On Friday, Santa Cruz’s Resource Center for Nonviolence hosts a conference organized by the newly formed Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism. About 100 academics from UC Santa Cruz and across the country will discuss issues of Israel’s statehood and its treatment of Palestinians. The conference has caused a wide schism on campus and beyond, with the UCSC administration distancing itself from the event. Some academics say the conference is a legitimate “study of Zionist institutions,” while others argue it is “foundationally and irrevocably antisemitic.”
An academic conference on Zionism set to be held this week in Santa Cruz has sparked a widening controversy within UC Santa Cruz, raising questions of both academic freedom and reasonable debate. It is also causing a rift between local community organizations.
The newly formed Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism’s (ICSZ) conference aims to critique Zionism, with sessions set for Friday at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz and in New York on Saturday.
About 200 people are expected to attend in-person events on both days, split evenly between Santa Cruz and New York, conference organizers said. The event comes amid an escalating war the Middle East. Israel launched airstrikes on the Gaza Strip over the weekend after a surprise attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (All interviews in this story were granted before the weekend attacks.)
The conference has received broad condemnation from local Jewish leaders and international Jewish advocacy groups. They have written to UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive urging the school to denounce the event.
In a public statement issued last month, Larive tried to distance UCSC from the event. The university’s administration said the school does not endorse the conference and noted that none of the events are taking place on campus. In addition, the university said the fact that several UCSC departments and centers are acting as co-sponsors of the event “should not be interpreted as a university endorsement.”
UCSC’s statement did not specify why it was not endorsing the conference. Lookout sought further clarification from the university, but officials didn’t make anyone available for an interview on the ongoing controversy.
The ICSZ formed over the past year and includes a founding collective of 10 scholars and an advisory board of 33 researchers, professors and activists from around the country. Several UCSC faculty, including Christine Hong and Jennifer Kelly, who both teach in the Critical Race & Ethnic Studies department, are founding members of the institute. Three UCSC departments — Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, the Center for Racial Justice, and the Center for Creative Ecologies — are co-sponsoring the upcoming event, and seven UCSC faculty members are scheduled to speak during the first day of the conference.
The event focuses on “Battling the ‘IHRA definition,’” a reference to a definition of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 35-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which the United States is a member. Among other things, that definition considers describing the existence of Israel as a racist endeavor to be antisemitic.
In the broadest sense, Zionism — established in the 19th century during rising antisemitism in Europe — is the movement to create and support the Jewish state of Israel in the ancestral Jewish homeland in Palestine. At the heart of the debate over Zionism are fraught questions of when criticism of Israel’s policies crosses into positions of antisemitism and challenging Israel’s right to its existence as a Jewish state.
The founders of the institute say they want to bring to the fore the study of Zionist institutions and critique them. “It’s really difficult for people to study Zionist institutions without being called antisemitic,” ICSZ director and Sarah Lawrence College lecturer Emmaia Gelman, who is Jewish, told Lookout. “So the idea here is to try and make space for the study of Zionism and Zionist institutions and politics that recognizes how important they are and how much they function outside the world of Israel and Jewish politics and antisemitism.”
‘Points of unity’ pledge adds fuel to the debate
One of the most contentious issues has been the conference organizers’ initial requirements that attendees confirm their agreement with several “points of unity” before registering, including agreeing with ideas such as: “Zionism is a settler colonial racial project.”
In its statement declining to endorse the conference, UCSC said requiring attendees to agree to points of unity indicating they hold specific views about Zionism could violate free speech laws.
Gelman defended the points of unity, saying it’s not unusual for a group of intellectuals to agree on a common ground.
“In the same way that any organization, like an intellectual or political project, begins with a shared sense of what you’re doing, that’s our shared sense of what we’re doing,” she said. “I want to also just suggest that the idea that points of unity are unusual is silly. It may be that they’re not articulated in lots of places.”
Gelman said organizers consider the event to be a non-public convening of scholars who are affiliated with the institute. While ICSZ no longer requires attendees to confirm their agreement before registering, Gelman said the points of unity still apply.
“If you’re not part of the institute’s community, then this convening is not for you,” she said. “So yes, the points of unity still underwrite the convening.”
Paula Marcus, senior rabbi of Aptos’ Temple Beth El, told Lookout that the statement is an example of an anti-Israel comment that crosses the line into antisemitism.
“That isn’t to say that, especially with what’s happening right now in the occupied territories, that doesn’t qualify as colonialism. But to call the whole country a colonial effort” is inaccurate when Jewish people have resided in the area for thousands of years, she said in an interview last Monday prior to the attacks on Israel.
Santa Cruz Hillel Executive Director Becka Ross, UC Presidential Co-Chair of Feminist Critical Race & Ethnic Studies Bettina Aptheker and the Anti-Defamation League raised similar concerns in statements to Lookout.
In an email to Lookout, Aptheker said she had no problem with the conference’s aim to critically analyze the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism and “the way it is being deployed to silence, especially scholars and activists, who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” However, she said the conference’s points of unity make no mention of the history of Jewish oppression and persecution that culminated in the Holocaust: “The failure of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism to acknowledge this oppression is foundationally and irrevocably antisemitic.”
UCSC Center for Jewish Studies Director Nathaniel Deutsch said he’s very opposed to the requirement that those who want to attend the conference must affirm their agreement with the institute’s “points of unity.”
“Isn’t the point to have a conversation where hopefully experts in the field are talking to one another and people in the audience can contribute as well?” he said. “And then everyone goes away having drawn their own conclusions at the end?”
Deutsch co-wrote letters with Alma Heckman, UCSC’s Neufeld-Levin Chair in Holocaust Studies, expressing their concerns to UCSC administrators, some of ICSZ’s co-founding members and the Council of UC Faculty Associations. He said he didn’t get any response from UCSC colleagues involved in the conference, including to his invitation to have a conversation about the event. He agreed with parts of the university’s statement but thought some elements should have been phrased differently. He said he didn’t want to elaborate on private conversations with administrators.
“I became very concerned about [the points of unity requirement] because of how important I think it is that a university, and especially public university, be a place where viewpoint discrimination doesn’t occur and where there is no kind of political litmus test in order to participate in free conversations about issues, especially issues that are controversial and that are nuanced, and so on, like Zionism,” he said.
He said the Center for Jewish Studies will be hosting an event in the spring looking at anti-Zionism and antisemitism that will be open to the public. Deutsch said while the ICSZ conference was a catalyst for Center for Jewish Studies to begin planning its own conference, he’s felt a need for an event like this for some time.
“Among other things, we will be looking at the text of the [new institute’s] conference website, different iterations of the website, examining it and asking the question, ‘Are there elements of the website that we think are antisemitic or not?’” he said.
Regarding the first “points of unity” concept, “Zionism is a settler colonial racial project,” Deutsch said he doesn’t think that statement is inherently antisemitic. He said that’s a question scholars should be openly debating.
“I think it can be used by someone who is motivated by antisemitism, but in and of itself, no,” he said. ”In the scholarship on Zionism, there’s debate. Is it settler colonial? To what extent is it racial? Is it [racial]? And there are people who think that it is or isn’t, or think that it is in these respects but not in other respects. [For] scholars of any historical phenomenon [or] political movement, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing is engaging with questions like that.”
New community rifts
The conference has also caused a rift between Temple Beth El and the Resource Center for Nonviolence.
Temple Beth El’s Marcus said the synagogue will no longer be cosponsoring events with the center because it agreed to host the conference. “I have a great deal of respect for [RCNV Executive Director] Silvia Morales — great deal of respect and admiration for her,” Marcus said. “But this decision is a deal-breaker.”
A representative for the RCNV said the center wants to keep working with Temple Beth El, but felt it was important to host the conference. The representative said the institute’s goal of opening up the dialogue, not just about Zionism but about ethnic studies broadly, is needed right now given a rising backlash nationally against teaching students about topics like race and history.
The conference is “in alignment with the work that we’ve always done,” the representative said. “We’re excited about it, actually.”
Marcus said she believes the ICSZ event should be held on campus, not off. She says it is an academic conference by its nature and should best be held there rather than causing disagreement in the community.
UCSC grapples with the issues
The controversy over the conference has touched off renewed debate about how to discuss and define antisemitism at a time when UCSC and other universities have been grappling with rising incidents of hate, including anti-Jewish sentiment.
In April, UCSC said a group of students had held a birthday party for Adolf Hitler on campus. In March 2022, UCSC officials reported finding antisemitic and racist graffiti on several buildings. Jewish students have also said they have seen swastikas drawn on dormitory doors and across school property.
“The fact that three UCSC academic units publicly endorse viewpoints and activism that legitimize the hatred of Jews and Israel and seek their harm can’t help but create an extremely toxic environment for Jewish and pro-Israel faculty and students on your campus,” a group of seven UCSC faculty members wrote in a letter to Larive last week. Lookout was provided with a copy of the letter, which was originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
In a letter last month to UCSC, the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organization that works to fight antisemitism, said the university should take several additional steps beyond not endorsing the conference, including affirming support for the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism and providing support to the Jewish community leading up to the conference.
“Even though it is not specifically outlined in their statement, we very much hope that the university will do all it can to support the Jewish students,” the ADL Central Pacific Region’s deputy director, Teresa Drenick, told Lookout.
Conference organizer Gelman said she is disappointed in the university’s statement about the conference.
“The idea that the administration of the university would say we endorse, or don’t endorse, a conference is extraordinary. That’s not done,” she said. “The university is a home for the intellectual work of the faculty and the students that it brings together and this is the intellectual work of the faculty and the students at Santa Cruz.”
She said that it’s become all too common for academics and activists to be accused of antisemitism when mentioning Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, and told Lookout that educators in the group seek to study Zionism “in the same way that you would study any kind of politics.”
UCSC Associate Professor Jennifer Kelly said that the university administration’s statement “is disingenuous at best in that it casts aspersions on research they have celebrated in every other context with teaching awards, research grants and fellowships including but not limited to my own.”
The institute is significant, she added, as it “provides an institutional home for scholars like me … it brings together scholarship on Zionism and its effects from across multiple fields.”
Kelly was hired in 2018 as a Palestinian studies scholar and she researches the stories of people “whose lives have been upended by Zionism, from their families’ exile from their homes in and since 1948, to either their continued occupation or their inability to return to their homelands,” she said.
Several academic organizations have also expressed support for the institute and its conference. The Council of UC Faculty Associations — an umbrella organization for associations of senate faculty at each University of California campus — wrote a Sept. 25 letter to UCSC administrators expressing concerns about the university’s statement.
“This irregular action sets a worrying precedent for future academic gatherings that might cover topics deemed sensitive in that it suggests that the administration should play the role of an arbiter in condemning or condoning the research activities of its faculty or campus units,” the council wrote. “Further, this institutional distancing from faculty members is particularly concerning given the ongoing attacks on academic freedom designed to suppress the teaching and study of racism and colonialism in other parts of the country.”
Gelman said that despite the backlash, the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism hopes to hold more events in person and virtually.
She said the institute has lofty goals but has not yet decided on whether the group plans to create a physical central office. “Our plans are so big,” she said. “I don’t actually know about physical space because one of the things that have been so amazing is how much participation there is from all over the place.”
Deutsch, the Center for Jewish Studies director, also expects to continue the discussion about Zionism and antisemitism with the conference the center is planning to hold in the spring, one he hopes a range of experts will attend.
“That’s why we have courses at the university and why we have events at the university where experts on things like this come together,” he said. “And that’s also, by the way, why sometimes we have disagreement, that even when evidence is presented, arguments are made, expertise is drawn on, there are some times when people will say, ‘You know what? I see what you’re saying,’ or maybe, ‘I don’t see what you’re saying, I disagree.”
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