Events at Berkeley Law Demonstrate a Campus Crisis on Antisemitism
For all their righteous words about diversity and inclusion, some university administrators are finding creative ways to justify the exclusion of Jewish students.
Earlier this year, a Berkeley law student organization, Law Students for Justice in Palestine, called on other organizations to amend their bylaws to exclude those “in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine” from speaking at their events. Nine organizations followed suit. According to Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, this wasn’t an act of exclusion — notwithstanding the commitment to “not invite” Zionists; instead, the dean said, it was just criticism of Israel.
Lamenting the widespread news coverage, Chemerinsky writes at the Jewish News of Northern California that it “hardly should be news that some students — including some Jewish students — are strongly condemning of Israel’s policies.” Later, he writes “it is no more antisemitic to criticize Israeli policies than it is anti-American to criticize the policies of the federal government,” as if anyone had been making this claim.
In the Jewish Journal, Chemerinsky even portrayed the issue as student organizations merely “condemning Israel.”
This is entirely a red herring. Here’s how the suggested amendment read:
In the interest of protecting the safety and welfare of Palestinian students on campus, [insert organization name] will not invite speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine. [Emphasis added]
The vast majority of American Jews support Israel’s right to exist, and are thus “Zionists.” Faced with a figurative “No Jews allowed” sign on the door of multiple spaces at Berkeley Law, Chemerinsky is instead bizarrely trying to characterize the situation as just criticism of Israel.
This is a blatant example of a protected group being excluded on the basis of a deeply held belief — a belief integral to the identity of the vast majority of Jews worldwide. This is student organizations like Women of Berkeley Law deciding they will not host any speaker whose views are held by 95% of American Jews.
This also isn’t just about “particular viewpoints,” as Chemerinsky puts it. As concisely explained by the Brandeis Center, “Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath or maintaining a kosher diet.” Just as not all Jews keep kosher, not all Jews are Zionists, but that does not diminish the deeply held Jewish belief involved in either case.
More broadly, it creates a disturbing chilling effect, which reinforces a growing perception among Jews that they must hide a key part of their identity if they want to be able to participate in university life. Already, studies suggest that shockingly high numbers of Jewish students feel forced to hide their Jewish identity.
After depicting the exclusion of Jews as just criticism of Israel, Chemerinsky’s argument then takes another bizarre, offensive turn, when he suggests that the situation really isn’t that bad because “only” some of the student organizations adopted the exclusionary language.
Jews should just be happy that they’re not excluded from even more spaces, the argument implies. One wonders whether by “stamping out antisemitism,” the “Berkeley model” on antisemitism instead means “just sweep it under the rug.”
Chemerinsky is trying downplay the campus antisemitism problem, but incidents of Jews being excluded are occurring with disturbing frequency lately. At SUNY New Paltz, a student group against sexual violence forced out two Jewish women because they were Zionists. At the University of Vermont, Jews were similarly told they were not welcome in another student group focused on sexual violence. At the City University of New York, observant and Zionist Jews have been deliberately excluded from union groups, campaigns have been carried out calling for “Zionists out of CUNY,” and CUNY officials have told Jews to hide their Jewish beliefs while participating in campus life. At the University of Southern California, a Jewish student body vice president was forced to resign after widespread antisemitic harassment because she was a Zionist.
Jews are being told they don’t belong, and instead of this phenomenon being unequivocally condemned and vigorously combated, the victims are being told to stop being so hysterical. Administrators like Chemerinsky and University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella treat the situation like Leslie Nielsen in “The Naked Gun,” calmly telling people, “Please disperse, nothing to see here” as the building behind him is engulfed by fire and explosions.
One last misleading line by Chemerinsky is how he paints the incident as an issue of the “free speech rights” of these antisemitic student organizations. This is, of course, ironic given that the organization promoting the bylaw amendment argued in its favor by writing that “[f]ree speech and the exchange of ideas cannot be romanticized…” But more importantly, what is at play is discriminatory conduct, not protected speech. No one is denying the right of these organizations to issue statements highly critical of Israel. What should be denied, however, is the ability for student organizations to institute a ban on Jews unless they’ve renounced a belief deeply held by 95% of them.
There is no reason to believe that Chemerinsky himself harbors ill will towards Jews. What his response does evince, however, is a shocking blind spot — one that pervades far too many university administrations. Under their watch, antisemites are succeeding where neo-Nazi groups never could in the United States — by creating Jewish-free spaces. That this is occurring in the university setting, where America’s next generation of leaders are being formed, makes the moment all the more disturbing and urgent.
David M. Litman is a Research Analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA). Douglas Sandoval is Managing Editor for CAMERA on Campus.