Despite my left-wing tendencies in my Berkeley days, I remember refusing to join some activist friends who were hell-bent on preventing William Shockley from speaking on campus. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist was pushing a theory that blacks were mentally inferior to whites and that limiting black population growth through sterilization was essential for the well-being of the country.
Although activists saw Shockley’s theories as a cover for racism, I thought the marketplace of free expression would do a better job of undermining his crackpot theories. I also thought it ironic that activists coming out of the Free Speech Movement would want to censor the opinions of a political opponent in the name of some higher good.
I haven’t seen anything in the past 50 years that makes me think censoring unpopular, radical or unsavory ideas is beneficial to a democratic society. And certainly such censorship has no place on college campuses where young people are supposed to be getting an education in how to think for themselves, not how to wrap themselves up in a security blanket.
Yet today we have purported educators at the University of California eager to ban the expression of a political opinion by conflating it with anti-Semitism. In short, opposition to Zionism is viewed as an expression of prejudice against Jews.
That dubious premise was put forth in a UC committee report on intolerance scheduled to be taken up by the Board of Regents March 23. The committee was responding to a series of troubling incidents targeting Jewish students on UC campuses, included the defacing of a Jewish fraternity house with a Nazi swastika at UC Davis last year.
“Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California,” the introduction to the 12-page report states. (A footnote gives this dictionary definition of Zionism: “an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.”)
The introduction goes on to contend that “most members of the university community agree with this conclusion and would agree further that the university should strive to create an equal learning environment for all students.”
In fact, faculty members are deeply divided on this issue, according to a Los Angeles Times article yesterday, as evidenced by opposing letters.
One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel’s right to exist.”
But another letter from more than 250 UC professors expressed fear that the proposed statement would restrict free speech and academic freedom to teach, debate and research about the complex and tumultuous history of Israel and the Zionist movement.
The LA Times had an insightful editorial this morning headlined: “UC’s intolerance policy goes dangerously astray on anti-Semitism.” The proposed policy serves as a clear warning to faculty members and students that expressing disagreement with the state of Israel is out of bounds, the editorial said, and is tantamount to bigotry.
One hopes that Board of Regents will have the sense to assert that UC was not established to be a safe haven from contentious issues that should and must be debated.