campus beat

What’s going on at UC Berkeley Law

A recent announcement by some groups that they would not invite pro-Israel speakers sparked a national outcry

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Campanile on the University of California in Berkeley campus

A decision by nine student organizations at the University of California Berkeley School of Law in August to adopt bylaws prohibiting pro-Israel speakers sparked an uproar in the Jewish community over the weekend.

Last Wednesday, the Jewish Journal published an op-ed with the headline “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones,” written by Ken Marcus, the founder and president of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The legal group has been at the forefront of a number of recent legal fights on college campuses tied to administrators’ failures to protect Jewish students. The op-ed ignited a media storm, with the New York Post, The Jerusalem Post, Newsweek, National Review and other outlets dedicating space to the issue. Barbra Streisand, who has lent her talents to Friends of the IDF fundraisers and has received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University, tweeted to her nearly 800,000 followers, “When does anti-Zionism bleed into broad anti-Semitism?” and followed up with a second tweet linking to Marcus’ op-ed.  

Marcus called the move “frightening and unexpected, like a bang on the door in the night,” and warned that the decision could have potential legal implications for the student groups and the university.

Days later, The Daily Beast published a counter-argument, “​​There Are No ‘Jewish-Free’ Zones on the UC-Berkeley Campus,” written by Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the state university’s law school. Chemerinsky argued that fewer than 10 out of the law school’s 100 groups had adopted the bylaws, and while he disagreed with the move, none of the participating organizations had acted on the bylaws, and the debate remained a First Amendment issue.

Chemerinsky had denounced the original decision by student groups, noting that as a supporter of Israel’s existence, he himself could not be invited to speak to any of the participating student groups. In the wake of the announcement last month, the Jewish Student Association at Berkeley Law created a Medium account and issued its first and so far only post, addressing the controversy and expressing concern that the move would silence Jewish voices on campus.

In the following weeks, the conversation dissipated, according to individuals on campus who spoke to Jewish Insider. The fall academic semester began without incident, and remained quiet until the op-ed published in the Jewish Journal sparked outrage from coast to coast, leading observers, activists and parents of college students to speculate about the current state of affairs at the Bay Area university, known in the latter half of the 20th century as the epicenter of collegiate political activism.

“Both trends can be true,” Tyler Gregory, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, told JI. “We need to give credit to the administration and to the campus Jewish groups — the Hillel, the faculty — for making Berkeley a more friendly place for Jewish and Zionist students. At the same time, we should be rightfully concerned, and be paying attention to this new tactic of clubs trying to ban Zionists from campus groups.”

UC Berkeley is among the American academic institutions producing the highest number of joint academic papers with Israeli co-authors, and has a sizable Israel studies program, with visiting faculty from Israel on campus.

In 2019, the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley created the Berkeley Antisemitism Education Initiative to address antisemitism on campus. Ethan Katz, a professor at the university who chairs the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life & Campus Climate and was one of the initiative’s co-founders, noted that the challenges facing Berkeley students are similar to those facing students elsewhere in the country, and that the administration has created “a very strong set of supports in place and a very strong set of institutional homes for those students.”

“I think that most Jewish students at Cal would say something along these lines of, you know, there are spaces in which they feel challenged or even that students could say things that would make them uncomfortable,” Katz said, “but that they have a lot of support from student life, people from faculty, and I also think it’s very important to note that there’s a great deal of support from the administration.”

Pro-Israel students at Berkeley, Katz explained, “face the same political headwinds that pro-Israel students are facing on many campuses.”

“Those concerns are real,” he added, “and there are things that make it challenging for those students sometimes… It’s a reality of where we are in the contemporary American conversation about Zionism and Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Gregory noted a shift in on-campus attitudes toward Israel in recent years, but acknowledged that the university’s activist reputation contributed to the outcry. “It holds a special place in our imagination, and I think that’s why this has gotten so much attention,” he explained.

“What I think is important, as far as [Marcus’s] argument is concerned,” he added, “is that we can’t let this trend spread to other places like a cancer. And so if we can understand what our legal tools are around this so that we can stop it in its tracks, great, that should be pursued. But people should not lose sight of the big picture at Cal.”