Does UC Berkeley now have ‘Jewish-free zones’?

The Jewish people are a nation and a religion. It is impossible to separate Jewish identity from our ancient roots in the Jewish homeland.
Anti-Israel protest at UC Berkeley (photo credit: Screenshot from OpenDor Media’s film “Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Antisemitism on Campus”)

We’re curious…

At the end of August, nine student groups at Berkeley’s law school passed a bylaw that they would never invite any speakers who hold views “in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”

Women of Berkeley Law, Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and the Queer Caucus were among the groups who adopted the bylaw, which was written by Berkeley’s Law Students for Justice in Palestine. 

The dean of the law school, Erwin Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, condemned the pledge, writing in J. The Jewish News of Northern California that “It is very troubling to broadly exclude a particular viewpoint from being expressed.”

The dean noted that he himself would not be invited to speak under this bylaw since “I support the existence of Israel, though I condemn many of its policies.”

But he also downplayed the situation, calling the petition a “minor incident” and noting that only nine out of over 100 student groups at Berkeley law had signed it.

About a month later, the story resurfaced when Kenneth Marcus, formerly the head of the federal government’s Commission on Human Rights and an alum of Berkeley Law School, wrote an op-ed in The Jewish Journal claiming that Berkeley now has “Jewish-free zones.” 

Marcus further compared the situation to Nazi Germany, arguing that the university’s spaces were similar to the Nazi judenfrei, meaning an area cleansed of Jews.

Marcus’ op-ed sparked a controversy, with the dean of the law school responding in an op-ed in The Daily Beast, writing, “There is no ‘Jewish-Free Zone’ at Berkeley Law or on the UC-Berkeley campus.”

He added that none of the groups had acted on the bylaw and excluded a speaker on account of being Jewish or supporting Zionism. “Such conduct, of course, would be subject to sanctions,” he wrote.

Other faculty members at Berkeley, Jewish leaders, members of Congress and even celebrities all weighed in on the story. So, is it accurate to say that Berkeley now has “Jewish-free zones”? Why has this controversy and debate struck such a deep nerve in the Jewish world? What is all of this really about?

Diversity of perspectives

In response to the student bylaw, many Jewish leaders and groups argued that the decision was antisemitic, saying that anti-Zionism is antisemitism

“Anti-Zionism is flatly antisemitic,” Marcus wrote in his Jewish Journal op-ed. “Using ‘Zionist’ as a euphemism for Jew is nothing more than a confidence trick.”

Many cited a 2019 Gallup poll that found that 95% of American Jews support Israel. “So to ban anyone who supports Israel is effectively banning Jews. Anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” Noa Tishby, the Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and Delegitimization of Israel, tweeted.

The Toronto-based writer Laura Rosen Cohen made a similar argument, and repeated Marcus’ comment, writing in a Newsweek op-ed:

“Given that the vast majority of Jews worldwide support the state of Israel, these student groups have in essence created a Jew-free zone in the hallowed halls of Berkeley Law.”

Similarly, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the Amcha Initiative, which fights campus antisemitism, told J. The Jewish News of Northern California that the nine student groups “may as well have just stated, ‘No Zionists allowed.’ This is clear antisemitism.”

Jewish-American singer Barbra Streisand agreed, tweeting, “When does anti-Zionism bleed into broad antisemitism?” with the link to Marcus’ op-ed.

And in a joint letter published in The Jewish Journal, 26 Jewish organizations called the bylaw “a vicious attempt to marginalize and stigmatize the Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel community…This is unabashed antisemitism.”

Amid the outcry, two Jewish professors at Berkeley, Ron Hassner and Ethan Katz, pushed back, writing in an op-ed in J. The Jewish News of Northern California that the idea that the university has “Jewish-free zones” is “preposterous.”

“Panic-mongering around anti-Zionism on US campuses serves no purpose, other than to offer free advertisement for extremist ideas, and to erode needlessly Jews’ sense of basic safety and security in places where Jewish life is actually thriving,” they wrote.

They acknowledged that the decision to turn away Zionist speakers “is nakedly discriminatory and is bound to make Jewish students feel excluded. But happily, just nine out of the more than 100 student groups at the law school chose to adopt such a bigoted course of action.”

The professors further argued that Jewish life at Berkeley is thriving. They noted that the university is hosting 13 visiting Israeli scholars this year, adding that there are “very successful Hillel and Chabad hubs and a wide range of active Jewish student organizations.”

Similarly, in his op-ed in The Daily Beast, Chemerinsky, the law school dean, argued that Marcus’ op-ed “paints a grossly misleading picture of what happened.”

“At this stage, all some student groups have done is express their strong disagreement with Israel’s policies. That is their First Amendment right. I find their statement offensive, but they have the right to say it,” he wrote.

He argued that the media’s attention to the incident was unwarranted: “The issue quickly faded at the Law School…After the first couple of weeks of the semester, it was virtually never mentioned. But some media outlets have brought it worldwide attention.”

“I am convinced it is because they have a narrative they want to tell about higher education generally — and Berkeley, in particular — being antisemitic. They wanted to use this incident to fit their narrative, even though the facts simply don’t support the story they want to tell,” he added.

Meanwhile, a joint statement signed by 30 faculty members at Berkeley Law, including the dean, struck a different note, underscoring the incident as significant.

“We are highly aware of the extensive discrimination against Jews in World and U.S history. In particular, we note that 2 of 3 Jews in Europe were murdered during the Holocaust and that the United States has engaged in extensive discrimination of Jews during its history.

With this background, we also condemn the discriminatory bylaw adopted by a small minority of our law student groups refusing to accept speakers who have Zionist views or beliefs. We believe this rule is not only wrong but is antithetical to free speech and our community values.

Many Jews (including some of us signing below who are Jewish) also experience this statement as antisemitism because it denies the existence of the state of Israel, the historical home of the Jewish people.”

Concluding thoughts

If this bylaw were put into practice, what would that look like? Let’s think about this. First, approximately half of the Jewish community lives in the state of Israel. Of course, Israelis support their country. This bylaw excludes all of them.

Similarly, outside of Israel, the vast majority of Jews in America, the UK, South Africa, Australia, and around the world support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. As many in this debate noted, this petition excludes and cancels them too.

The Jewish people are both a religion and a nation with historical and religious ties to the land of Israel. It is impossible to separate Judaism and Jewish identity from our ancient roots in the Jewish homeland.

So, how could we respond to this controversy? What is within our locus of control as members of the Jewish community?

Both within our community and beyond it, this is an opportunity for us to educate people about the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, the history and ancient roots of Zionism and the many different ways to be a Zionist. If we do that, educating ourselves and others about Zionism, then we will be better positioned to address these real challenges.