Identity Politics Run Amok

Just how strong are the University of California’s commitments to academic freedom and free speech? When the California Assembly, by unanimous vote, passed a resolution this week calling on public universities to ban all public funds for any activities that could be viewed as anti-Semitic, university officials ducked. Citing First Amendment concerns, they didn’t condemn the resolution. Instead, they said they would remain neutral. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that they have tried to hide.

The West Wing, the television series so popular among liberals during the Bush years—and surely due for a revival should you know who will be president in 2012 —featured in its first season an episode called “Take Out the Trash Day.”  The title referred to the practice, common in Washington, of putting out bad news on Friday afternoons so that no one would pay attention to it over the weekend.

Academe has its version of “Take Out the Trash Day,” only it lasts for a whole season: Dump news over the summer when faculty and students are away and hope that by the time they return in the fall, it will be forgotten. Only this, I believe, can explain why the University of California issued its report on the campus climate facing Jewish students in July 2012. The report is so embarrassing to everything for which a great university ought to stand that its authors, Richard D. Barton, national education chair for the Anti-Defamation League, and Alice A. Huffman, president of the California NAACP, deserve credit—but only if their intention was to have their analysis and recommendations ignored.

As for the analysis, the Barton/Huffman report found that political activities critical of Israel “project hostility, engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.” It offered numerous examples: building “apartheid walls” to recall Israel’s security fences; enacting “die ins,” to protest military actions; creating checkpoints to give a flavor of daily life in the occupied territories; and using expressions like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to characterize Israeli policies. The report took note of faculty who take stands on the Middle East conflict in their classrooms, and it registered concerns about whether departments show proper balance in representing the Israeli viewpoint on panels and symposia. UC does promote diversity and multicultural understanding, it pointed out in passing, but Jews feel that they are left out of the process. “There is a perceived gap in the level of appreciation by administrators for how the Jewish community sees these protests. That is reflected in the absence of Jewish student representation on the [sic] most of the individual campus Climate Councils.”

Given this analysis, the recommendations took on an air of inevitability: UC should have a hate-speech-free campus; cultural-competency training should be required of everyone; the campus should adopt a formal definition of anti-Semitism along the lines of the one used by the European Union; more kosher food should be made available; and exam schedules should accommodate Jewish holidays.

The fact that system’s chancellor, Mark G. Yudof, would neither praise it nor condemn the report seemed to lend credence to the conclusion that the July release date was meant to dampen down attention. The Assembly’s action has now made that impossible and given the University of California the opportunity to take the resolute stand on academic freedom that it previously ducked.

Alas, it did not. The administration’s message seems to be clear: It will have no clear message.

Thankfully, the report has attracted considerable opposition, including from numerous Jewish students. Still its appearance comes as a shock. Every single one of the incidents cited by the report as hateful to Jews is, or ought to be, protected by commitments to free speech, even those that, as the report breathlessly intones, “routinely analogize Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews.” The stakes in the Middle East are high, the conflicts violent, and the feelings intense. Calls for respect and civility under such conditions are not just naïve; they are offensive, implying, as they do, that students and faculty are incapable of both disagreeing and reaching their own conclusions.

The authors of this report, as well as the members of the Assembly, also seem blissfully unaware that we are long past the days when identity politics ruled our campuses. There was a time when it was argued that because slavery once existed, African-Americans should live in dorms only with people of their own race. I hope we now recognize that students from any minority group are better off learning to engage with the majority. This report, however, especially when it recommends that “UC should investigate opportunities to collect population data on Jewish identity of students,” adheres to a model of campus life in which students are divided into categories that make them different from each other, rather than one emphasizing the shared educational experiences they all undergo.

I have no doubt that Jewish students at the University of California complained about a cultural climate on campus they found upsetting (just as I believe that the members of the Assembly were pandering to them). In doing so, students should be reminded that they would benefit most, not from greater sensitivity training on the part of administrators but by a liberal-arts education. We happen to have academic disciplines, especially in the humanities, that deal with the very questions at the heart of this controversy. Courses on justice might question whether exposure to an uncivil demonstrator is on the same level of injustice as lacking access to good public schools. Political scientists can ask why the United States has resisted passing laws against hate speech while countries in Europe are more inclined to do so. Historians can ponder whether oppressed groups are better off focusing on their own needs or viewing their oppression as a template for the oppression of all. Literary theorists can talk about diasporas and compare the experiences associated with them.

The best campus climates are those that make people think, not those that try to make them feel appreciated. The UC administration should have listened to the complaints of the Jewish students—but then reminded them why they are in college. And the Assembly might consider leaving grandstanding to the Giants and the Dodgers.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.

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