Leading US Jewish groups blast Berkeley Law school amid anti-Zionism uproar

Furor erupts after 9 student groups ban pro-Israel speakers in latest antisemitism controversy to roil US campuses; Jewish leaders at college decry ‘panic-mongering’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: The University of California campus in Berkeley, California, on March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu,File)
Illustrative: The University of California campus in Berkeley, California, on March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu,File)

Leading US Jewish groups on Monday condemned the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, amid an uproar over a ban on Zionist speakers by student groups, the latest in a series of battles over antisemitism on US campuses.

Twenty-six organizations said the ban was a “vicious attempt to marginalize and stigmatize the Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel community.”

“This is unabashed antisemitism,” said the signatories, including the World Jewish Congress, AIPAC, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The letter was published in The Jewish Journal.

Over 150 student groups from US universities also signed an open letter condemning the bylaw.

A pro-Palestinian organization set off the controversy at the start of the academic year in August by announcing a bylaw that banned speakers that support “Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”

Nine student groups signed onto the bylaw led by the campus’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. It included other anti-Israel measures including a commitment to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The college’s Jewish Students Association said it had not been consulted about the move, which it said “alienates many Jewish students from certain groups on campus” and could stoke antisemitism.

Last week, The Jewish Journal published an op-ed on the issue titled “Berkeley develops Jewish-free zones,” igniting a firestorm of controversy.

The op-ed’s author, Kenneth L. Marcus, is the founder of the Brandeis Center, an advocacy organization that has led the legal battle against antisemitism on college campuses.

“Anti-Zionism is flatly antisemitic. Using ‘Zionist’ as a euphemism for Jew is nothing more than a confidence trick,” said Marcus, a Berkeley Law alum. He likened the student bylaw to the Nazi judenfrei, meaning an area cleansed of Jews.

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

The article garnered widespread attention from media, Jewish groups and pro-Israel personalities. The Anti-Defamation League said the student groups were “antisemitic at their core.”

Berkeley Law’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, hit back on Saturday in an op-ed in The Daily Beast.

“There is no ‘Jewish-Free Zone’ at Berkeley Law or on the UC-Berkeley campus,” said Chemerinsky, a Jewish, progressive Zionist. “The Law School’s rules are clear that no speaker can be excluded for being Jewish or for holding particular views.”

Only nine out of 100 student groups adopted the bylaw, which is protected by First Amendment rights, and no speakers have yet been banned, he said.

Chemerinsky also objected to the pro-Palestinian bylaw when it was announced, saying he himself would be banned under its provisions.

Berkeley Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine doubled down in response to the controversy, saying a ban on Zionist speakers “who are either active or complicit in causing harm to Palestinians” was “absolutely a tenable action.”

“Apartheid is a crime against humanity and as student leaders at Berkeley Law we believe that we have an obligation to act,” the group said.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Two Jewish leaders at the university said Sunday that the anti-Zionist bylaw was “an outrage,” but said there were no Jewish-free zones on campus, calling the idea “preposterous.”

“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,” they wrote in J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

They pointed out that there are 13 Israeli scholars teaching classes on Israel on campus, Israeli lawmaker Yossi Shain recently visited, and the campus has successful Chabad and Hillel groups and other Jewish organizations.

The Berkeley uproar was the latest in a series of major antisemitism controversies on US campuses.

Federal probes are investigating antisemitism at the University of Vermont, the State University of New York at New Paltz, the University of Southern California and Brooklyn College.

The City University of New York has been under fire for allegations of widespread antisemitism on some of its campuses, including from Jewish New York City lawmakers, who have repeatedly called for action to address the problem. The sprawling university system announced measures to counter antisemitism on Monday.

A rash of antisemitic attacks hit US campuses around the Rosh Hashanah holiday last week.

A Jewish fraternity at New Jersey’s Rutgers University was egged in the fourth antisemitic incident at the building in the past 18 months, including one on Holocaust Remembrance Day; antisemitic flyers were distributed at the University of Michigan; a swastika was scrawled on a bathroom ceiling at American University; a mezuzah was ripped off an entranceway at a Stanford University dorm; and a swastika was drawn on campus at California State University, Sacramento, for the third time since the start of the school year.

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