The California Regents Provide a Purim Present, But There’s Still Work to Be Done

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Yesterday, on the eve of Purim, the Regents of the University of California unanimously adopted a historic statement against intolerance. The governing board for this 10-campus public institution could not have chosen a more auspicious date. After all, Purim is a holiday when the Jewish people celebrate a great victory over ancient genocidal antisemitism. In San Francisco, the Regents have given us reason to celebrate once again, but this time it is over a defeat for Jew-hatred’s most modern iteration. In a powerful report, the Regents announced that “antisemitism, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

This development had a long pre-history. For at least the last sixteen years, the University of California system has endured a reputation for antisemitism. Indeed, when I headed the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the very first campus antisemitism complaint we received under the agency’s 2004 antisemitism policy was based on incidents at the University of California at Irvine. That case, brought by the Zionist Organization of America, was ultimately dismissed, as were others at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, but it unearthed an enormous amount of anti-Zionist and antisemitic harassment. Unfortunately, neither the university nor the government was well equipped to deal with it.

Over the years, the problem persisted. In 2012, the university’s internal campus climate study identified substantial activities “which project hostility, engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.” Last year, a UCLA undergraduate was initially rejected for a position on the student judicial board based on concerns that, as “a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,” she might not be able to “maintain an unbiased view.” At the Louis D. Brandeis Center, we receive as many reports of antisemitic incidents from the University of California as from any other single system.

Last year, in response to complaints from numerous organizations, including the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center, the Regents decided to issue a policy statement. Their staff proposed an initial draft that was universally criticized, especially because it did not even mention antisemitism, although it was specifically drafted in response to anti-Jewish incidents. The Regents then took control over the process themselves, establishing a Regents’ working group to prepare a new statement. The Regents identified four national experts to brief them: Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and myself on antisemitism; UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh on the First Amendment; and UCLA Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang on intolerance. Then they heard from members of the public at various open sessions. Jewish students and faculty made impassioned pleas, describing the ordeals that they have endured. Jewish organizations supported them. Anti-Israel activists and civil libertarians also spoke out, arguing that the Regents shouldn’t do anything that would interfere with the freedom of speech.

In the end, the Regents’ statement was a compromise. The Regents clearly and specifically recognized that “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.” This is a big step forward at an institution where professors and students frequently deny that that there is any relationship between virulent Israel-hatred on the one hand and Jew-hatred on the other. The Regents explicitly denounced the “antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism,” characterizing them as “forms of discrimination,” and admonishing that they “have no place at the University of California.” At the same time, the Regents properly emphasized the need to protect freedom of speech.

The statement could have been even better. I would have preferred for the Regents to clarify precisely which forms of anti-Zionism are antisemitic within the meaning of their new policy. Many Jewish organizations urged the Regents to adopt a uniform definition of antisemitism, such as the State Department definition. Doing so would have provided far more clarity that what the Regents have achieved.

Now there is more work to be done. Next, we will need to clarify, at the University of California and throughout the country, which forms of anti-Zionism we are talking about when we discuss the ‘antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism.’ At the same time, we must take the momentum that we have coming out of California and to seek similar victories elsewhere.

Kenneth L. Marcus is President and General Counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and author, most recently, of The Definition of Antisemitism (Oxford University Press, 2015).

The California Regents Provide a Purim Present, But There’s Still Work to Be Done

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Kenneth L. Marcus

Kenneth L. Marcus is Founder and Chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, and author of The Definition of Anti-Semitism (Oxford University Press: 2015) and Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press: 2010).  On the occasion of his recent transition from public service, the Jewish News Syndicate commented that, “In two short years, Marcus did as much, if not more, to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses as anyone in government has ever done.”

Marcus founded the Brandeis Center in 2011 to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in American higher education.  At that time, the Jewish Daily Forward described him as one of “the new faces of Jewish power,” predicting that “if Marcus has any say in it, we may witness a new era of Jewish advocacy.”

During his public service career, Marcus has also served as Staff Director at the United States Commission on Civil Rights and was delegated the authority of Assistant U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.  Shortly before his departure from the Civil Rights Commission, the Wall Street Journal observed that “the Commission has rarely been better managed,” and that it “deserves a medal for good governance.” Marcus previously held the Lillie and Nathan Ackerman Chair in Equality and Justice in America at the City University of New York’s Bernard M. Baruch College School of Public Affairs.

Before entering public service, Mr. Marcus was a litigation partner in two major law firms, where he conducted complex commercial and constitutional litigation. He has published widely in academic journals as well as in more popular venues such as Newsweek, USA Today, Politico, The Hill, The Jerusalem Post, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and The Christian Science Monitor.  Mr. Marcus is a graduate of Williams College, magna cum laude, and the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Read all stories by Kenneth L. Marcus