UC Berkeley Student Groups Adopt BDS Platform
By Matis Glenn
Several student groups at UC Berkeley Law School have adopted BDS-inspired policies, expressing anti-Israel rhetoric and sparking heated debate over free speech and discrimination.
On August 21, nine out of 100 student groups at the law school adopted bylaws which refer to Israel as an “apartheid” and “colonialist” state and which require all members to pledge not to invite to campus any speakers who espouse pro-Israel or Zionist views. The bylaws also mandate that all clubs which adopt its platform must have a “Palestine 101” training hosted by Law Students for Justice in Palestine, “to create a safe and inclusive space for Palestinian students.”
While only nine signed groups signed on, some, including Women of Berkeley Law, have a large constituency. Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and Law Students of African Descent were among the groups who accepted the bylaws.
After the bylaws were passed, Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, himself Jewish and a self-described “progressive Zionist,” wrote to the leaders of all student groups, expressing his disapproval. “It is troubling to broadly exclude a particular viewpoint from being expressed,” he stated. “Indeed, taken literally, this would mean that I could not be invited to speak because I support the existence of Israel, though I condemn many of its policies.”
He went on to say, “The principles of community for the Berkeley campus stress that we are committed to ensuring freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities.”
He then published an op-ed in the Jewish News of North Carolina that despite these bylaws, Jewish students were not being targeted in the school, and that the issue had already quieted down when the vast majority of student groups refused to sign on to the platform. “There is a false narrative that often underlies stories about college campuses, including Berkeley’s, that there is significant antisemitism and that they are not hospitable for Jews,” he wrote. “That is nonsense.”
Jewish students themselves, however, did not all share that sentiment. On August 27, The Jewish Students’ Association at Berkeley Law posted a message on the website Medium, saying, “This bylaw alienates many Jewish students from certain groups on campus. Students should not be forced to choose between identifying as either ‘pro-Palestine’ and thereby ‘anti-Israel,’ or ‘pro-Israel’ and thereby ‘anti-Palestine’… Students can advocate for Palestinians and criticize Israeli policies without denying Israel the right to exist or attacking the identity of other students. We are troubled that this bylaw creates an environment in which only one viewpoint is acceptable.”
On September 28, Kenneth L. Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Journal, alleging that Berkeley had created “Jew-free zones,” and drew parallels to the Nazi vision of making areas “Judenfrei.” Many media outlets, including Fox News, picked up on the story, and Chemerinsky promptly responded. “The Law School has an ‘all-comers’ policy, which means that every student group must allow any student to join and all student-organized events must be open to all students. I know of no instance in which in this has been violated or there has been any discrimination against Jews. I have been in regular contact with our Jewish students about this.”
Chemerinsky also said that “UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has spoken about how the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement ‘poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campus, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.’”
The ADL released a statement on August 29 that read, “The actions of Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine are not only antisemitic at their core but also hinder any sensible or legitimate discussions on campus about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Dozens of pro-Israel groups, including The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewbelong, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, and Hadassah, signed a letter on October 3, saying that the bylaws would marginalize Jewish students. “The implication is unambiguous: Berkeley Law is telling its Zionist Jewish students to get used to the idea that there will be certain spaces in which they are not welcome.”
Pro-Israel groups at Berkeley issued a statement on October 5 decrying the bylaws, amassing the support of over 150 Jewish student groups worldwide. “As members of the global Jewish community, we recognize these bylaws as a deliberate attempt to exclude Jewish students from the UC Berkeley campus community,” the statement said. “We are all equally entitled to be present on this campus and exercise our rights independent of discrimination.”
At an October 6 briefing held virtually by the Jewish Community Relations Council, Shay Cohen, one of the students involved in drafting the statement, said, “I had students come to me and say that they wanted to drop out because they don’t feel comfortable here, that they don’t feel welcome on campus.“ Cohen, 19, is a School Senator in the Associated Students of the University of California. She said that ever since the controversy erupted, she has been targeted for her openly pro-Israel beliefs.
“At a Senate meeting, I got completely slandered in that room,” she said at the briefing. “They turned the statement into something that it wasn’t. They said it promoted violence against Palestinians, that you’re supporting apartheid and the murder of Palestinians.
“No student should have to feel that way. If this was a different group, this would have been taken care of already”
She doesn’t think that the issue is going to die down anytime soon.
“The faculty saying that it’s a small issue that’s going to go away is false. If anything, now more than ever the Jewish students need them, and them not realizing that is the start of the problem.”
Charlotte Aaron, a law student at Berkeley, also spoke at the briefing.
When deciding which school to attend, she had heard that “Berkeley was the most antisemitic campus in [California],” but until recently, she hadn’t experienced any of it firsthand.
Aaron says that she thinks people passed the bylaws without thinking much about them. She heard from Pacific Asian group members that one member of the group was passionately anti-Zionist, and the rest of the group felt peer pressure to sign. “I think the majority of the students don’t know much about it, and if we can frame it the right way, to get people to hear the other perspective, it would be very helpful,” she said at the briefing.
“The takeaway from the Palestine 101 training is that if you’re a Zionist, you’re a settler, a colonialist, you support police brutality…” said Aaron. Many students have told her that merely attending a pro-Israel speech would be “hurtful to their Palestinian friends,” after having been totally convinced at the Palestine 101 training.
Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that spearheaded the campaign for student groups to adopt the policies, was founded by Dr. Hatem Bazian, who teaches in Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department and at other universities. On March 23, 2014, Bazian published an article in the Harvard International Review, where he claimed that much of ancient Jewish history in the land of Israel is a “mythical past” and that Jews are a group that is a “historical passer-by in the land.” In 2002, 79 members of his SJP group were arrested for attempting to disrupt a Holocaust Remembrance Day event.
Hamodia has emailed BLSJP and asked them to explain why it does not have bylaws which pertain to countries with human rights issues, such as China, North Korea, and Iran; they have not responded.
According to Jewish Insider, 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.
Ethan Katz, Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Center for Jewish Studies and Ron E. Hassner, Associate Professor of Political Science at Berkeley, wrote a letter in response to the controversy, highlighting the academic cooperation Berkeley has with Israel, the number of Jewish community activities at the college, as well as the efforts that the university has undertaken to address antisemitism. They mention that MK Yossi Shain recently spent a week at Berkeley, and that the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies “is hosting 13 Israeli scholars who are offering 13 classes on Israel across campus, attracting hundreds of students.” They also mention Jewish student groups and resources like Chabad and Hillel.
Katz and Hassner call the decision of the nine student clubs “bigoted.”
“Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are concerns on numerous college campuses worldwide,” they write in their letter. “That is precisely why Berkeley has become a national leader in taking on these issues. The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate meets regularly with senior campus leaders to address challenges for students on the Berkeley campus … In spring 2019, members of the committee founded the Berkeley Antisemitism Education Initiative (AEI). AEI carries out regular programs and trainings for Berkeley students, staff and faculty, and has created multimedia presentations, including a widely praised anti-bias training film.”
At the October 6 briefing, Katz said that the pro-Palestinian groups need to be consistent; if groups can ban Zionist speakers and require members to disavow Israel, “The faculty needs to come out and say that we’d say the same thing about a club that bars BLM; as much as we wouldn’t like it, they need to be consistent.”
“What I have heard from Jewish law students in recent weeks is that many of them feel really saddened by what’s occurred,” Katz told Hamodia. “They are indeed in many instances not comfortable any longer in the clubs in question that passed these bylaws … A Berkeley female Jewish law student, for example, finds herself faced with the very difficult choice of whether to affiliate with the group — Women of Berkeley Law — that centers the female experience of law school, and have to suppress her attachment to Israel, or to quietly dissociate from the group.”
Katz says, however, that Jewish students feel supported by the Jewish resources on campus, including Chabad, Hillel, the Center for Jewish Studies, and the Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, together with Chemerinsky, who he says is “extremely supportive of the community in word and deed.” Katz says that these entities offer more avenues to participate as Jews or as supporters of Israel than many other universities, and that students can seek help if they need it.
Katz believes that there aren’t a lot of students who believe in full-blown antisemitism, but “they do often have ideas that they have heard somewhere about powerful Jews, or the ‘Jewish lobby,’ or the ‘bloodthirsty’ State of Israel. And these tap into the reservoir where antisemitism always resides in Western culture, going back many centuries.”
Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a prominent pro-Israel voice in academic circles, who has spoken at Berkeley before, said on a podcast on October 6 that he is challenging the students’ groups to invite him, to speak about issues unrelated to the Israel-Palestine issue. He believes that banning political ideas from being expressed is not illegal, but prohibiting people who espouse those ideas from speaking about other topics would be unconstitutional.
“This isn’t a ban on subjects, it’s a ban on people,” Dershowitz told Hamodia.
Dershowitz also disagreed with the premise of the bylaws, which say that they are necessary for the safety of Palestinian students.
“They’re not talking about the safety of their bodies, they’re talking about the safety of their ideas from criticism, and University is supposed to challenge that.”
If he discovers discrimination, Dershowitz says that he will file a lawsuit “if the facts justify it.”
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