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We Zionists are actually thriving at Berkeley Law

Yes, the ban on Zionist speakers by some student groups is shameful. No, our alma mater is not a hotbed of antisemitism, and claims of ‘Jewish-free zones’ are harmful

Boalt Hall, University of California Berkeley Law School (CC 3.0 / Art Anderson)
Boalt Hall, University of California Berkeley Law School (CC 3.0 / Art Anderson)

In “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones,” an op-ed that ran in the Jewish Chronicle, Kenneth L. Marcus is understandably alarmed at the adoption by several student groups at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law of a bylaw written by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP). The controversial measure promises to, among other things, prevent speakers who hold views in support of Israel or Zionism from being invited to campus.

Like Mr. Marcus, we are Berkeley Law alumni, and like Mr. Marcus, we were upset to hear about these antisemitic incidents. We graduated from Berkeley Law just three years ago (Class of 2019). We were deeply involved with the Jewish community on campus – Olivia was co-president of the Jewish Students Association at Berkeley Law (JSABL) and led an itrek trip to Israel for 50 of her (majority non-Jewish) peers during her third year of law school; Nir was Treasurer of JSABL and a Fellow at the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies (the Institute) as an undergrad at Cal; and we both currently serve as Advisory Board Members of the Institute.

We are troubled by Mr. Marcus’ attempt to disparage one of America’s most vibrant institutions that supports a strong Jewish community. We believe his reactionary article, and the national response that it led to, like the article from the American Association of Jewish Lawyers & Jurists (AAJLJ) writing that members of the AAJLJ should “think twice before hiring a UC Berkeley Law graduate,” was short-sighted and contributed to more harm for Jewish students on campus.

First and foremost, let us be clear: what the nine student groups did was wrong and the students that were part of that decision-making process should be ashamed of themselves. The logical effect of these bylaws is to discriminate against Jews, who overwhelmingly consider Zionism to be an integral part of their identity. For LSJP members and other Berkeley Law students to profess that this BDS bylaw is merely “in support of Palestinian liberation” without acknowledging the tangible impact it will have by excluding Jews is unbefitting of legal scholars at the best public law school in the country. We will not engage with LSJP’s hateful and meritless rhetoric – we would simply encourage them to treat the identity of 90% of the world’s Jews with as much respect as they give to other minority communities.

Mr. Marcus rightfully criticizes LSJP for attempting to exclude and silence Zionist voices, but he and others have painted Berkeley Law in broad strokes as an antisemitic hotbed. This does nothing to combat Jew hatred, which is a worsening trend across our institutions and country writ large. More importantly, it does not reflect the true experience of Jewish, Zionist students on campus. We won’t deny that in our three years at Berkeley Law, we experienced a number of antisemitic incidents that contributed to what was, at times, a hostile climate for many Jewish students. Yet with support from the highest levels of the Berkeley administration, including Chancellor Carol Christ and Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, our Jewish community, Zionism and advocacy flourished, despite the bigotry from some of our peers. We would encourage Mr. Marcus not to fall into the same trap as our detractors, who frequently boil down nuanced and complex matters into sweeping, unsophisticated generalizations.

We studied Jewish Law with Professor Kenneth Bamberger and Comparative Constitutional Law with visiting Israeli Professor Amnon Reichman, and were invited to Shabbat dinners at the home of renowned corporate law professor Steven Davidoff-Solomon. We attended frequent lectures on topical legal matters sponsored by the Institute, including a conversation with an Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Daphne Barak-Erez. LSJP protested many of these events – as is their First Amendment right – but their constant accusations of “apartheid” fell flat when other students were provided opportunities to hear lectures by Israeli-Arab scholars like Michael Karayanni, who were respectful, yet highly critical, of certain Israeli policies all while supporting Jewish self-determination and nationhood.

We both firmly believe that our experiences combatting antisemitism at Berkeley Law have made us better lawyers. While always open to honest dialogue and constructive discussion, we remain steadfast and unwavering advocates for what we know to be just and true. Mr. Marcus criticized Dean Chemerinsky for not taking action, yet if he took the time to talk to contemporary Jewish students, faculty, and staff at Berkeley Law, among so many others, he would see firsthand the tremendous achievements and success of this incredible group. The Jewish community at Berkeley is not defined by the discrimination that it faces; rather, it shines in the light of the opportunities that it provides for dialogue, learning, open-mindedness, and tolerance. We are proud to be Jewish, Zionist, Berkeley Law graduates.

Olivia Wittels received her J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and her B.A. from Cornell University. She is an attorney at a law firm in New York City, focusing on corporate and financial transactions. Ms. Wittels is a member of AIPAC’s Young Leadership Council and is on the Advisory Board of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies.

Nir Maoz, UC Berkeley, BA ’15, JD ’19. Mr. Maoz is a corporate restructuring attorney in Los Angeles and is on the Advisory Board of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies.


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