November 7, 2023

Chancellor Howard Gillman's Remarks at the Western Regional Summit on Antisemitism

Thank you all for being here and for the work many of you do every day to serve our campus communities and ensure that we all have inclusive learning environments.

What is happening on too many campuses now – not just the antisemitism, but also the overall amount of pain and outrage and frayed relationships – is terrible to see.  And the overall suffering of the innocents is hard to bear.

But we are here to address antisemitism on campuses, and the last few weeks have illustrated to the world how deep and widespread these sentiments are.

Antisemitism has been expressed in two main ways:  (1) by the expressions of support and even valorization of the October 7th Hamas massacre and (2) by certain versions of anti-Zionism that are clearly antisemitic.

There’s no need to explain how the celebrations of Hamas or the rationalizations of Hamas’s behavior represent bloodthirsty antisemitism. 

Students for Justice in Palestine called the terror attack a “historic win” for the “Palestinian resistance.”  Flyers for pro-Palestinian campus protests glorified the Hamas paragliders who descended on the pro-peace Israel music festival to conduct a massacre that killed 260 young people.  A Columbia professor called the Hamas massacre “awesome” and a “stunning victory.”  A Yale professor tweeted, “It’s been such an extraordinary day” while calling Israel a “murderous, genocidal settler state.”  A UC Davis professor noted that “Zionist journalists … have houses w addresses, kids in school” and noted, “they can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more” before adding emojis of a knife, an axe, and three drops of blood.” 

This is not normal political discourse and not the sort of discourse that could be imagined in any other circumstance where the individuals being massacred were not Jews. 

And so, to all of you administrators who scheduled your participation in this event a long time ago and came here to learn about the issue and how serious it is – well, over the past few weeks you have witnessed a lesson better than anything we could have presented.

But the other important thing to keep in mind is that modern campus antisemitism often proceeds under the guise of anti-Zionism.

Now, not all people who express anti-Zionist opinions are antisemitic.  There were Jews in the early 20th century who disagreed with the Zionist project and there were antisemites who supported Zionism because they wanted the Jews to migrate out of their European cities. 

Also, there are important debates about the history of the creation of Israel which will continue in scholarly settings.  Even among Israeli historians there were major revisions in the 1980s to long-standing narratives as previously unreleased Israeli and British archives were made available.  The scholars must do their work.

But these scholarly debates are not the same as the way anti-Zionism unfolds in prevailing campus politics, protests, and sloganeering.

Many of the versions of anti-Zionism you often hear in the context of campus politics and protests fall into the category of what one working group of the Regents of the University of California referred to as “antisemitic forms of Anti-Zionism.” 

I would like to sensitize you to this formulation because it acknowledges in principle that you can be anti-Zionist and not antisemitic, but also recognizes that antisemitism can take the form of anti-Zionism.  (Heck, back in the day even David Duke started referring to Zionists rather than Jews to make his form of Nazism seem less old-fashioned.)

People will disagree when exactly anti-Zionist rhetoric should be considered antisemitic – for some people it’s all versions – but most concerning are versions that treat “Zionism” as embodying an essentially racist effort by powerful and evil “settler colonialist” whites to gleefully subjugate defenseless people of color.  Some statements play on antisemitic tropes that suggest the Jewish people have a particular kind of bloodlust or that all-powerful Jews have hypnotized the world to get them to do their bidding, and they have the natural effect of fomenting hatred toward Jews (which is why Jews and not Zionists are assaulted on the streets or hunted down by mobs roaming through airports).

These now familiar “settler-colonialist/racist/oppressor” frameworks also result in deeply contested and simplistic narratives about the history of Israel/Palestine as well as arguments about the unique illegitimacy of the founding of the State of Israel compared to every other nation-state – with a complementary set of unique double-standards in evaluating the actions of the State of Israel (again, singled out because of its Jewish character).

And while some students may not self-consciously consider the phrase “from the desert to the sea, Palestine will be free” to be a call for a genocide of Israeli Jews, we should not be naive to ignore that for many who use the phrase it is such a call, just as “the South shall rise again” cannot be heard in the United States as a benign call for showing just a little more respect for Southern folkways.  Phrases are encoded and speakers know how to send messages while giving themselves plausible deniability. 

These versions of anti-Zionism not only have the effect of villainizing the vast majority of Jews around the world; they also provide a permission structure for some students and faculty members to neglect the concerns of Jewish students at times like we are facing right now.  This “merely anti-Zionist but not antisemitic” framing is also what leads many student affinity groups who consider themselves committed to “social justice” to shun Jewish students, refuse to be in partnership with them, and on occasion even question the ability of Jewish students to fairly represent the student body in positions of student government.

So, what should we do?

Governor Ron DeSantis believes that the government can censor its way toward a solution by simply banning groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine from universities.  But this approach is worse than unconstitutional (which it is); it is foolish.  These ideas are circulating, and any attempt to silence advocates will simply transform them into martyrs and create even more sympathy for these views.  And besides, when confronting troubling views, it is more important to shine a spotlight on them then to assume that they will go away if censored.  For all the hate we have seen recently, in my view it has been very important for all of us to have witnessed it.

And on this point:  You heard this morning from Assistant Secretary Lhamon about the University’s obligations under Title VI, and so we need to make sure that campuses can successfully address unlawful harassment and guard against the creation of discriminatory environments while at the same time ensure protections for free speech, including speech that students might consider hostile and discriminatory.  We don’t want campuses to be placed in the impossible situation of getting in trouble for not protecting free speech and getting in trouble for tolerating speech considered antisemitic.

But this means that campuses should be thinking about taking steps other than censorship to ensure a supportive and non-discriminatory learning environment for Jewish students. 

First, colleges should organize more high-profile and high-quality educational efforts exploring the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campuses and around the world – including debating the overlaps and airing out disagreements.  At UC Irvine we initiated such a program soon after the UC Regents passed their “Principles Against Intolerance” – we called it our Higher Ground Initiative, and it included programming on anti-Zionism and antisemitism (with the New York Times’ Bret Stephens and Michelle Goldberg) – but there is a lot more education to do.  Many anti-Zionist voices will insist they are not antisemitic and even point to the fact that they have Jewish partners, but we can’t let them silence the ongoing discussion that easily.

Second, student affairs professionals need to consider their student-affinity-group outreach strategies in light of these lessons. Tragically, in many cases, the student groups who have historically been the special attention of those who want to support the most marginalized communities on campus are very likely to be hostile or indifferent to Jewish student groups.  This should lead to an appreciation of the very special isolation and hostility that Jewish students have been facing and should encourage student affairs professionals to develop adequate strategies for support and engagement.

Third, campuses should make sure that all faculty understand that their teaching responsibilities require them to welcome all students, treat all students with respect, and avoid using the classroom as a place for political indoctrination.  Maybe easier said than done, but these norms are still important.

Fourth, campuses should take steps to limit or regulate the ability of faculty members to use official department administrative websites to make nominally official political statements about these issues in ways that would lead Jewish students in those fields to feel unwelcome in those settings.  They should also clarify the rules around the use of other official forums and channels of communication (e.g., email listservs, social media accounts).

Fifth, campuses should allocate or solicit resources to ensure sufficient scholarly expertise and programming on topics relating to Jewish studies, anti-Semitism, and Israel studies.  In a college setting, the discussion and debate on these topics should not be dominated only by scholars who are committed to the anti-Zionist political project; those voices alone are not adequate to ensure that the academic community can benefit from the best scholarship and analysis across the board.  Building up these areas of study will also ensure that Jewish students have faculty and staff members they can turn to for support and guidance.

Sixth, campus leaders should be prepared to speak out. In my judgment it’s not possible or advisable for campus leaders to comment and denounce every controversial statement by a member of the university community (if so, that would be my full-time job).  But I did feel it was important to speak clearly and strongly about the October 7th massacre, while holding my tongue on the more complicated issues that have arisen since. 

I know there are those who think campus leaders must never speak, and I agree that we must show great restraint, but there are times when silence is deafening and destabilizing to the campus.