The UC Regents and Anti-Semitism: A Q&A with Judith Butler


There has been a lot of discussion, and furor, about a recent statement approved by the University of California Board of Regents.
The original statement of “principles against intolerance” contained language both condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the UC system.
“Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California,” the proposed statement read.
The language asserting anti-Zionism as an instance of intolerance and discrimination became the center of debate about free speech and the suppression of political viewpoints. Jewish Voice for Peace, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, and activist Judith Butler, among many others, all voiced opposition to the clause.
The UC Board of Regents eventually approved a revised draft of the statement. The language about anti-Zionism was changed to: “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
Tikkun reached out to Butler to discuss the revised statement, free speech, and anti-Semitism on UC campuses. Below is our Q & A.

Tikkun: In the AMCHA Initiative statement on the passage of the intolerance policy and the included statement condemning “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism,” director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin writes that, in approving the policy, “anti-Zionism has now been linked to anti-Semitism…” In his Los Angeles Times article, Judea Pearl argues that anti-Zionism is inherently racist. How do you respond to those who claim that any expression of anti-Zionist sentiment is, in virtue of questioning the existence of a Jewish state, anti-Semitic?
Judith Butler: It may be that Tammi Rossman-Benjamin wants to put that spin on the final wording that was approved, but the original text was amended in a significant way. The text that was initially proposed identified anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination, and made it equivalent to anti-Semitism.The revised statement objects only to those forms of anti-Zionism that are anti-Semitic, thus allowing for the existence of anti-Zionist positions that are not anti-Semitic.So though Rossman-Benjamin speaks about a “link” it is important for us to consider what kind of link it is.Her own arguments, namely, that anti-Zionism leads to anti-Semitism or that anti-Semitism is the basis for anti-Zionism, are not accepted in this policy, and that is good news for the First Amendment.We can still have controversial political views on matters such as governance, statehood, and citizenship without being accused of anti-Semitism. Of course, the wording of the approved document provides no criterion for distinguishing between anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and those that are not anti-Semitic, but it does acknowledge the fact that we live in a world in which there are, at least, two kinds of anti-Zionism, one of which is not guilty of discrimination, bigotry, or intolerance.
JB continues in response to another question: [L]et me attend to two different issues. First, the new formulation only acknowledges that there are some forms of anti-Zionism that take anti-Semitic form. But it actually refuses to say that there is an internal link between the two, and that is important. It is equally important that the legal counsel for the Regents claimed that this formulation, found in the preamble, but not the main principles of the document, is only “aspirational” and is “non-enforceable.”This last claim is important to note, since it is the second of our minor victories here.It also confirmed what many legal scholars have said in the days preceding the vote, including Liz Jackson from Palestine Legal.
Second, Rossman-Benjamin refers only to the Merriam-Webster definition of Zionism, and so makes the complex history of Zionism reducible to a single claim: the State of Israel has a right to exist.Of course, this statement obfuscates the entire history of Jewish debate about Zionism, not only whether one is for or against, but also, how one interprets that tradition.Let us remember that cultural Zionists at one point were opposed to state structures, and that in the 1940s it was still possible to be called a Zionist and to debate the right state structure: binational, federated, or one based on principles of Jewish sovereignty.The term has changed and so to rely on the dictionary definition is not only an insult to scholars of Jewish history and culture, but is also something of a set up.After all, if Zionism can be reduced to the proposition that the State of Israel has a right to exist, then anti-Zionism is defined as the view that Israel does not have a right to exist. As we know, there are a number of different positions that either consider themselves anti-Zionist or are called anti-Zionist by some Zionists. We have to distinguish the two if we are to have an intelligent discussion.Most importantly, however, the debates about the legitimacy of seizing land and dispossessing people in the course of the Naqba is one that has claimed a great deal of attention by historians, artists, and political analysts.If it turns out that the “founding” of the State of Israel was accomplished in part through acts of colonial violence and dispossession, then we cannot really “say” that without being accused of challenging the “right” of Israel to exist.Every state is founded in some way, and there are always debates about whether or not that founding was legitimate.We can consider the founding of the U.S. as presupposing the colonization of Native lands and the dispossession of those people.It is right that historians track that history and that we debate the conditions under which any state assumes legitimacy.There are entire fields of political theory and sociology dedicated to this question of legitimation. Palestinian struggles to have that history told, to seek reparation or return, or to find new political structures for self-governance and political self-determination may have as their primary goal decolonization and political autonomy, or claims of equality, or claims against occupation and siege.There are many claims that constitute such positions, and the field of Palestinian debate on these matters of history, legitimation, and political aspiration is lively and complex.We do not understand the meaning of opposing Zionism in such contexts if we reduce all the political aspirations that inform that field of struggle to belief that Israel does not have a right to exist.At least one position called “anti-Zionist” would hold that the political task before us is to establish a state structure that would honor fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination, to eliminate forms of state racism, and to accomplish a true decolonization.The hope would then be that everyone within that polity would live in a state whose legitimacy is derived from its substantial commitments to equality, freedom, and justice.To reduce the range of those political aspirations to “believing that the State of Israel does not have a right to exist” is precisely to ignore the range of important political claims at stake.
Tikkun: The Los Angeles Times reports that the UC board’s general counsel, Charles F. Robinson, stated that the amended statements are lawful because they do not impose any ban on speech. According to Liz Jackson, the staff attorney at Palestine Legal, the UC’s chief lawyer has stated this policy is a reflection of an opinion and is not enforceable on the basis of the First Amendment and California law. How is this new policy going to play out on the ground for faculty and students? If it is not enforced, is the policy’s approval still problematic? Further, if Liz Jackson’s report is true, why do you think the regents spent their time working on a policy that is unenforceable?
JB: I think that they needed to produce language that would assuage the groups of people who asked them to act on the issue of anti-Semitism on campus. Significantly, they did act, condemning anti-Semitism, and acknowledging that some forms of anti-Zionism (perhaps they meant “forms of expression” rather than particular “viewpoints”) are anti-Semitic. So it is important public rhetoric for those who had strong concerns about that issue, but it is not policy, and it is not enforceable.If there were an intention to make it enforceable, they would have taken it upon themselves to tell us how to distinguish those two forms. But they don’t.In my view, they had to assuage a vocal and persistent group of concerned people on this issue without sacrificing the First Amendment.That is what the formulation does.
Tikkun: In the past year, articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have discussed reports of rising anti-Semitism in the UC system, citing, among other events, a UCLA judicial council’s questioning of whether a Jewish student’s religion disqualified her from serving on a campus judicial panel. Do you believe reports of rising anti-Semitism on UC campuses accurately reflect the truth of the UC climate?
JB: I am clear that asking a Jewish student about her religion or how her religion would affect her political judgment is absolutely wrong, and that it constitutes discrimination on the basis of religion and, in this case, anti-Semitism.I am aware that swastikas have been placed on Jewish students doors, and all that is abhorrent and has to be unequivocally condemned and opposed.What I do not know, and which seemed not to concern the working group on “intolerance,” is whether black or Muslim or Arab students have suffered similar kinds of discrimination, prejudice, and injury. I am not sure why anti-Semitism is the most important form of intolerance according to the document.There is no empirical ground for thinking that those incidents are more frequent than other forms of racist or discriminatory actions.It would have been more just and more intelligible if the document had really researched the incidents of intolerance and provided an inclusive analysis.Sometimes anti-Semitic remarks are heard, or anti-Semitic acts are committed, but it is certainly not my experience that this happens very often on campus when Palestinian issues are put forward. Others clearly disagree.Of course, one has to distinguish between the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and that seems to be the predominant practice at such meetings and events, although sometimes I do hear some ignorant remarks: are there synagogues that are not Zionist? And some people know very little about Judaism as a religion. I do think that organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace have helped to open the minds of many people who are not Jewish to the commitment that many Jews have to the struggle to see Palestine decolonized, and to see substantive claims to freedom, equality, and self-determination realized for the Palestinian people.
Tikkun continues after another question and answer: In the California Scholars for Academic Freedom March 17 letter, for which you are listed as a contact, the CSAF writes, “…[The amendment] would, if adopted, allow for the development of policies throughout the UC system that seek to suppress political viewpoints that are rightfully part of public discussion and debate.” Could you clarify what standards constitute a belief that is “rightfully part of public discussion and debate”? In other words, are there viewpoints that are not rightfully part of debate? What type of anti-Zionist belief or rhetoric, if any, should the UC regents condemn?
JB: I do think that the approved document indicates that the regents do not want to be in the business of distinguishing political viewpoints within anti-Zionism. Obviously, a form of anti-Zionism that makes generalized, stereotypical, and prejudiced assumptions about the Jewish people would not be legitimate. But to criticize the State of Israel is not to criticize the Jewish people.We should always be wary about people who claim to summarize “the Jewish people” whether they are anti-Semitic or trying to elevate Jews in certain ways. Let’s assume we are a complex people, and that makes us very much like other people.Obviously, if someone is defending racist claims about the inferiority of Blacks or linking the Jewish people to blood-libel, or relying on hateful characterizations that clearly depict Jewishness in hateful ways, they are to be opposed.But the UC system already has principles and procedures in place to investigate and censor anti-Semitic acts.That should be enough of a basis to oppose instances of anti-Semitism on campus. Sometimes I have heard anti-Semitic remarks coming from communists (“the Jews are the bankers or the banks, or the system of all banking”) but also from the Right Wing (“the Jews are all communists”). These forms of anti-Semitism are largely unrelated to Zionism and its critics, and they are objectionable wherever they occur. Oddly, the document does not seem to concern itself with these forms.
Tikkun: In a March 20 article for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf connects the original statement’s call to condemn anti-Zionism with a perceived larger movement on the left to relegate certain topics as “undiscussable” on account of being offensive. Do you think this particular statement is an expansion of “safe-space” logic, or are the two unrelated?
JB: I was unsure about that analogy, even though I generally agreed with the conclusion of that article. Those who want to censor positions deemed anti-Zionist do not want it to be a viewpoint, however [contentious], within public debate. Some students have surely said they “don’t feel safe” in the presence of critical discussions about Israel, but mainly, the fear of those supporting censorship is that the critique of Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, have called into question the legitimacy of the state. So they are not just trying to feel safe, but to defend the State of Israel against fundamental critique.
Tikkun: In light of the rhetoric of the statement, what are particularly effective actions and strategies students on college campuses who are concerned about the situation in Israel and Palestine can take?

JB: It is clear to me that we have to assume our positions as scholars and ask about this rhetoric, what it aims to do, what it actually does, its relation to censorship, politics, and debate.We could certainly take this opportunity to ask about what is actually meant by “anti-Zionism”? What is the difference between how it is characterized by its opponents and how those who hold to such positions elaborate their view? There seems to be general ignorance in these discussions about Jewish history and culture, the Jews who belonged to the Bund who objected to Zionism, the Jewish internationalists and communists who objected to Zionism, and the orthodox Jews who objected to the state co-opting a religious and messianic function that had to remain spiritual.The debate in its current form asks about Zionism and anti-Zionism as if neither term has a history, as if neither has been actively debated, and as if there are not a range of positions designated by such terms.I remember when my son was very young and he announced, “We are voting for Al Gore!” and then suddenly stopped, and asked, “Who is Al Gore?” Maybe we can make that stop ourselves, reminding us of the importance of informed and critical inquiry so that we can have a debate on the fundamental issues at stake.There are so many interesting and urgent issues about history, citizenship, statehood, equality, belonging, land, colonial power, and resistance, all of which are postponed when inflamed rhetoric takes center stage.What recedes from view [are] the strong alliances between Palestinians and many other peoples, including Jews committed to social and political justice, to find a way to overcome this long history of colonization and dispossession.It is this affirmative future that has to be articulated if we are to find ways of speaking and thinking outside the terms of this impoverished debate.
For more information and coverage, visit Jewish Voice for Peace at or
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.
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4 thoughts on “The UC Regents and Anti-Semitism: A Q&A with Judith Butler

  1. It really saddens me that Palestinian society and leadership is not scrutinized. I am just wondering why. Here Israel catches tremendous heat, some of it justified, but this is a 2 way conflict for a piece of real estate. It really is simple why. It plainly is a double standard. Palestinians, perceived as the victim can never be look at by the same standard. no one ca look at their society,meaning their treatment of woman, gays, or just plain political opposition to their leadership. Would the judicial council questioned a Palestinian student? I doubt it. Should we call what is occurring on the US campuses anti Semitism? Perhaps. You decide.

    • Don’t we have the right to speak freely, regardless of whether someone else likes it or Not. The answer to speech you don’t like is the power of your speech to make a better argument. In the market place of ideas, the best ideas win. Unless we give up and try to ban something. This restriction may be undemocratic, and perhaps unconstitutional. Here is a Supreme Court ruling on this matter. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992)

      • You respond to Manny’s topical debating point by implying that he’s infringing on your right to speak freely. Ever heard of straw-man argumentation? What about straw-Sasquatch reasoning! It implies that you’ve got nothing to say to his point, which I suspect is true because in my opinion there IS nothing to say to it.

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