UC Regents Tackle Free Speech, Safety Concerns Amid Israel-Hamas War

Campus protest
News coverage of a protest at UC San Diego. Image from 10News broadcast

In the past several weeks, the White House, California’s governor and the state’s public university chiefs have all condemned the antisemitism and Islamophobia that have besieged college campuses ever since Hamas militants attacked Israel Oct. 7 and Israel’s military responded with a bombing campaign of Gaza. 

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On Wednesday, the top leaders at the University of California convened at the planned UC regents meeting and outlined a series of calls to action to fight that onslaught of intolerance, including shifting $7 million to fund three endeavors: 

  • $3 million for emergency mental health for students and staff;
  • $2 million for programs “focused on better understanding antisemitism and Islamophobia and how to recognize and combat extremism”, said UC President Michael Drake;
  • $2 million to “to train our own leadership, staff, and faculty who are seeking guidance on how to navigate their roles as educators in this space,” Drake said. 

The UC president laid out two more broad initiatives. He called on his top deputy on campus security to meet with campus safety chiefs “to ensure that we are responding appropriately to incidents of violence on our campuses.” Next, Drake said that the system will debut a new office of civil rights this spring, work that began last year. This umbrella office will house the staff that work on sexual violence and include two new offices, one to address discrimination and another dedicated to the rights of students with disabilities. 

“Today we are doubling down on who we are: An educational institution that’s guided by facts and data, but also a moral compass that helps us find our way to compassion and understanding in difficult moments,” Drake said.

His comments followed a robust public comment period that featured students and staff who spoke against bigotry at the UC regents meeting, held at UCLA. To enter the meeting space, members of the public had to clear an outdoor metal detector and walk around barricades — a common level of security during regents events at this campus. 

“What makes the antisemitism that’s on the rise a little different is that there’s an acknowledgment and a normalization of a specific form of antisemitism, which attacks our students’ identity,” said Daniel Gold, executive director of the UCLA chapter of the Jewish religious organization Hillel. He was referring to anti-Zionism, a common but highly disputed critique of Israel’s current policies and founding as a country in 1948. He wanted the UC regents and other system leadership to “address this form of anti-Zionism that is open, that is aggressive, and that is attacking every one of our students and making them fearful of walking around campus.”

A student who spoke at the meeting, whom a UC moderator introduced as Peter Ross, said he participated at four pro-Palestine rallies at UCLA. He objected to a letter UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued last week that said the most recent of those protests featured “extremely hateful behavior and used despicable antisemitic language.”

That rally “was entirely peaceful, and no hateful or antisemitic language was used,” the student told the regents. Block’s letter was “a deliberate falsification of the courageous stand that students are taking.”

Members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus wrote a letter last week to UC and California State University leaders to “express our outrage and concern regarding the explosion of antisemitism” at the two university systems.

Core to the dispute over allegations of antisemitic rhetoric is a lack of agreement over what common pro-Palestinian phrases mean. A Jewish student at Wednesday’s meeting described the slogan “from the river to the sea” as a call for Israel’s destruction — a view held by major Jewish groups. Others, including scholars, say the phrase is a demand for equal rights for Palestinians. 

The wide interpretation of what defines Zionism — the founding force behind Israel’s creation —  is one reason why historian Michael Stanislawski called it “one of the most controversial ideologies in the world” in a 2016 book on the subject.   

But undoubtedly Islamophobia and antisemitism are on the rise in the U.S. since the latest explosion of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, as media and advocacy reports have shown.

“I have met with both Muslim and Jewish students to hear firsthand what our students are experiencing,” said Richard Leib, chair of the UC regents. “Jewish, Arab, and Muslim students on our campuses have expressed to me that they do not feel safe, many of them.”

Leib gave voice to the trauma students are enduring. “I’m appalled at the rise of hate speech directed at Arab and Muslim students,” he said. “And I’m alarmed at the reports of threats and assaults and discrimination in the classroom experienced by our Jewish students.”

But Leib also singled out what he said were instances of some faculty violating university codes and policies. Jewish students shared with him “specific instances in which they believe their rights have been violated by episodes of academic abuse by isolated members of our faculty,” Leib said.

He didn’t give specific examples of what he meant at Wednesday’s meeting. However, Leib was particularly aggrieved by a letter from UC ethnic studies faculty a few weeks ago that slammed UC leadership for describing Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack as terrorism. The letter prompted a stern public rebuke from one UC regent who spoke for himself, Jay Sures.

Leib, in an email to CalMatters nine days ago, wrote that the “assertion by the Ethnic Studies Council that this was not a terrorist attack by Hamas is both repugnant and offensive.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Leib pressed the 10 campuses of the UC system to commit to three sets of priorities. This move wasn’t formal policy but an expression of what the UC regents’ top officer seeks.

First, he said campuses should ensure student safety. “This is your highest imperative and all necessary resources must be employed to ensure the safety of our campus communities,” he said.

Next, he urged the campus chancellors to enforce existing policies against violence and intimidation. “When there are violations, we need swift condemnation and enforcement,” he said. “We have policies for faculty conduct; if there are credible allegations of violations, they might be investigated.”

He encouraged students to report these incidents.

Finally, he expounded on the obligations of campuses to respond to hateful speech, even if it’s protected by the First Amendment.

“If faculty or students engage in hate speech, it is incumbent on the university and campus leadership to call it out,” he said. “It is not OK for our students to fear for their safety on our campuses and hear no response from campus leaders.” 

He also reiterated that threats of physical violence cross a legal line.

Most faculty follow the “the rights versus responsibilities model,” said James Steintrager, the chair of the UC Academic Senate. “Yes, one may have the right to say much, but we must also strive to speak reasonably to challenge bias.”

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