A strongly worded pro-BDS bylaw adopted by a handful of student groups at Berkeley Law is quietly raising the temperature of the debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and prompted the law school dean, a progressive Zionist, to write an email expressing concern to students.
The statement, written by Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, goes beyond the now-familiar calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, pledges that have become commonplace at U.S. universities (The campus advocacy group Amcha Initiative has tallied 28 such resolutions adopted since 2021.)
Rather, in addition to supporting BDS, groups that adopt the bylaw also pledge not to invite “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views … in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”
The rule is in the interest of “protecting the safety and welfare of Palestinian students,” the provision says. As to how it will be enforced, the bylaw leaves that up to each group, though “suggested strategies can include publicly stipulating [each individual] organization’s position of anti-racism and anti-settler colonialism to speakers, ensuring that proposals for speakers emphasize the organization’s desire for equality and inclusion,” or “informing speakers of the event’s goals and mission values.”
Neither Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine (BLSJP) nor any of the bylaw adopters responded to emails from J. seeking comment. Its title is “To include a Palestine-centered and de-colonial approach to holding club activities.”
Although the bylaw was proposed to the more than 100 student and affinity groups at Berkeley Law, only nine had adopted it as of early this week. About 1,100 students are enrolled at the prestigious law school.
Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine nevertheless celebrated what it called a major “BDS victory” in an Instagram post on Sunday, listing the groups that had adopted the measure. Among them were the Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association, the Queer Caucus, Law Students of African Descent and Women of Berkeley Law.
It’s not the first time BLSJP has made waves protesting Israel at Berkeley.
In April 2021, the group condemned the law school’s acceptance of a major gift from a pro-Israel philanthropy and demanded the school return the money. The Helen Diller Foundation, which donates to a wide range of causes, including Israel, drew controversy years ago for donating to the right-wing Canary Mission; BLSJP said the foundation had given to causes that spread “Islamophobic hatred.”
The foundation’s $10 million gift to a center for Jewish and Israel studies housed at the law school was announced in February 2021 and with it, the law school changed the center’s name to the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky defended the decision at the time, saying the university valued its partnership with the Dillers and the gift “aligned[ed] with the values of the Law School.”
The passage of the new bylaw comes as American universities continue to face lawsuits and administrative complaints — primarily filed by pro-bono, pro-Israel, Jewish civil rights organizations — alleging the exclusion of and mistreatment of Jewish students who profess support for Israel.
In 2019 San Francisco State University settled a lawsuit brought by Jewish students involved with the Hillel after the students said they were blocked from participating in a human rights fair because of their Zionist views.
The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating claims made by Jewish USC student Rose Ritch, who said she was harassed for her Zionist views and ultimately resigned from a position in student government. Other complaints are ongoing at the University of Illinois, Brooklyn College and Stanford University.
Though many Berkeley Law student groups are quite small, without large budgets, investment portfolios or endowments to wield in an act of protest, the student groups nevertheless pledged in the bylaw that they will boycott, sanction and divest funds from “institutions, organizations, companies, and any entity that participated in or is directly/indirectly complicit in the occupation of the Palestinian territories and/or supports the actions of the apartheid state of Israel.”
The measure raised concerns for Chemerinsky, dean of the law school since 2017. Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, told J. he considers himself a Zionist even though he “condemn[s] a lot of Israel’s policies, just like I condemn a lot of the United States’ policies.”
Chemerinsky helped found the L.A.-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, and in the mid-2000s represented the family of Rachel Corrie, a protester killed while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian home.
He told J. he was motivated to address the matter publicly after a visit from students from Women of Berkeley Law who had voted against the measure. The students were “quite upset,” Chemerinsky later wrote in an email to students.
“The reality is, the message is seen by many students as antisemitic,” Chemerinsky told J.
His email was sent this week to the leaders of all of Berkeley Law’s student groups and shared with J.
“I have learned that student groups have been asked to adopt a statement strongly condemning Israel and some have done so. Of course, it is the First Amendment right of students to express their views on any issues,” he wrote.
“It is troubling to broadly exclude a particular viewpoint from being expressed,” he added. “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.”
His email went on: “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.”
Chemerinsky, speaking to J., added that “to say that anyone who supports the existence of Israel — that’s what you define as Zionism — shouldn’t speak would exclude about, I don’t know, 90 percent or more of our Jewish students.”
Kenneth L. Marcus, an attorney and a Berkeley Law alumnus, also criticized the bylaw in an interview Thursday. Marcus is the founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a pro-Israel Jewish civil rights organization currently spearheading the lawsuits and complaints named above.
He said students in this case “are taking a step down a very ugly road.”
“Berkeley Law wouldn’t be Berkeley Law if students didn’t engage in a certain amount of wrongheaded political nonsense,” he said. “This is different, because it’s not just a political stunt. It is tinged with antisemitism and anti-Israel national origin discrimination.” (National origin discrimination is unfair treatment based on the country someone is from, and it’s unlawful in employment settings and by government agencies).
“They may as well have just stated, ‘No Zionists allowed,’” Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the Amcha Initiative wrote to J. “This is clear antisemitism. The university needs to ensure that every student, regardless of identity, will be equally protected from behavior such as this … and should, at a minimum, promptly issue a statement denouncing the targeting of Jewish students for their identity.”
The adoption of the BDS bylaw represents the latest dustup at a university that, like many across the country and in Europe, has in recent years seen its share of Israel controversies bleed into antisemitism claims.
For example, in 2019 and 2020, amid heated student government meetings, one Jewish student’s views were brushed off as “Zionist tears,” another Jewish student was called a “Nazi” for supporting Israel, and another was asked to leave the room because of an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop computer.
Partially in response to those incidents and others like it, a group of faculty and campus Jewish leaders established the Antisemitism Education Initiative, a training effort led by the school’s Hillel director and professors of Jewish history, which received funding from the Academic Engagement Network, a pro-Israel nonprofit. One of the group’s first projects was to create an 11-minute explainer video called “Antisemitism in Our Midst” for students and staff, which defines antisemitism and describes when criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism.
Ethan Katz, an associate professor of Jewish history at UC Berkeley, co-founded and co-directs the initiative. He criticized the BLSJP bylaw, saying it was disappointing that while Palestinian groups have historically felt stifled in their ability to express their views freely, some now appear to be doing the same thing to those who hold pro-Israel views.
By instituting the bylaws and others like them, “organizations are effectively shutting down any kind of lively conversation about the Zionist-Arab conflict, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
Katz, a scholar of modern European and Mediterranean Jewish history, also pointed to a broader problem on the UC Berkeley campus and on campuses across the country that starts with one word: Zionism.
The BLSJP bylaw, and others like it, treat Zionism as a pernicious evil on par with white supremacy. For many Jews, its meaning could not be more different.
“For these students and for a significant number of Palestinians, Zionism means settler colonial dispossession, full stop,” he said. “They do not think of events like the refugee crisis of 1948 as part of the history of Zionism. They see any cases of violence or dispossession experienced by Palestinians in the history of this conflict as the essence of Zionism.
“The deeper roots or affirmative meanings of Zionism are not really there,” he added. For example, he said, an idea widely shared among historians and large segments of the Jewish community is that Zionism, at its core, is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, or that Zionism in its “most basic definition” is support for a “political or, even, for some people, a cultural entity that is Jewish in character in some portion” of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Among groups like BLSJP, that “perspective doesn’t hold any water,” he said.