How UC Berkeley Went From Anti-Israel Bastion to Israel Studies Powerhouse
Last month, the University of California at Berkeley hosted the annual conference of the Association of Israel Studies. The fact that the professional meeting of Israel scholars was held there is a testament to the Berkeley faculty, who have built one of the premier Israel Studies programs in the country. What they have done demonstrates that campuses can and do change with the proper motivation and funding, and that analyses of the campus climate toward Israel that ignore these positive developments are misleading the Jewish community.
Many people who talk about the BDS movement and antisemitism, and claim the situation today is worse than ever have no historical memory. The battles on campus did not begin with Students for Justice in Palestine or the divestment movement. In fact, they have been going on since the 1960s, and Berkeley has long been considered ground zero for Israel’s detractors.
I can speak from my personal experience at Berkeley in the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student. An undergraduate friend and I restarted a moribund Israel Action Committee. We had the support and encouragement of our Hillel director, but only a handful of Jewish students participated in our activities. Usually, I sat in Sproul Plaza by myself with a card table draped with an Israeli flag and some material from the Israeli consulate highlighting positive aspects of Israel, as well as the PLO’s role in terrorism.
The Muslim Students Association set up its table next to me. They had a placard that said “Zionism = Racism” and handed out highlights of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was also the time of the first Lebanon War, so anti-Israel protestors marched in front of me.
Fast forward more than 20 years to April 2010. My organization was running a program that, over eight years, brought more than 100 Israeli professors to teach at more than 70 universities. One of those professors was Hanan Alexander, a professor in the relatively apolitical field of Israel education. Unlike most faculty, whose timidity in standing up for Israel has allowed the nationwide campus climate to deteriorate to the state we now find it at many universities, Alexander immediately stepped forward at Berkeley to work with Hillel and students to respond to Israel’s detractors. Starting with a lecture during Israel “hate” week, Alexander set an example for how to deal with critics of Israel in a civil, academic, and convincing way.
When the divestment issue arose, Alexander testified with pro-Israel students at the student government meeting. He was treated disrespectfully, as were the students, and the divestment measure was rammed through the council. Alexander did not let the issue rest, however, and penned an article in the Daily Cal (it was previously unheard of for a professor to defend Israel in the student newspaper). He also met with the student government president and helped convince him to veto the resolution.
As the divestment forces mobilized to override the veto, Alexander met privately with a number of student senators to educate them about the issue, prudently advising opponents not to conduct a large public demonstration. He ultimately convinced one student to change her vote from supporting divestment to abstaining, which helped ensure that the veto would be sustained.
Alexander also organized a ground-breaking conference on Israel, the likes of which had never happened at Berkeley. Though opposed by some faculty, including Jewish faculty, the conference on “Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State; Challenges and Perspectives” was well-attended, promoted a greater understanding of Israel, and had a positive impact on the campus. Meanwhile, the vote for divestment, supported by only a dozen students on the student council, provoked tension and promoted intolerance.
And Alexander did even more.
Quietly, Alexander began to work with other faculty to lay the groundwork for a program in Israel Studies. In 2011, thanks to an initial donation of $1 million, a group of professors created what is now called the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Since it was housed in one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, the program immediately had credibility. Suddenly, pro-Israel faculty came out of the woodwork, and today the advisory committee includes 22 professors from fields as varied as music, journalism, economics, and agriculture.
In its short history, the Program in Israel Studies has become one of if not the best programs in the country. Berkeley now brings in several visiting Israeli scholars each year, including five this year in the fields of law, political science, Jewish literature, sociology, and anthropology. While many schools teach little or nothing about Israel, Berkeley had six courses in the spring, including ones on comparative criminal justice reform, “Palestinian Society in Israel: Integration vs. Segregation,” and the political economy of Israel. The program also sponsors lectures, panel discussions, and cultural events. Berkeley also has a joint master’s (LL.M.) program in law with Tel Aviv University.
All this has been happening during the last seven years and you probably never heard anything about it because most publicity on the campus is devoted to Israel’s detractors.
The Program in Israel Studies is a model for every major university in the country. As the Jewish News of Northern California observed, “After years of battling calls for the destruction of Zionism, Israel’s friends at UC Berkeley learned they cannot out-shout the BDS crowd. They can, however, out-educate them. … No matter how hostile the anti-Israel rallies at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley is a world center for Jewish and Israel studies.”
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 23 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.