Participants at a 2011 protest tape their mouths to illustrate what they… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is again extending its reach onto University of California campuses, raising questions about the limits of free speech and how welcome Jewish and Muslim students feel at their schools.
But this time, the controversy does not spring from the kind of direct confrontation that occurred two years ago when Muslim protesters tried to shout down the Israeli ambassador during a speech at UC Irvine and then faced criminal prosecution. Instead, the current debate is being stirred by studies UC commissioned about how to cool tempers and whether anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias are serious problems on the system's 10 campuses.
The reports revealed that some Muslim students feel their rights are being suppressed and some Jewish students think anti-Israel protests on campus have become anti-Semitic.
UC commissioned the separate studies last year as part of a wider effort to improve relations in the wake of racially offensive incidents at UC San Diego. UC President Mark G. Yudof said he did not think there had been a significant increase in ethnic and religious friction on campuses, although the Internet era speeds up any traditional "intellectual debate." Passions are raised, he said, because ethnicity and religion are at "the essence of a human being."
The advisory reports, issued in draft form this summer, found that Jewish and Muslim students were doing quite well but reported some ill ease and prejudice, especially around protests about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and when Muslims students wore hijabs or other easily recognizable religious attire. Portions of both groups also said they wanted more accommodation for religious observances, such as preparing kosher and halal foods.
The study that focused on Jewish students suggests that campus protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank sometimes take on such anti-Semitic overtones that they "engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students' sense of belonging." It contends that UC does not tolerate similar verbal attacks on other minority groups.
That report recommends that UC define hate speech and prohibit it on campus. It suggests that a description of anti-Semitism might include likening Israeli policies toward Palestinians to treatment of Jews by Nazis during the Holocaust. The document acknowledges that such rules might prompt legal challenges but urges UC to "accept the challenge."
The other study said that Muslim and Arab students thought their political activities were unfairly scrutinized in the post-9/11 era and that the harshness of the punishment in the UC Irvine incident had deepened discomfort and limited liberties. The Orange County district attorney brought misdemeanor criminal charges against the Muslim students and 10 were convicted and sentenced to probation and community service, which they are appealing.
Yudof said that he would probably implement some recommendations in the reports, especially the ones about better accommodating religious observances. But in a recent interview, he said he wouldn't adopt any limits on speech since those would violate the 1st Amendment.
"In general, anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic, anti-black, anti-women, anti-gay speech, as opposed to action or discrimination, is protected," Yudof said, adding that he would work to ensure that no student is illegally harassed and that no hate crime laws are broken.
Yudof said he would not bring the reports up to a formal vote when his Advisory Council on Campus Climate meets Oct. 22. That council was formed after an off-campus 2010 "Compton cookout" party at UC San Diego openly mocked blacks.
Adding another layer to the debate, the state Assembly last month passed a nonbinding resolution urging UC to ban speakers who express anti-Semitism and call Israel a racist or Nazi state. The university did not endorse the resolution, saying it needed more protections for free speech. On Saturday, the UC Student Assn. leadership voted to protest that Assembly action. Schools can ban incitement to violence and harassment but cannot prohibit political speech no matter how upsetting it may be, said Will Creeley, an official at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "The answer to offensive speech is more speech, not censorship," he said.
San Diego attorney Richard Barton, who is a co-author of the report on Jewish students, said he was not seeking to stifle criticism of Israel, nor contending that all anti-Israel protests constitute hate speech.
But when Nazi swastikas are used or the Star of David is defaced in those protests, UC has a "responsibility to prevent the campus environment from being hostile to students," said Barton, who is the national education chairman of the Anti-Defamation League.