Latest chilling of speech on campus: UCLA’s Asian American Studies department goes blatantly political on the Palestine/Israel issue

July 5, 2022 • 10:30 am

What we have below is a prime example of what a University should not be doing: issuing official statements on strong political, ideological, or moral issues.  In this absurd statement, the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA issued a strong attack on Israel and a defense of Palestine—as an official department statement on the department’s website. The only signer is “The Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles,” so I guess it gives the view of every faculty member in Asian American Studies.

There are so many things wrong with it that I barely want to bother. Here are a few:

a.) It’s a statement from a public university that is bound to honor the First Amendment. Issuing statements like this may not violate that Amendment, but (see “b”). . .

b.) “Official” statements that come down hard on one side of a debatable issue—and this one is surely debatable—are liable to chill the speech of other people who adhere to the other side, or don’t agree completely with the statement. After you read it (it’s not long; click on the screenshot), imagine being a graduate student or untenured professor in that department who is Jewish, or who just doesn’t see Israel as the oppressor of Palestinians the way this department does. Would you talk about your opposition, or even write a critique of it on your own social media site? I don’t think so: you’d lose respect, collegiality, and maybe even promotion or tenure.

This is why the University of Chicago has the Kalven Report, a principle that  I’ve discussed in detail. It prohibits departments, administrators, or units of the University from making official statements about politics, ideology, or morality—unless those statements directly involve the mission of the University: freely teaching and learning. Do read the short report; it’s one of the two pillars of academic freedom at the University of Chicago. (The other and better-known of our two free-speech principle are the famous Chicago Principles of Free Expression, now been adopted by over 80 American colleges, both public and private.)

c.) The statement is misleading, tendentious, and biased, neglecting the “settler colonialism” that’s happened all over the world (uniquely singling out Israel in this respect is a sign of anti-Semitism), and completely ignoring the hatred and terrorism that comes from Palestine—an apartheid state that treats gays, apostates, non-Muslims, and women as second-class citizens. It ignores the firing of rockets and killing of innocent Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists. It ignores the Palestinians’ repeated refusal to accept or discuss Israel’s offer of a two-state solution.

It is in fact a statement with no purpose other than to demonstrate that the Asian American Studies Department is virtuous in its support of Palestine and hatred of Israel. It is an act of Performative Wokeness.  And believe me, I’d be just as opposed to UCLA if they issued a statement demonizing Palestine instead of Israel. It’s the principle I oppose, though I freely admit that I think this statement is grossly biased against Israel and verges on official anti-Semitism.

I’ll give just two paragraphs of the statement, and urge you to read it for yourself (my bolding). The second paragraph below is particularly ironic, while the first shows multiple but different academic units of UCLA also violating our Kalven Principles.  There is no mention of Palestinian perfidy; one would think that that territory has a spotless record of human rights.

The Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people as they continue to fight for the right to land, life, dignity, and freedom.  We mourn the staggering loss of life, in which over 200 Palestinians have been killed in one week alone, including 64 children and 38 women at the time of this statement.  The latest upsurge in violence has taken the form of deadly airstrikes, unauthorized evictions, beatings and imprisonments intended to terrorize and displace Palestinians.  Media distortion and censorship has further suppressed Palestinian narratives, and threatened freedom of speech and academic freedom.  With our colleagues from the Palestinian Feminist CollectivePalestine and Praxis: Scholars for Palestinian FreedomNational Women’s Studies AssociationAssociation of Asian American StudiesMiddle East Studies Association,  Gender Studies Departments in Solidarity with Palestinian Feminist CollectiveUCSC Feminist StudiesUCSC Critical Race and Ethnic StudiesUIC Global Asian StudiesUCSD AAPI Studies ProgramUC Berkeley Ethnic StudiesUC DavisUIUC Asian American Studies DepartmentPrinceton University, and Yale Ethnicity, Rights, and Migration, we understand that such violence and intimidation are but the latest manifestation of seventy-three years of settler colonialism, racial apartheid, and occupation.

As an academic department situated on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples, we oppose settler-colonialism in all its forms, from Tovaangar to Palestine.  We condemn the exploitation, theft, and colonization of land and labor and we strive for freedom and justice for all peoples. Asian American Studies, which traces our history to the Third World Liberation Front Strike of 1968, has long advanced a critique of imperialism, militarism, and settler colonialism in the United States, Asia, Oceania, and elsewhere.  We condemn the exchange of military tactics and financial support between the United States and Israel, noting how U.S. counterinsurgency techniques and military equipment used during the Vietnam War were then extrapolated to the Occupied Territories; how the Israeli military’s policing of the apartheid wall dividing Jerusalem and isolating the West Bank has influenced the U.S.’s own brutal border security policies along the U.S.-Mexico border; and how Israel has too often upheld its support of Asian and Asian American individuals as proof of multicultural democracy, over and against the ethnic cleansing of Palestine via a process of “yellow-washing.”

. . .In solidarity,

The Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Well, if you’re situated on stolen land and oppose that, why doesn’t UCLA or the Department give the land back or pay reparations? At least there’s a building housing this department that could be given to the Gabrielini/Tongva people, or reimburse them for the cost of both the L.A. land and the building on it. Of course they won’t, for this is a performative act not meant to accomplish anything beyond saying: “Hey, look! We’re ideologically correct.”

Two of my colleagues had the following reaction to the land-claim bit of the statement that went:

As an academic department situated on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples, we oppose settler-colonialism in all its forms, from Tovaangar to Palestine.

First response, noting that it’s an Asian-American Studies Department:

I’d like their position on Han colonization of the Yangtze and Pearl valleys and the concomitant colonialist suppression of Yue, Min, Hmong, and other indigenous peoples (to say nothing of Uygers and Tibetans).

Second response:

If more historical knowledge were available, it would surely reveal that the “Gabrielino/Tongva peoples” had colonized the LA region from whoever lived there before too. The natives weren’t sitting around singing Kumbaya before the white man arrived!

Again, although the department says it opposes settler-colonialism in all its forms, the statement is about the “settler-colonialism” of Israel alone. And yet China is one of the biggest settler-colonialist nations going.  What, do you suppose, explains the unique demonization of Israel?

24 thoughts on “Latest chilling of speech on campus: UCLA’s Asian American Studies department goes blatantly political on the Palestine/Israel issue

  1. Do you also think Universities should not have made similar statements about Apartheid-era South Africa or pre-WW2 Nazi Germany?

    1. No. What is the point? Read the Kalven Report. In fact, the University refused to make statements about Apartheid, the Vietnam War, Darfur, and so on.

      If you read the Kalven Report you’ll understand my position, as I agree with it. It’s for similar reasons why the ACLU (used to) protect speech that most people find objectionable. Or read Mill’s On Liberty.

  2. I guess it gives the view of every faculty member in Asian American Studies.

    Perhaps a small cabal of radicals who no one else dares to defy.

  3. Whenever I read or hear the word “dignity” I read this again :

    The stupidity of dignity
    Steven Pinker

    … Pinker wrote that in different context from this post, but I think it is a general criticism of “dignity”. I’ll have to re-read it.

  4. This is an egregious example of its type—pretending to care about the stolen land upon which they work and then using that fake virtue as a springboard to attack what they don’t like—all using the imprimatur of the university as cover. Disgusting and, of course, antisemitic in this case.

    But this brings up a related point. Are departments like this (and the various “studies” departments they cite as partners) truly academic departments, or are they lobbying and propaganda machines funded by outside benefactors or interest groups but housed in universities? Strict adherence to the principles espoused in the Kalven Report would certainly help, as statements made on behalf of whole departments are particularly odious. But why do universities continue to let themselves be used by groups like this? University affiliation gives them credibility they don’t deserve and they create publicity problems that universities surely don’t need. These folks have a right to express their views, but they should start their own think tanks to do so.

  5. A) I sincerely hope that their Asian-American Studies Department finally recognizes that Israel and Palestine are part of Asia. Too many people fail to recognize that.

    > offer of a two-state solution.

    B) Personally, I’d love to see a zero-state solution. I don’t know the appropriate way to support it.

    1. I see, you want to do away with both Israel and Palestine. I don’t see any other interpretation of what you say unless you care to explain it.

      In the meantime, I’d take a break from posting if I were you.

      1. I support both Israel and Palestine as voluntary communities, with people free to opt-in wherever on Earth (or elsewhere) they happen to be, and without the power to inflict their will upon the unwilling. Best.

        1. That’s insane. As I said, please take a break for a month or so. You seem to want to give your two cents on every post, but this time you stepped on your tongue. “Voluntary communities” my tuchas.

  6. So when I was a kid we couldn’t act out to show we disagreed with a parental decision so I perfected a very expressive pout. Academy award level to my young mind. Besides laughing at me, my folks would talk about cutting off my nose to spite my face. And I was and did. As is true of UCLA’s Asian Studies Department’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statement. They issue a virtue signaling pout that accomplishes little other than to show the department’s solidarity with other woke scholars. Seems relatively harmless outside the academy. But that’s an incorrect analysis of the damage this kind of statement causes. When an arm of a college or university issues statements that folks outside the academy find biased and a bit unhinged, it damages the esteem in which the whole enterprise is held. And with it higher ed’s nose.

  7. Thirty-five years ago I was a TA for an Electronics Lab that all undergrad physics majors had to take. One of the students was a Palestinian. One day we were talking and he said: “There can be no peace in the Middle East until Israel is no more.”

    The Palestinians can have peace on good terms any time they want it. The problem is that they don’t want it because Israel still exists.

    How does one explain the behavior of the UCLA Asian American Studies Department? I think the only viable hypothesis is that they despise Western civilization.

    1. Your Palestinian student was almost certainly wrong. There was no Israel in 1947 and yet there was no peace. In fact, the creation of the state of Israel was an attempt to quell the violence. The only way to stop that violence from returning after the dissolution of Israel would be to commit genocide against the Jews, again, which is, itself, an act of horrific violence.

  8. Jerry, this is outrageous and disappointing especially coming officially from a university department. Even never minding the Chicago/Kalven principles, the President of UCLA ought to have publicly condemned this. As you say, Kalven distinguishes between free speech and official chilling speech. The piece is dated 13 months ago and has no in-line comments visible to me as a random stranger. Was there an official response speaking for the university or a retraction from the department?

    Just terrible.

  9. I’m Jewish myself, though not much of a Zionist, and I have a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians … but with that said, how can the authors of this statement not realize that the people in Palestine most closely analogous to the “Gabrielino/Tongva peoples” are actually the Jews – the people whose “ancestral and unceded territory” it is, the people to whom the land has historically been considered sacred?

    Jews going to settle in Palestine is not “settler colonialism” – it’s much more like the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples coming back to Westwood and taking houses around the UCLA campus. And the failure of the UCLA Asian American department to recognize the validity of that analogy is the most revealing thing of all about this – and also why this statement can be justifiably seen as anti-Semitic: native people holding their connection with their ancestral lands is applauded – just so long as those native people are not Jews returning to Israel.

    1. Well, not really. The Hebrew scriptures themselves claim that the Hebrews/Israelites were late-comers to the Southern Levant and were commanded by their deity to exterminate the previous inhabitants, the Canaanites of various ethnicities, indeed to slaughter the women and children as well as the men. How historically accurate this might be is of course an entirely different question.
      Don’t get me wrong, I do not think that this should play any role in the current conflict. I think both Jews and Palestinians have fully legitimate claims to the region in question and must find a way to live peacefully as neighbours, as unlikely as that may be.

      1. Even if those scriptural descriptions are true (and at least some archaeologists, notably Israel Finkelstein, suggest that they are not), I don’t think they change the fact that Israel is both the “ancestral and unceded” land of contemporary Jews, and the land which they have considered sacred for thousands of years (far longer than can be attested for the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples!)

        But I agree with you 100% that this should have NO role in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict!! My only point was to note the inconsistency in UCLA’s treatment of ancestral land-claims made by Jews and those made by Native Americans – and to suggest one likely reason for the inconsistency …

  10. Agree with every word Jerry writes. Publishing such a statement is wrong in principle, and the statement itself is a pinnacle of stupidity and internal contradictions.
    As regards settler colonialism and Palestine, they somehow forgot to mention the Arab conquerors and settlers who marginalized the language (Aramaic), culture and religion of the previous population.
    For the benefit of those readers who apparently suspect double standards here (Colin R): I was also against the official statements against antisemitism by German academic institutions a while ago, which by the way on top of stifling fee speech and free academic inquiry used the IHRA definition of antisemitism that does not fulfil the criteria for an academic definition. (“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews” begging the question: which perception exactly?).
    “Asian American Studies” seems a strange Academic field, seeing that Libanese Americans and Hmong Americans don’t have much in common except both being Americans and settler colonialists, whoops, immigrants to America, happily occupying unceded land of diverse indigenous nations.

  11. Well, if you’re situated on stolen land and oppose that, why doesn’t UCLA or the Department give the land back or pay reparations? At least there’s a building housing this department that could be given to the Gabrielini/Tongva people, or reimburse them for the cost of both the L.A. land and the building on it. Of course they won’t, for this is a performative act not meant to accomplish anything beyond saying: “Hey, look! We’re ideologically correct.”

    I was going to say that that is not really practical, but on reflection, I think I would be wrong. They could assign the freehold of the land to a trust for the people from whom it was stolen in exchange for a perpetual lease. Has anybody suggested that?

    1. Jeremy, the only people who could discuss such an arrangement would be the people who actually own the land the UCLA sits on. The opinion of a few academic employees means nothing. If the profs want to do reparations, let them sign over the land their own personal houses sit on. They can become tenants of hostile landlords instead of homeowners able to renovate and sell their houses as they please. When they realized their own equity would go up in smoke, that’s the last we’d hear of the proposal.

      Just because the departmental statement repeats the Indigenous propaganda of “stolen land”, that doesn’t make it true. All land held in the formerly British territory in North America was acquired by Right of Conquest, which was as legitimate in the colonial expansion period as it was in 1066. The concept of unceded (“stolen”) land is not considered relevant to the security of title held by landowners in North America. Most of Montreal and Vancouver are “unceded”. Native advocates do not accept this in theory but they do in practice, most of the time.

      The UCLA’s Board–I’ll call them that because I don’t know the actual governance structure–and the State of California would deem the trust proposal highly deleterious to the university’s position for obvious reasons. There would have to be some highly motivating reason for them to do this. The only thing I can think of would be an armed insurrection and land seizure that the state and federal armed forces were unable to suppress in which the government capitulated to the idea that portions of the sovereign United States were, literally, up for grabs by a self-styled foreign power. This is not going to happen, not in the USA at least..

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