Author: Jacob Baime
In August, a BDS-aligned group called Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine (BLSJP) persuaded nine affinity groups at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law – including several with large constituencies, such as the Women of Berkeley Law, the Queer Caucus, the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and Law Students of African Descent – to adopt a bylaw excluding any supporters of Israel’s existence. However, Jewish sovereignty in our homeland is an essential part of Jewish identity for most of our community, as Gallup in 2019 found that 95 percent of American Jews support Israel, and Pew in 2020 indicated that “eight-in-ten US Jews say caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them.” Berkeley Law’s Dean, Erwin Chereminsky, who calls himself a Progressive Zionist, noted that the bylaw excludes both himself and “90 percent or more of our Jewish students.”
In response, we joined a coalition of 39 Jewish and pro-Israel groups that called upon “Berkeley Law to immediately take all lawful and necessary steps to ensure that none of its student organizations is permitted to discriminate against Jews based on any aspect of their Jewish identity, including their Zionism.” A further 150 student organizations also issued their own statement, noting that: “[h]istory teaches well what follows when people are forced to pass litmus tests based on ethnic identity before they are granted their right to be treated as equal members of their community. The gravity of this injustice cannot be understated, and we stand firm in the face of hostility towards Jewish students.”
BLSJP, the organization responsible for the bylaw, was founded by Dr. Hatem Bazian, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department, who has written that ancient Jewish history in Israel is a “mythical past” and that Jews as a group are a “historical passer-by in the land.” Bazian has also tweeted that Zionists support the theft of “Palestinian land+resources+body-organs.” In 2002, he led a protest that attempted to disrupt a Holocaust Remembrance Day event and told participants to “look at the Jewish names on the school buildings… and decide who controls this university.”
On August 28, the board of the Jewish Students Association at Berkeley Law wrote that the bylaw could “silence Jewish voices on campus” and alienate “many Jewish students from certain groups on campus.” Sadly and predictably, this is exactly what has transpired. On October 17, four Jewish students at Berkeley Law wrote an article explaining how the law has harmed and marginalized them: “Many Jewish 1Ls (first-years) chose not to join affinity groups and pro-bono organizations after learning that those groups’ leaders passed the BDS by-law… A Jewish 2L felt unwelcome at a social gathering because attendees knew the 2L student only by their new label: supporter of Palestinian ‘ethnic cleansing.’ A transfer student was forced to either hide their identity or be perceived as a ‘settler-colonialist.’ Most upsetting, several other students and even a faculty adviser felt compelled to leave their own organizations — communities they had built over their time at the law school—because of these by-laws and this training.” Under the exclusionary bylaws now in force, the students wrote, “Jewish students are forced to choose: hide our identities, condemn our ancestry, or accept our marginalization, stigmatization, and exclusion as Zionists.”
These brave Jewish students also helped illuminate how the nine affinity groups were persuaded to adopt such a retrograde, segregationist policy: their leaders were required to attend a BLSJP seminar called “Palestine 101” that “equated Zionism with imperialism, ethnic erasure, and colonialism… Students left the training disgusted by Zionists and unashamed at excluding them… Following the event, one attendee told us that merely listening to anyone who challenges the anti-Zionist narrative would harm her Palestinian classmates.” One of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate student senators, Shay Cohen, said of herself that as a Zionist, “there is a target on my back.” Berkeley Law student Charlotte Aaron explained that the student leaders of the affinity groups that adopted the exclusionary bylaw “make Jewish students choose to either be OK denouncing an important part of who they are to be part of an organization, or to quietly exclude themselves[.]”
How long would UC Berkeley tolerate groups that excluded, for example, Black students unless they disavowed Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ students unless they pledged to support conversion therapy? Like poll taxes of old, the bylaw has a spurious purpose, one step removed from racism and religious hatred, but in application and intent, it is discriminatory and exclusionary. The Jewish and pro-Israel community must remain strong, united, and clear in our demands: either the affinity organizations must revoke the anti-Jewish bylaws, or Berkeley must defund and de-charter the groups implementing them.
Originally published in Times of Israel