Does UC Berkeley really have ‘Jew-free zones’?

9 student groups at the university’s law school have banned pro-Israel speakers. How to make sense of the escalating furor

Illustrative: Students at the University of California, Berkeley, campus, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Illustrative: Students at the University of California, Berkeley, campus, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

JTA – It seemed like a headline out of the 19th century: a warning of “Jew-free zones” at the University of California-Berkeley.

That’s the phrase being employed by some prominent pro-Israel groups this week to describe a dispute at UC Berkeley’s law school, where nine student groups recently voted to adopt by-laws that state they will not invite any visiting speakers to campus who “hold views in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”

But is the “Jew-free” label accurate? Not according to Jewish leadership at the university. Here’s a rundown of the controversy, and where people have come down on it.

How did the UC Berkeley situation start?

In August, nine student groups at the UC Berkeley law school (out of more than 100) signed a statement authored by the group Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine.

Under the justification of “protecting the safety and welfare of Palestinian students,” the statement pledges not to invite “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views… in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine,” as reported by J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

The student groups who backed the pledge include Women of Berkeley Law, Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and the Queer Caucus, according to the organizing group. The statement also expressed support for the goals of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

Erwin Chemerinsky. (From video by Roxanne Makasdjian and uploaded by UC Berkeley, via Wikipedia)

Opposition was swift and came from the highest office at the law school. Erwin Chemerinsky, the school’s Jewish dean, wrote to the student body to condemn the pledge, calling it “troubling” and noting that “taken literally, this would mean that I could not be invited to speak because I support the existence of Israel, though I condemn many of its policies.”

Chemerinsky further pointed out that UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ, has denounced the BDS movement in the past, and that the school has an Antisemitism Education Initiative specifically designed to parse anti-Zionist rhetoric.

The law school’s Jewish Students Association board also authored an August 27 statement opposing the petition, writing that it “alienates many Jewish students from certain groups on campus,” and noting that their group was “one of the few affinity groups not contacted during this process.”

Even as all of this was happening, Chemerinsky insisted publicly that UC Berkeley’s law school was still a welcoming environment for Jewish students and speakers, calling the petition “a minor incident” and any outside attempts to spotlight it as indicative of campus-wide antisemitism “nonsense.”

Does the story end there?

No. Last week, about a month after the law student petition circulated, Kenneth Marcus, formerly the head of the federal government’s Commission on Human Rights, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal claiming that Berkeley now has “Jewish-free zones.”

File: Kenneth Marcus, at the time nominated to be Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 5, 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“It is now a century since Jewish-free zones first spread to the San Francisco Bay Area,” wrote Marcus, who is also a Berkeley Law alum and founder and chairman of the pro-Israel legal group Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. He compared the Berkeley Law petition to 19th-century signage in American cities with phrases like “No Jews, Dogs, or Consumptives,” and added that the incident was a sign of “​​university spaces go[ing] as the Nazis’ infamous call, judenfrei. Jewish-free.”

Other pro-Israel groups quickly followed suit in condemning Berkeley. Hadassah CEO Rhoda Smolow said the students’ actions “are not only antisemitic; they are anti-education.” StandWithUs repeated Marcus’ “Jew-free zones” comment in the subject line of a press release, threatening legal action against the school in the form of filing a Title VI civil rights violation complaint with the US Department of Education.

The Jewish Journal op-ed also occasioned several open letters opposing the Berkeley student groups who signed the by-laws, from the American Association of Jewish Lawyers & Jurists, which accused the law school of having “tolerated, condoned, and by such inaction, encouraged” an antisemitic environment; more than 100 Jewish student groups nationwide, including more than a dozen Hillel and Chabad chapters as well as several Jewish fraternities; and a number of pro-Israel groups including AIPAC and the World Jewish Congress, alongside the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish National Fund.

Among others rising up in anger following the publication of Marcus’ op-ed: Barbra Streisand, who tweeted October 1, “When does anti-Zionism bleed into broad anti-Semitism?” Streisand then linked to Marcus’ article.

So is Berkeley Law actually banning ‘Zionist’ speakers?

No. The law school’s policies around guest speakers remain unchanged, and the vast majority of law student groups have not backed the pledge to oppose such speakers. Many of the law school’s faculty have condemned the student drive, with more than two dozen professors signing an open letter “in support of Jewish law students” that calls the proposed bylaw “discriminatory” and “antithetical to free speech and our community values.”

The letter, spearheaded by Mark Yudof and Steven Davidoff Solomon, the Jewish law student group’s faculty advisor, further says that “many Jews… experience this statement as antisemitism because it denies the existence of the state of Israel, the historical home of the Jewish people.”

Jews at UC Berkeley are mad, too — but mainly at Marcus, and others who claim the school is now a breeding ground for antisemitism.

“The idea… that the Berkeley law school has ‘Jewish-free zones’ is preposterous,” two Jewish faculty members, Ron Hassner and Ethan Katz, wrote in an op-ed in J.

Hassner is the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies and co-director of the law school’s Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, while Katz is chair of an advisory committee on Jewish student life and co-director of the Berkeley Antisemitism Education Initiative.

They wrote that fears about an antisemitic environment at Berkeley don’t hold up to scrutiny, pointing to the law school’s recent hosting of Zionist speakers including Yossi Shain, a member of the Israeli Knesset. The pair added that the actions of nine law student groups don’t change “Berkeley’s deep institutional commitment” to Jewish studies and Israel studies.

“Panic-mongering around anti-Zionism on US campuses serves no purpose, other than to offer free advertisement for extremist ideas, and to erode needlessly Jews’ sense of basic safety and security in places where Jewish life is actually thriving,” Hassner and Katz wrote, while also condemning the law student anti-Zionist campaign as “nakedly discriminatory,” “bigoted” and “an outrage.”

Chemerinsky also spoke up, again, both in a response to the Jewish Journal and in his own op-ed in The Daily Beast. “There is no ‘Jewish-Free Zone’ at Berkeley Law or on the UC-Berkeley campus,” he wrote.

Why Berkeley?

For one, there’s the Bay Area city’s reputation as an incubator for progressive activism, which has made it a regular target of right-wing campus free speech protests. But there’s something else, too.

The Berkeley law school’s Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies is a recent recipient of a $10 million donation from the Helen Diller Institute, money which was used to expand its Israel Studies programming — including guest speakers. When the donation was announced last year, pro-Palestinian law student groups, including the group that later organized the petition protesting Zionist guest speakers, called on the school to reject the money.

They pointed to a long list of past objectionable donations by the Diller family, including to Canary Mission, an anonymous group that has published the personal information of Israel critics; the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group led by Jewish anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller; and to efforts to oppose a rent control ballot initiative.

At the time, the school rejected students’ calls to return the money, possibly laying the groundwork for the intra-campus dispute today over Zionist guest speakers, some of whom (including Shain) were funded by the Diller endowment.

The Dillers’ foundation had previously donated $10 million to UC Berkeley across two separate donations: half to fund the campus’ Center for Jewish Studies, and half to endow the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies.

Since the work of faculty like Hassner and Katz is made possible in part by the Diller family’s generosity, donor concerns are another factor at play. Donors to university Israel studies programs are increasingly looking for assurance that their money is going toward research and political speech they agree with — often with the encouragement of groups like StandWithUs, who push donors to build pro-Israel safeguards into their large-dollar donations. Reassuring the public that all is well with Israel-related matters at Berkeley also reassures the donors.

Earlier this year at the University of Washington, a donor withdrew a $5 million gift from the school’s Israel Studies program because she didn’t approve of its endowed chair signing a letter critical of Israel. Katz signed a letter sent at the time to UW’s president supporting the affected professor.

What could happen now?

As of now the initial student letter hasn’t prompted much action on campus, apart from a strong rebuke from the UC Berkeley administration. But the reactions to it could be a signal of something more.

The forceful public tactics being employed by pro-Israel groups well versed in campus controversies are a sign that their approach to UC Berkeley may follow a by-now familiar playbook, much to the chagrin of Jewish faculty on campus who would prefer to keep things quiet.

StandWithUs, which is threatening to file a Title VI complaint, brings to mind several similar investigations that the US Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has opened up against schools in recent years for allegedly fostering antisemitic environments on campus.

Most recently, the Brandeis Center and campus antisemitism watchdog group Jewish On Campus succeeded in opening an investigation at the University of Vermont by filing a complaint about ad-hoc student groups that said they wouldn’t admit Zionist students, among other things. The school’s administration has vigorously denied the allegations.

Marcus declined to tell JTA whether the Brandeis Center would also be looking to file a complaint against UC Berkeley. But the organization argues that any campus anti-Zionist speech or activity is tantamount to discriminating against Jewish students, and that universities have an obligation to oppose such speech by any legal means. The Brandeis Center wants the federal government to define anti-Zionist activity in the same way, and uses Title VI as a means of pressuring universities to take action against students who may be engaging in such activity.

Will they do so in this instance? Marcus told JTA in a statement that the center is “prepared to take whatever action is required,” but did not elaborate on what that action could be.

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