC Hillel directors in his office in Oakland to discuss our observations regarding how Israel is faring on campus, how the Jewish community perceives the university’s actions and inactions, and, most important, how Jewish students are feeling about the situation.” As far as we know, he has made no comparable initiative to determine how Palestine is faring on campus, how the human rights community perceives the university’s actions and inactions, and, most important, how Palestinian or other concerned students, of any race, creed, or color are feeling about the situation.
It should not be necessary to explain that one can protest the actions of a government without committing a hate crime, and that reliance on partisan organizations is unlikely to “improve campus climate.” We applaud and endorse any initiative “to foster a climate of tolerance, civility and open-mindedness,” but we do not believe that criminalizing dissent can ever serve that purpose.