campus chaos

Jewish community members outraged by UC-Berkeley chancellor’s approach to anti-Israel protesters

Carol Christ said her engagement with the protesters was ‘quite valuable’ and praised the group’s ‘efforts to maintain a professional, organized, and productive approach during a very difficult time’

Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ speaks alongside NASA Ames Research Center director Eugene Tu and Daniel Kingsley of SKS Partners as they announce the creation of the 38-acre Berkeley Space Center at NASA Research Park at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

University of California Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ is retiring in just over a month, but nothing about her job is quieting down in her final days. Instead, the English professor is facing blowback from some in the local Jewish community regarding a series of actions she took this week to try to end the school’s Gaza solidarity encampment.

On Tuesday, Christ sent a letter to the “Free Palestine Encampment” outlining an agreement she had reached with the protest leaders in exchange for them ending their encampment. The letter quickly raised eyebrows among Jewish leaders for its concessions to the protesters and language it used around antisemitism. The next day, after the tents were taken down, several dozen pro-Palestine activists occupied a campus building that was not in use. They hung up the Palestinian flag and drew antisemitic graffiti that said “Zionism = Nazism” and equated the Jewish star to the swastika. 

Amid all of the tumult, Christ reached out on Wednesday to the members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate, a group consisting of Jewish faculty members, students and local leaders, to schedule a meeting for Thursday. The advisory committee had not been consulted in the course of Christ’s negotiations with the anti-Israel protesters, despite several reported instances of antisemitism on campus, one person who was at the meeting told Jewish Insider

The person who attended the meeting, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the conversation, said it “went badly,” with “students crying [and] professors angry.” 

“She started the meeting by saying our primary objective was trying to not disrupt the semester, to make sure people continue to study and take their finals. But what about the Jewish students whose lives had been upended by this?” the attendee told JI. “It felt like we were slighted. And then the public statements that she’s made, and the way that we were engaged, was just really a lack of respect.”

In Christ’s Tuesday letter to the encampment leaders, she described their conversations as “quite valuable” and recognized the group’s “efforts to maintain a professional, organized, and productive approach during a very difficult time.” She responded politely to the protesters’ demands while seeming to absolve them of the antisemitic behavior that university officials acknowledge took place. 

She said the university is prohibited from divesting from Israeli businesses by state law, but that she will investigate whether the school’s investments “continue to align with our values.” She also said she opposes academic boycotts, but that she will review the school’s academic partnerships and ensure that none exhibit anti-Palestinian discrimination. (The protesters, in their own public post explaining what happened, call this provision a “pathway to boycott of Israeli university programs on grounds of anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab discrimination,” a charge that a university spokesperson denied.)

Christ’s letter did not refer to any of the protesters’ hardline language targeting Zionists, or instances of antisemitism perpetrated by the activists. She told the encampment leaders that she plans to make a public statement “sharing my personal support for government officials’ efforts to secure an immediate and permanent cease-fire. Such support for the plight of Palestinians, including protest, should not be conflated with hatred or antisemitism.” The letter made no mention of the Israeli hostages, Hamas’ attack, or any Israeli victims of the current conflict. 

Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for communications, told JI on Thursday that “there’s no doubt that there were individuals in the encampment who engaged in antisemitic expression, and that some of the signs that went up were antisemitic expression.” But, he added, choosing not to engage with the group because of “antisemitic expression emanating from certain individuals” would have “amounted to collective punishment.” 

In another Tuesday letter, to the university’s academic Senate, Christ said she was “greatly relieved that we were able to bring this protest to a peaceful end.” But less than a day later, a group of anti-Israel demonstrators had taken over Anna Head Alumnae Hall. Mogulof insisted that the protesters in the occupied building were not the same ones that Christ had negotiated with. 

“All the information we have [is] we don’t see the same people. We’ve spoken to them and they say we didn’t have anything to do with getting this started,” said Mogulof, who called the incident a “crime scene.” Police were dispatched there on Thursday night. 

The leaders of the encampment took to Instagram to cheer on those who had occupied the building and called on supporters to go defend it from police. Berkeley’s graduate student chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which was also heavily involved in the encampment, expressed a “statement of solidarity” with those at the occupied building, and explicitly condemned Mogulof’s language, calling his separation of the two groups “inaccurate, untrue, and destructive.” 

Christ, who has served as chancellor at Berkeley since 2017, has enjoyed a close relationship with the Bay Area Jewish community for much of that period. The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area honored her with their “Courageous Leadership Award” at the group’s 2020 gala. 

She faced a different reaction from the group this week. After the Thursday meeting with the Jewish life advisory committee, the JCRC released a statement expressing “no confidence” in Christ’s leadership. “We call on the UC Board of Regents to take swift action amid this leadership vacuum to restore order to campus, and safety for Jewish campus life,” the statement said. 

“She’s retiring at the end of this academic year, so she only has a few weeks left,” JCRC executive director Tyler Gregory told JI. “I think our statement would have been different if she weren’t leaving already.”

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