On college campuses across the nation — including our own — students and administrators have been grappling with how to best address issues of diversity and maintain a safe campus environment for all students. It is against this backdrop that a University of California Regents working group drafted a statement detailing several “Principles Against Intolerance,” in an attempt to create a campus environment “in which all are included, all are given an equal opportunity to learn and explore, in which differences as well as commonalities are celebrated, and in which dissenting viewpoints are not only tolerated but encouraged.”
Despite this laudable goal, however, the UC Regents did the exact opposite — by conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Such an implication is not only intellectually dishonest, but it also sets a dangerous precedent that both stigmatizes legitimate criticism of Israel and undermines serious instances of anti-Semitism.
Conceptually, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are clearly distinct. Whereas anti-Semitism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against the Jewish people, anti-Zionism is defined as opposition to the political movement of Zionism, which advocates for the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine and support for the modern-day state of Israel more broadly. Opponents of Zionism often challenge the idea of Jewish statehood on the basis that it inherently denies equality to non-Jewish communities within Israel, including its indigenous Christian and Muslim populations.
But whereas anti-Semitism is inherently hateful and intolerant, anti-Zionism is a perfectly legitimate — albeit controversial — political debate. In the same way one can question whether Israel can or should exist as a Jewish state for all of its citizens, one too could dispute the legitimacy of nations such as the Kurds, the Basques or the Taiwanese establishing independent states. By asserting that opposition to Zionism signifies a “prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture,” the UC Regents blur this important distinction.
This, of course, is not to say that anti-Semitism isn’t a serious issue on college campuses or that there aren’t anti-Semites who hide behind the label of anti-Zionists — far from it. Such actions should be exposed and fiercely condemned. But to blindly treat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as though they were two sides of the same coin overlooks the important fact that a overrepresented and growing percentage of anti-Zionists are themselves Jews.
Moreover, the fusion of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism also bears the risks of having a devastating impact on campus activism that is critical of Israel or its policies within the occupied Palestinian territories. Stigmatizing criticism of Israel as inherently discriminatory doesn’t help create the safe and vibrant exchange of ideas that the UC Regents claim to foster — rather, it stifles it.
As someone who has studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and visited the region several times, I can attest that this topic is challenging to discuss — particularly on college campuses. For students who are unfamiliar with the subject, it can seem confusing or confrontational. For those who are more familiar with it, it can feel personal and frustrating. I, too, have felt uncomfortable when my beliefs or views on this issue were challenged. But as students, we would be wrong to confuse this kind of discomfort with a lack of safety. We would be wrong to prioritize a campus climate in which one’s ideas go unchallenged at the expense of vibrant political discussion and the freedom to express conflicting political views.
Yasmeen Serhan is a senior majoring in international relations. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Tuesdays.