Allegations of anti-Semitism leveled at advocates of economic sanctions against Israel have spurred a fight over how colleges should define speech that victimizes Jewish students. Some Jewish groups want colleges to use a definition of anti-Semitism crafted by the U.S. State Department, but many critics of Israel argue that the State Department’s definition is too expansive and covers statements about Israel that should be considered fair game.

More than 100 faculty members at the University of California on Monday urged the university system’s administration and Board of Regents to adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes speech that demonizes Israel, compares Israel’s policies to the policies of the Nazi Germany, holds Israel to standards not applied to other democratic nations, or denies Israel’s right to exist.

The letter to the university system’s top officials says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is a prime motivator of the anti-Jewish expression that has infected our campuses and led to the verbal and physical intimidation and harassment of many Jewish students.” Alleging that the University of California’s campuses “are rapidly acquiring the reputation of being among the most anti-Semitic in the nation,” the letter urges the university’s board and campus chancellors “to speak out and act forcefully.”

On the other side of the debate, more than 250 scholars signed onto an open letter, published on Monday, that urges the State Department to revise its definition of anti-Semitism to keep it from “being misused to silence critics of Israel.” The scholars who signed the letter — mainly from American colleges, but also from some institutions abroad — are all members of the academic advisory council of the advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace. Their letter argues that the definition of anti-Semitism first adopted by the State Department five years ago includes prohibitions “so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies.”

“As academics committed to addressing anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression, we oppose ongoing efforts to silence legitimate criticism of the State of Israel by codifying its inclusion in the definition of anti-Semitism,” the letter says.


A resolution passed by California’s State Senate, and pending before its Assembly, cites the State Department’s definition in condemning anti-Semitism and racism on the University of California’s campuses and in urging the campuses to do the same. How much the measure would limit debate over Israel is unclear, however, because it has been amended with a provision saying that nothing in it should be interpreted as diminishing the rights of students and others to freely engage in speech and other activity protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Although the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights signaled in 2010 that it planned to more aggressively protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism, it has dismissed a series of complaints against universities, in California and elsewhere, where Jewish students argued that critics of Israel were subjecting them to a hostile learning environment.