On March 24, 2016, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents adopted a set of Principles against Intolerance, after several months of discussion, amendments, lobbying by Zionist organizations, and protests by Palestinian rights activists. The Principles are, in effect, Principles against Antisemitism, as they single out antisemitism in their consideration of discrimination, and relate this to tolerable or intolerable forms of antizionism. It is important to note at the outset that the Regents’ Principles are not, in fact, legally enforceable, even if they may enable censure and harassment of faculty and students within the statement’s ambiguous framework, as is already happening on UC campuses.
The Principles emerged in the context of intense scrutiny of Palestinian solidarity activism on UC campuses and numerous instances of censure and repression of critics of Israel. In this chilling climate, what is striking is that there is growing faculty frustration and outrage with the Palestinian exception to the First Amendment, as USACBI organizer Steven Salaita incisively described it. In fact, UC faculty who are not even necessarily engaged with teaching Palestine or Middle East studies, let alone involved in Palestine or BDS solidarity activism, are finally taking a public stance challenging the Regents’ unprincipled Principles.
The UC-wide Academic Senate issued a declaration condemning the statement of the Regents Working Group on the Principles, criticizing the censure of anti-Zionism and upholding the right of faculty to oppose, debate, and discuss Zionism. Faculty at UC Davis have also objected publicly to the singling out of anti-Semitism among other forms of discrimination .
Furthermore, the preamble to the Principles opposes “antisemitism, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism, and other forms of discrimination.” But as JVP’s Academic Advisory Council has pointed out: what exactly are “antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism?” And equally important, who gets to decide? This document seems to have simply opened another can of worms that will spill over into campus life and generate more conundrums and skirmishes over regulating “proper” forms of anti-Zionism. Furthermore, it is important to note that these Principles have been issued in a larger political context of repression of anti-Zionism in the U.S. where the progressive-left critique of Zionism and Palestine solidarity activism at large is often associated or conflated with antisemitism, and with other racist and right-wing ideologies. This sleight of hand is not accidental but is a strategy of demonization that erases the antiracist politics underlying the challenge to Israel’s policies from the Palestine solidarity and BDS movement.
Yet, it is significant that faculty from a range of disciplines are pushing back against the lockdown on criticism of Zionism and Israel and are arguing for the normalization of anti-Zionism as a discourse that should have its place in the academy. This is a huge political shift among academics and a victory for those in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against Zionism.
Indeed, while the UC Academic Senate does not actually challenge Zionism in supporting the right to critique it, individual UC faculty members are going further. One Faculty for Justice in Palestine-Davis member proposed putting a sign on their door declaring: “As an employee of the University of California and an educator, I oppose Zionism in all its forms and manifestations, and oppose all state policies which enshrine apartheid and threaten genocide; this includes all Israeli state policies regarding Palestine and Palestinians.” It would be worthwhile for other faculty to consider such acts of principled anti-Zionist solidarity that could transform the academic workplace from a site of normalization of apartheid and settler colonialism to one of open critique.
It is also worthwhile to remember that Zionism has been described by racism by international entities, most notably in the United Nations General Assembly resolution 3379 passed by a 72-35 vote in 1975. Though the resolution was revoked in 1991, only after much pressure from Israel and the first Bush administration, it remains a stark reminder of a hard- fought global consensus on the political character of the Israeli regime and of Zionism.
USACBI thus condemns Zionism as a racist, settler colonial ideology and practice that has dispossessed, displaced, and eliminated Palestinians; that is, Zionism is, itself, a form of racial discrimination that has privileged Jewish over non-Jewish lives, the core principle of the Zionist state. To defend Zionism is to defend a form of racial supremacy. We must, if we are antiracist, challenge Zionism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Arabophobia, antiblackness, nativism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, ableism, and all other forms of discrimination. As scholars and educators, we believe the academic boycott is an important tool that refuses complicity with Zionism and enlarges intellectual and political space in the academy for critical discussion of Palestine-Israel and of racism and racial violence in the world today.