A recent administrative complaint filed last week by StandWithUs against the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) may lead to a deep struggle for the soul of the university and could have a broader impact on how Israeli and Zionist students are treated on US campuses.
At the heart of the complaint is exploring whether UCLA and other universities will clearly define limits for anti-Israel statements and actions by academics against pro-Israel students, or whether universities will hold up the free speech banner to obscure any redlines.
Part of what makes the complaint so interesting is that unlike San Francisco State University – which was also sued for antisemitism but which never tried to endear itself to Jews beyond avoiding legal liability for discrimination – UCLA cares about the Jewish community.
UCLA's Hillel is strong and there is a large Jewish presence on campus. This is not a simple case of a uniformly anti-Israel university having an incident that went too far. Rather, it is a case where it is alleged that a university with a strong commitment to the Jewish community has paradoxically and repeatedly allowed actions against its Jewish students, cowering from confronting the anti-Israel elements in its midst due to free speech concerns.
It started on May 14, when a professor of Arab and Muslim Ethnicities at San Francisco State University, Rabab Abdulhadi, was invited by UCLA Prof. Kyeyoung Park to guest lecture in her anthropology class.
Abdulhadi allegedly used the opportunity to rant against Israel and its supporters, calling Zionists – wherever they might live – white supremacists.
A Jewish student in the class, Shayna Lavi, challenged Abdulhadi's comments, allegedly leading the professor to ridicule her.
There are alternate but similar reports about what happened between Lavi and Park following the incident, but each report alleges that Park was dismissive.
StandWithUs (SWU) then entered the picture and started two rounds of attempts to convince UCLA to take serious action to correct the way Park handled Lavi.
Shortly after the incident, the organization sent a letter stating that Park negatively singled out a student later, who had filed a claim against her and Abdulhadi with the university's anti-discrimination office.
SWU's letter also recited a long list of recent and less recent anti-Israel or anti-Jewish incidents at UCLA. These ranged from the administration protecting pro-Palestinian students from consequences for vandalizing and ruining a Jewish event, to the UCLA student government taking actions to support the Students for Justice in Palestine's platform against Israel.
Furthermore, the letter was not merely a generic complaint to discuss the university's framing of academic freedom. Rather, it listed specifically applicable legal provisions that could make UCLA liable for discrimination and harassment.
Days later, the university issued a response saying that several students in Park's class had "raised concerns about the nature and content of a May 14 lecture delivered by a guest speaker that they felt went beyond legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and veered into antisemitism."
UCLA added that it is, "committed to academic freedom as well as building an inclusive learning environment without discrimination and harassment... Allegations of discrimination or harassment have been conveyed to the Discrimination Prevention Office."
Crucially, the university made sure to add that UCLA is known as a top university for Jewish and Israel activity, clearly hoping that the broader picture would help put out the fire of the particular incident.
IN ITS complaint filed in early October, SWU alleged that UCLA's discrimination office did not sufficiently deal with the issue.
The complaint said that on August 16, the office informed Lavi that its probe led to the conclusion that no violations had occurred.
Next, the complaint said that the office told Lavi that its conclusions were based on analyzing the narrow issues of whether any discrimination against Lavi had been religiously based and on whether Park had engaged in retaliatory conduct.
At the same time, the office said it would "recommend training" to Park.
SWU's early-October complaint alleged that the university's limited actions were insufficient to save it from liability for discrimination and antisemitic harassment, which create a hostile environment.
UCLA's defense appears to be that it probed the incident and found that there were anti-Israel comments, but that the comments were not anti-Jewish or antisemitic.
There is an increasing trend in some scholarly circles to break down the wall between anti-Israel and antisemitic, which is largely artificial.
For years, countries like Iran have claimed that they can be fair to Jews, while seeking to wipe Israel off the map.
Professors like Park and her guest lecturer, who not only promote the idea that Israel is the main wrong party in the Israeli-Arab conflict, but also that those who support Israel in the US are themselves white supremacists – essentially evil and deserving of condemnation – are a far cry from Iran.
But academics who use their pulpit to try to make debate about Israel one-sided by categorically condemning those who disagree with them are themselves consciously clouding the lines between being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
In a statement upon filing its early October complaint, SWU did not deny all the good UCLA does for the Jewish community. It simply said that this good cannot be used as a cop-out from confronting antisemitism, which is thriving under the guise of anti-Israel criticism and academic freedom.
The chances of SWU winning a resounding legal victory are not high.
America's anti-discrimination laws were not drafted in a way that makes it easy to "pierce the veil" of one kind of discrimination that could be seen as protected political speech to get to underlying discrimination, which is not protected.
But simply keeping the issue alive may make UCLA and other universities rethink whether they can continue to play the game of trying not to offend anyone or whether they will need to take a stand against this new form of antisemitism.
Universities may then find themselves in court for complaints alleging that they are oppressing academic freedom to favor Israel.
However, if they know they will get sued either way, maybe they can start making a hard-nosed decision about what they really believe is happening in the classroom – instead of worrying about potential fallout from one side or another.