Could California Ban Anti-Israel Campus Protests as 'Anti-Semitic' Hate?

A 2010 State Department document provides the U.S. government’s only official definition of anti-Semitism. It is a detailed document that adds elements of anti-Israeli bias to the traditional definition of Jew hatred.

This definition — developed to help the State Department monitor anti-Semitic trends in foreign countries — is now at the center of a debate raging about its use at the University of California. Moreover, both critics and supporters of the State Department’s take on this age-old phenomenon agree that its modern-day interpretation could have implications for the way that Israel-related issues are discussed on all college campuses.

Several pro-Israel activists supported by Jewish groups and with the blessing of UC’s president, Janet Napolitano, would like to see California’s public university system adopt the State Department definition, potentially deeming many of the anti-Israel protests and actions carried out on campus anti-Semitic.

“What we are saying is that our government, in one of its agencies, already has a good way of addressing anti-Semitism and of identifying the contemporary version of anti-Semitism,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of AMCHA Initiative, which has been leading the UC drive. “Then why shouldn’t we use it?”

On the other side, Palestinian groups, backed by civil libertarians, argue that adopting this definition would chill protected free speech by students and faculty members, and intimidate critics of Israel.

Pro-Palestinian activists, in a letter to the State Department, argued that its definition includes “prohibitions that are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies.”

Behind the debate over the language used to describe modern anti-Semitism stands a decade-long discussion on the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel — and whether and when it can be construed as Jew hatred. The debate has taken on added urgency with the widespread emergence, especially on college campuses, of campaigns to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — or BDS — by activists opposed to the state or its policies.

The current drive to define anti-Semitism at UC is focused on changing the multi-campus system’s rules to adopt the broader definition used by the State Department. This definition includes what Jewish groups refer to as the “3 Ds”: demonizing Israel, delegitimizing Israel and employing double standards toward Israel.

A nonbinding resolution urging the UC system to adopt this definition passed the California State Senate on May 14. Student bodies on the university’s Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles campuses have also approved measures adopting the State Department language. Interestingly, the student bodies at Berkeley and UCLA also approved anti-Israel divestment resolutions in previous years.

This could raise questions for Jewish groups about just how much adopting the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism would actually stop student bodies from embracing BDS.

Nevertheless, the AMCHA drive is now aiming at the UC Board of Regents, the only governing body with authority to set policy on the issue. In a March 19 letter to UC regents and to Napolitano, AMCHA and 23 other groups wrote of “a well-documented relationship between BDS and acts of anti-Semitism, particularly on college campuses,” and urged the university system to formally adopt the State Department definition “in order to identify all forms of anti-Semitic expression on UC campuses.” Another letter, written in May and signed by 700 faculty members, students and rabbis, pushed for the same request.

Advocates for the case registered a major victory when Napolitano announced, in a radio interview, that she supported the move.

In framing its request to adopt the State Department definition, AMCHA is careful to stress that it does not seek to stifle free speech on campus. The group does not urge any action against students or faculty deemed to be demonizing, delegitimizing or using double standards against Israel. It only urges school administrators to sensitize staff about the issue and to acknowledge that this speech is a form of anti-Semitism.

“We are absolutely not calling for a speech code,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “But just as there is common understanding about homophobia or sexism, we want there to be the same sensitivity to this kind of discrimination.” Adopting the definition would in no way require any action beyond identifying certain actions as being anti-Semitic, she said, adding, “We are not calling for any particular measure, just for having awareness and sensitivity.”

Asked by the Forward about specific types of pro-Palestinian protest actions on campus, Rossman-Benjamin said that BDS would, in principle, be seen as anti-Semitic with the adoption of the State Department definition. So would protests in which activists erect a wall to symbolize Israel’s separation barrier, which is used to block Palestinians in the occupied West Bank from entering Israel and parts of the West Bank itself. Demonstrations in which activists distribute mock eviction notices — meant to mimic notices distributed by the Israeli army to Palestinian West Bank residents whose homes are slated for demolition — would also be deemed anti-Semitic, Rossman-Benjamin said.

Some pro-Israel groups opposed to the Israeli government’s policies in the occupied territories have called for boycotting products manufactured on exclusively Jewish West Bank settlements. But this too would, under certain circumstances, be seen as anti-Semitic, according to Rossman-Benjamin. So would campus events in which former Israeli soldiers from the group Breaking the Silence speak about wrongdoings they claim to have witnessed by fellow soldiers during their military service, she said.

The move to adopt the State Department definition is opposed not only by pro-Palestinian campus activists, but also by civil libertarians. Some are unsatisfied with assurances that the new definition will not be used to take action against students speaking out against Israel.

“I worry that it could be the beginning of a slippery slope,” said Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “I fear that it will quickly become not only a tool for assessing speech, but also a tool for investigating and taking measures.”

Creeley also warned that if the new language is adopted, it could be countered by calls to limit some types of pro-Israel speech, creating a “race to the bottom” on what discourse about Israel is allowed on campus. This could be the reason some Jewish groups are keeping a distance from the debate. While AMCHA has gotten 23 groups to join its call, some of the Jewish world’s major players are notably absent from the petition. Hillel International, the leading Jewish campus network, has not taken part in the process at UC, though its spokesman, Matthew Berger, said the group supports “efforts by university leaders to codify this definition of anti-Semitism in their work to eliminate hate speech from t heir campuses.”

The Anti-Defamation League also did not sign on, though its national director, Abraham Foxman, expressed support for “any efforts to bring greater clarity to understanding the elements of anti-Jewish expressions and behavior [that] will help students, administrators and faculty on campuses, and the American public in general, to better counteract the scourge of anti-Semitism.”

The roots of the State Department definition can be found in a 2005 decision by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an agency of the European Union, to include certain types of anti-Israel expressions as anti-Semitic. But the group later abandoned this definition, leaving the U.S. State Department alone in formally arguing that use of the “3 Ds” is a form of anti-Semitism.

The State Department definition does include, however, a disclaimer, making clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS Jewish organization, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry; his envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, and to Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, asking the department to revise its definition of anti-Semitism “to reflect its commitment to opposing hate and discrimination without curtailing constitutionally protected freedom of speech.”

A spokesman for the State Department did not respond to repeated inquiries by the Forward regarding use of its definition for domestic purposes.

Simona Sharoni, professor of gender and women’s studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and one of the 250 academics who signed the JVP letter, contended that the State Department definition “came as a direct response to the Israeli government’s pressure.” Pro-Israel students are adequately protected against harassment, she said, adding: “I have spent my career as a college professor focused on making sure that our campuses are safe for all students and no harassment and discrimination are tolerated… The problem is that pro-Israeli groups equate the discomfort felt by some Jewish students when confronted with Apartheid Week activities on their campus with harassment or discrimination.”

The UC Board of Regents could take up the issue as early as its next meeting, on July 22. Pro-Israel activists throughout the country will closely watch its decision, seeking to implement similar rules on other college campuses.

Contact Nathan Guttman at or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman

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