Zionists combating antisemitism at Berkeley Law - opinion

Law Students for Justice in Palestine at Berkeley Law have promised to prevent Zionist speakers to be invited to campus.

UC Berkeley campus in California (photo credit: BRAINCHILDVN/FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
UC Berkeley campus in California
(photo credit: BRAINCHILDVN/FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

We are writing in response to Kenneth L. Marcus’ article, “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones,” in the Jewish Journal last month. The author is understandably alarmed at the adoption by several Berkeley Law student groups of a bylaw written by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP) promising to, among other things, prevent speakers who hold views in support of Israel or Zionism from being invited to campus.

Like Marcus, we are Berkeley Law alumni and like Marcus, we were upset to hear about these antisemitic incidents. We graduated from Berkeley Law just three years ago (Class of 2019). We were deeply involved with the Jewish community on campus – Olivia was co-president of the Jewish Students Association at Berkeley Law (JSABL) and led an itrek trip to Israel for 50 of her (majority non-Jewish) peers during her third year of law school; Nir was Treasurer of JSABL and a Fellow at the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies (the Institute) as an undergrad at Cal and we both currently serve as advisory board members of the Institute.

We are troubled by Marcus’ attempt to disparage one of America’s most vibrant institutions that supports a strong Jewish community. We believe his reactionary article and the national response that it led to, like the article from the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (AAJLJ) writing that members of the AAJLJ should “think twice before hiring a UC Berkeley Law graduate,” was short-sighted and contributed to harming more for Jewish students on campus.

First and foremost, let us be clear: what the nine student groups did was wrong and the students that were part of that decision-making process should be ashamed of themselves. The logical effect of these bylaws is to discriminate against Jews, who overwhelmingly consider Zionism to be an integral part of their identity.

For LSJP members and other Berkeley Law students to profess that this BDS bylaw is merely in support of Palestinian liberation without acknowledging the tangible impact it will have by excluding Jews is unbefitting of legal scholars at the best public law school in the country. We will not engage with LSJP’s hateful and meritless rhetoric, we are simply encouraging them to treat the identity of 90% of the world’s Jews with as much respect as they give to other minority communities.

University of California Berkeley campus. (credit: FLICKR)University of California Berkeley campus. (credit: FLICKR)

Criticizing LSJP for their attempt to exclude and silence Zionist voices

Marcus rightfully criticizes LSJP for attempting to exclude and silence Zionist voices but he and others have painted Berkeley Law in broad strokes as an antisemitic hotbed. This does nothing to combat antisemitism, which is a worsening trend across our institutions and country writ large. More importantly, it does not reflect the true experience of Jewish, Zionist students on campus. We won’t deny that in our three years at Berkeley Law, we experienced a number of antisemitic incidents that contributed to what was, at times, a hostile climate for many Jewish students.

Yet with support from the highest levels of the Berkeley administration, including Chancellor Carol Christ and Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, our Jewish community, Zionism and advocacy flourished, despite the bigotry from some of our peers. We would encourage Marcus not to fall into the same trap as our detractors, who frequently boil down nuanced and complex matters into sweeping, unsophisticated generalizations.

We studied Jewish law with Professor Kenneth Bamberger and comparative constitutional law with visiting Israeli Professor Amnon Reichman and were invited to Shabbat dinners at the home of renowned corporate law professor Steven Davidoff-Solomon. We attended frequent lectures on topical legal matters sponsored by the Institute, including a conversation with an Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Daphne Barak-Erez. LSJP protested many of these events – as is their First Amendment right – but their constant accusations of apartheid fell flat when other students were provided opportunities to hear lectures by Israeli-Arab scholars like Michael Karayanni, who was respectful, yet highly critical of certain Israeli policies, all while supporting Jewish self-determination and nationhood.

We firmly believe that our experiences combating antisemitism at Berkeley Law have made us better lawyers. While always open to honest dialogue and constructive discussion, we remain steadfast and unwavering advocates for what we know to be just and true. Marcus criticized Chemerinsky for not taking action, yet if he took the time to talk to contemporary Jewish students, faculty and staff at Berkeley Law, among so many others, he would see firsthand the tremendous achievements and success of this incredible group.

The Jewish community at Berkeley is not defined by the discrimination that it faces; rather, it shines in the light of the opportunities that it provides for dialogue, learning, open-mindedness and tolerance. We are proud to be Jewish, Zionist, Berkeley Law graduates.

Olivia Wittels received her JD from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and her BA from Cornell University. She is an attorney at a law firm in New York City and a member of AIPAC’s Young Leadership Council, as well as on the advisory board of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Nir Maoz, UC Berkeley, BA ’15, JD ’19, is a corporate restructuring attorney in Los Angeles and is on the advisory board of the Helen Diller Institute.