There are indeed strong opinions about the Middle East, and students are free to express them. But the grown-ups on campus should be teaching rather than making excuses for them.
UC Berkeley got a black eye when news outlets reported that a number of law-student organizations adopted a “pro-Palestine bylaw” that they would not invite speakers who support Zionism or Israel. Other student organizations were asked to take a similar “anti-racist stand.” What was not publicized was that it also called for “boycotting, sanctioning and divesting funds from … any entity that participated in or is directly/indirectly complicit in the occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
BDS supporters declared victory.
This was time for a prosecutor to come forward to make the case that the students were engaged in antisemitism and an assault on academic freedom.
Instead, the head of one of the country’s most prestigious law schools offered a weaselly defense. In an article published in J. The Jewish News of California titled, “Don’t generalize about BDS on campus,” Dean Erwin Chemerinsky started by saying, “What is most important is that universities be a place where all ideas can be expressed and where all are treated with tolerance and civility.” He rightly put in perspective that more than 90% of the 100 student groups in Berkeley Law had not adopted the bylaw (only nine have).
He was correct in saying, as I have many times, that the news coverage gives a misleading picture of the campus, which is too often inaccurately portrayed as antisemitic and unsafe. He said that in his six years at Berkeley, “I have seen little antisemitism among our faculty, staff and students at Berkeley Law or on the campus.” Oddly, he did not mention the best evidence that there is another side to the campus climate at Berkeley right under his nose, the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, which is the best Israel studies program in the United States.
But Chemerinsky has had his head in the sand if he is unaware of antisemitism at Berkeley. For example, the founder of Students for Justice in Palestine, the group most responsible for antisemitic BDS resolutions across the country, is Hatem Bazian, who at one time was an adjunct professor at the law school (before Chemerinsky’s arrival) and heads Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project. Bazian has a long history of demonizing Israel, including accusing Israel of “genocide,” comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and retweeting antisemitic memes. Just last year, Chancellor Carol Christ was compelled by negative publicity to respond to an ADL complaint about Bazian retweeting an antisemitic cartoon depicting an Israeli soldier holding up the heart of a Palestinian man. The best she could do was, “I believe that political expression invoking imagery associated with historical antisemitism does not contribute to a constructive discussion about the conflict in the Middle East.” Bazian apologized but subsequently retweeted comments with the hashtag #PalestinianHolocaust.
Chemerinsky also was surely aware that protestors attacking Israel disrupted a 2020 speech on antisemitism at his law school by Deborah Lipstadt, now the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. She tweeted, “In the talk, when I spoke about antisemitism from the left, I mentioned that many people refuse to see antisemitism as legitimate.” She added: “They dismiss claims of antisemitism as simply being a sop to protect Israel. This is the only prejudice those on the left refuse to take seriously. I want to thank the protesters for making my point more clearly than my words could.”
In 2019, during a student government meeting, a former senator said, “I just had to talk y’all, because all I was hearing … was some white tears, some Zionists tears, some Greek tears about some disenfranchisement. Y’all don’t know what disenfranchisement even means.” Another student said it was the first time she met a Zionist, and that it is “really disrespectful if you are pro-Israeli settler-colonialist in Palestine to tell a black person you are Zionist.” She also accused the IDF of training U.S. police departments to kill black people.
I believe Chemerinsky was also on campus in 2017 when Harvard law emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz was invited to deliver a lecture and the student newspaper published a cartoon showing a smiling Dershowitz stomping on a person holding a Palestinian flag. In his hand was an armed Israeli soldier aiming his gun at an unarmed youth lying in a pool of blood and on his face, a swastika. Dershowitz called the cartoon a “grotesque antisemitic blood libel propaganda.” After his lecture, a poster was plastered outside Chemerinsky’s law school with a swastika on his face.
Coincidentally, I was going through old piles of documents and found a 1983 copy of the Jewish student newspaper from my time at Berkeley. It was long before Chemerinsky’s time but indicative of the climate at Berkeley through the years. The headline read: “Will You Be Silent? and called on all student organizations to sign a letter condemning the Moslem Student Association for distributing the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and demanding that it be stopped.
Now we see the same antisemitism in a different format at Berkeley.
Following negative publicity about the law-school students’ campaign, Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, was prompted to speak out. He wrote to the student organizations and pointed out that he supports the existence of Israel—gratuitously adding that he condemns many of its policies to reassure them of his wokeness—and that their bylaw would prevent him from speaking to them. He said Berkeley’s chancellor had called the BDS movement a threat to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas and that Berkeley’s Antisemitism Education initiative produced a video that explained why many Jewish students find singling out Israel for special condemnation or questioning its legitimacy is a form of antisemitism. He ended with the trite expression of students’ right to take positions, asking only that they be sensitive to all students.
There are indeed strong opinions about the Middle East, and students are free to express them. But the grown-ups on campus should be teaching rather than making excuses for them. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not his own facts.”
And what about the impact on other law students?
As Tammi Rossman-Benjamin asked, “Can a Jewish student feel comfortable now in the Queer Caucus or Women of Berkeley Law, two of the groups that reportedly added this organizational bylaw?”
Instead of this mealy-mouthed defense, these students should have been prosecuted for their encouragement of Jew-hatred on his campus. I don’t mean Chemerinsky should seek punishment. He needs to speak to them forthrightly as Harvard president Larry Summers did when BDS reared its ugly head at his university: “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are antisemitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Chemerinsky should know the BDS movement is antisemitic as it calls for the destruction of Israel. He need only read the words of his Professor As’ad AbuKhalil, who teaches down the road at California State University, Stanislaus. “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel,” AbuKhalil acknowledged. “That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.”
He should also have checked out the Instagram account of Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, which instigated the boycott initiative. Below its name he can see their objective: “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” the call for the destruction of Israel.
The prosecution rests.
Yes, Dean Chemerinsky, your students are entitled to their opinion, but that does not make it any less antisemitic, and you should have the courage to speak the truth.
It’s a shame it took a media storm to get a reaction from the dean. Sadder still that he failed to call out BDS for what it is and condemn the students for promoting Jew-hatred on campus.
By Mitchell Bard/JNS.org