“Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California,” stated the UC Board of Regents — which oversees the school system — in their report on intolerance, released earlier this month. The public rebuke to anti-Zionism, with its many adherents in the academy and at UC in particular, is certainly welcome. But the regents might have refrained. This is another threat to free speech in the university, and those who think schools need more debate, not less, should oppose it.
First, anti-Zionism seems to abound in the UC system. Just a few examples: In 2014, graffiti saying “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” and “Death to Israel” was found on the UC Berkeley campus. Last year at UCLA, Rachel Beyda, a candidate for student government, was asked, “Given that you’re very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” A Jewish fraternity at UC Davis found swastikas on its house in January 2015, two days after their student government passed a resolution in support of divestment from Israel.
But even though the regents were trying to address a real problem, universities should not rule certain opinions as having “no place” on a campus. Bigotry is just a distasteful form of error. And the way to correct an error, about metaphysics or politics, is to prove its dissonance with the truth. How can you honestly think something, of course, unless you’ve considered and disproven its opposite? In ruling anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism unspeakable, UC regents hinder Zionists and philo-Semites from thinking as they do in the most rigorous way.
Free speech will probably survive this latest assault. But there’s a further risk that the regents’ move will encourage Jewish students to talk about and understand themselves as victims to win favor from administrators and others. This might not convince anyone to abandon his anti-Zionism, but it’s bound to corrode Jewish pride and will.
How many undergraduates are so pliant that they’ll stop thinking something because an adult with a title tells them to do so? Not many. Now, some may not speak from fear of discipline, but that’s not persuasion. Jewish Zionists want their opponents to stop believing that Israel is a wicked country. The only way to do that is to explain Israel’s humanity and liberalism. In Israel, Arab Muslims vote in fair, contested elections, which is not true of most countries where Arab Muslims are the majority. Israel has a growing Christian population. Israel alone in its region respects the rights of women and gays. Those who hate Israel must be shown that, to hate Israel, they must discount many things that they profess to love. Silencing distasteful views addresses only the public symptom of the problem.
But say Jewish students wanted to get administrators to ban anti-Zionist speech. To make the case credible, Jews would have to claim to be victims of “systemic” forces. Anecdotes of slights wouldn’t suffice. But if young Jews learn to refute the charge of “oppressor” by becoming victims — will it have been good for the Jews?
No. A victim is overpowered and enervated. To think yourself a victim is to concede that you have already lost and are asking around for mercy or, worse, pity. It is to resign your agency, and therefore, your responsibility. If Jews teach themselves to be victims, they will default to blaming others for their failures — spiritual, political and cultural.
Jews need look only to the last century for the best case against Jewish self-victimization. They should recall the creations of the state of Israel and the American Jewish community. The leaders of each project rejected the centuries-old European history of Jewish impotence, exhibiting instead the Jewish potential for strength. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, and Solomon Schechter, founder of the United Synagogue of America, practiced auto-emancipation, not victim politics.
It is right to fight anti-Zionism with reason and history. It is wrong to avoid the fight because you would rather revel in Jewish victimhood — thus lowering the standards for Israel — than assume the awesome responsibility of Jewish strength. This requires viewing Israel not as a concession to the helpless or as a faultless beacon, but as one imperfect liberal democracy among many.
The Jews may earn some of their foes’ tolerance if they persuade them that Jews are foremost victims. But if Jews persuade themselves, their children will learn that Jews were chosen only to wait, piteous and miserable -— rather than to act, now and always, as a strong and just people.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .