Controversy erupted at the UC Berkeley Law school this fall over the decision by a handful of student groups to adopt bylaws that would ban Zionist speakers. In response, American Jewish Committee (AJC) united with 35 other Jewish organizations to condemn the ban as a “vicious attempt to marginalize and stigmatize the Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel community… This is unabashed antisemitism.”

This week, Dr. Ethan Katz, Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Berkeley, and co-founder of the Antisemitism Education Initiative, and Charlotte Aaron, a Berkeley Law student and board member of the Jewish Student Association (JSA), sat down with Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman, AJC's Senior Director of the Alexander Young Leadership Department, to discuss the situation on campus, how it has affected their work as Jewish activists, and why they remain hopeful for the future of Jews on campus.

Episode Lineup:

  • (0:40) Ethan Katz and Charlotte Aaron

Show Notes:

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Episode Transcript

Manya Brachear Pashman: At the start of this academic year, members of Law Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California’s Berkeley campus persuaded nine student groups to adopt a bylaw banning speakers who support Zionism. 35 Jewish organizations, including AJC, wrote an open letter to the university pointing out this discrimination and demanding action. When Jewish student leaders expressed their gratitude to AJC earlier this week, CEO Ted Deutch assured them that AJC’s efforts would not end there. For this week’s episode, we invited a Berkely educator and law student to discuss what the controversy means for them and their fellow Jewish faculty and students on campus. They sat down with my occasional co-host Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman, AJC's Director of the Alexander Young Leadership Department. Take it away, Meggie.

Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman: Joining me today on People of the Pod: Dr. Ethan Katz, Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley. And Charlotte Aaron, who is a second year law student at UC Berkeley. Ethan & Charlotte, thank you for joining me.

Ethan Katz: Thanks for having us. 

Charlotte Aaron: Thank you.

Meggie: So, in the last few weeks, there has been significant coverage about events at UC Berkeley Law School, and particularly about what appears to be exclusionary, anti Israel adoptions made by a handful of student groups. So for our listeners who may not have the full story, Ethan, can you paint a brief picture for us of what has unfolded?

Ethan: Sure. So in August, I believe it was actually on the first day of classes. There was a decision by several student clubs, eight, I believe, at UC Berkeley Law to adopt a set of bylaws that had been proposed to them, by Students for Justice in Palestine, at the law school, the SJP chapter at the law school. Now that was a proposal made to dozens of clubs at Berkeley law. So it was a relatively small number who adopted these bylaws, but the bylaws were very discriminatory in that they said, these clubs would not invite any speaker who had expressed, continue to express support for Zionism, or what the bylaws referred to as the apartheid regime in Israel, or the occupation of Israel, occupation of Palestine, excuse me, what they clearly mean by that last clause is not what many observers refer to as the occupation of the West Bank, it is just the presence of Israeli sovereignty, in portions of the historical plan of Israel-Palestine.

So these were met with tremendous concern by not only many Jewish law students, but many others of us who were involved in efforts on campus to support Jewish students, I co-run an antisemitism education program at Berkeley, Berkeley Law has a very large Israel studies program. 

And the dean of Berkeley Law came out very strongly to say that he found these to be very problematic, to be against the principles of community of the university, you know, say that every club has the right to free speech, but that becomes very concerning when students are excluded. And he said, I thought, forcefully that, you know, himself, if these bylaws were to be followed to the letter, would not be able to speak at these clubs as someone who himself is a Zionist. He also reminded clubs of the fact that the Chancellor of the University has come out in writing multiple times against the BDS movement.

We were sort of waiting to see what was going to happen next in terms of what was going to be the full impact of these and also what was going to hopefully be the impact of the Dean's response, in curbing this or maybe making some groups reconsider. We did not hear a lot more about this controversy after the initial week or so that it came out until an editorial published in the Jewish Journal of LA almost exactly three weeks ago, claiming in its headline and in its content that Berkeley was developing so-called Jewish free zones. 

This quickly ignited a firestorm in the media and major controversy. And it brought the issue much more into focus not only on campus but off. That had various impacts on campus. One of them was that we felt the need to try to explain what had happened, what we already have in place, which is considerable, to try to support your students and raise awareness about antisemitism. And also to try to better understand where things stood for the Jewish students. and figure out ways that we have not sufficiently met their needs. 

I also think it's important to note that many Jewish undergraduate students who had been unaware or vaguely aware of the initial bylaws became very nervous and concerned in ways that they had not been before about Jewish life on campus. So, the impact of the article was also to create a great deal more anxiety and fear among many students on campus, despite the fact that Jewish life on this campus, generally speaking, is very robust, and in many ways thriving in terms of the success of Hillel and student Chabad, and the number of student clubs and Jewish Studies and Israel studies. So that's sort of a rough timeline.

Meggie: Charlotte, anything to add there?

Charlotte: I think I'll just add the way I felt when I found out what had happened. I arrived at the library Monday morning, first day of school and sat down and five minutes into reading for class, I got a text message from my friend screenshotting the fact that the women of Berkeley Law organization had passed this bylaw. 

And I think it was a mix of heartbreaking and frustrating. I was heartbroken because I spoke to a lot of people on these boards after this happened. And they acknowledged that they themselves didn't really know much about this issue. And wanted to be supportive to their Palestinian classmates, which is incredibly important, and I so support that. But it was heartbreaking to me that we're at a place where people think that this is how you do that, which is just an indication of a lot of misinformation.

And, you know, I for the last decade, almost, I've been worried about social media, and it's especially ramped up in the last five years, and how information is spread and shared. And I think, particularly with this issue, there's a lot of misinformation. And this was a clear demonstration of that, and the impact of that. That law students who, theoretically are pretty informed of what's going on in the world, and what issues are complex and which ones are not, and how to handle those types of issues, weren't even able to take a moment and recognize like, oh, maybe, maybe we should, like do a little bit of research or engage in this issue before we take such an extreme stance, which is what that bylaw was. So I think that that was heartbreaking.

And I was frustrated, because the Jewish students weren't contacted about this. I would have hoped that they would have reached out or somebody would have reached out or I would have heard about it, and I didn't, and a lot of my Jewish friends didn't. And I think that was really frustrating that we weren't being included in this conversation. And it could have been a really great opportunity to engage before creating harm. And that didn't happen. But hopefully, it's a learning experience for everyone.

Meggie: So Charlotte, I want to focus in more on that. You mentioned that heartbreak. And I think sadly, that is something that certainly in different scenarios and other campuses, there have been instances where Jewish students do feel that, that that exclusionary, I guess, kind of heartbreak. I want to focus in on kind of the timeline that Ethan painted of this initially, kind of being adopted months ago, and then having greater coverage brought in recent weeks. So as a student, as a member of the Jewish Law Students Association at Berkeley, what did students feel, what are they feeling now? Or did they even know about it initially months ago, when this was passed. Can you kind of talk about those two stages?

Charlotte: Yeah, so I will say that it was initially really challenging for the Jewish Student Association, because we work, and continue to work really, really hard to be an organization that is welcoming of all Jewish students, regardless of their perspectives on this issue. We issued, the board of the Jewish student organization, published a letter, we first send it to our members, and then to the organizations, to all the student organizations who are invited to add the bylaws to their constitutions, basically saying: Look, this hurts Jewish students, because it forces them to choose between either, you know, denying a part of who they are, or, to be part of an organization or to, you know, exclude themselves. And we're not asking our members to do that. And we hope that you guys also don’t ask your members to do that. After that, the Jewish student organization kind of stepped back, mostly because we don't want to be an organization about Israel.

And that's not our purpose. Our purpose is to be there for all Jewish students. So that organization stopped engaging in this issue. As individuals, there are four of us who still were very concerned about what happened. And we're continuing to work behind the scenes on how to best address this, because it's a really challenging issue. And we wanted to make sure – three out of four of us are board members, how are we going to do this in a way that doesn't make it look like our organization is taking a stance. That was a really big concern to the other board members who, you know, don't want our organization to take a stance, which none of us do. But the optics of that were very challenging. 

So we are navigating that? Do we start a new organization? You know, are we trying to write a letter? Are we directly reaching out to these students? How do we do that? The Dean has been super supportive and offered to help us, but what can he actually do? Like, what do we want him to do? These were really hard questions. 

And so even before the article came out, the four of us were thinking about these things, and meeting and talking and we went to the Palestine 101 event that was put on, and we had students coming up to us at Jewish events, not at Jewish events, saying that they were individually concerned about what had happened. And this was even before the article came out. So yes, it drew public attention. But I do think that students were still quite concerned about what was going on. It just wasn't vocalized.

Meggie: So I want to get to some of those responses once that article came out, and there was greater coverage. So Ethan, you wrote a piece that has been widely shared that in a very eloquent way, expressed your frustrations with how some of these incidents are being portrayed in the broader media. What led you to pen that piece?

Ethan: In the most basic sense, I think the claims made as a headline of that article are false. I share the deepest concerns about what's happened at the law school. And we're doing a lot and we're trying to do more. And, Charlotte, as you know, we're having a meeting this afternoon. There’ve been a lot of meetings. And so there's no question that what's happened needs to be addressed in the most effective way possible. 

We're not on a campus where the administration or large numbers of students are trying to ban Jews from large portions of the campus, which I believe was the implication of such a headline. And so we wanted both to express the fact that we were really disgusted by these bylaws and that they are unquestionably, nakedly discriminatory and many of us believe antisemitic. But to say that this kind of coverage, that it paints a false picture of the campus, and that it's fundamentally unhelpful in the end. We started the antisemitism education initiative that I helped to run three years ago, we put on a lot of programs on campus, we do trainings, we respond to incidents, we created a training module, a training video, a lot of other campuses use the resources that we created. And we do that to support students. And we do that based on conditions on the ground.

If people from outside want to support Jewish students here, that's fantastic. But part of what we're trying to say is, we have this program already in the system, we have this Israel studies program, we have Jewish studies, we have really strong community organizations, come talk to us and say, How can you best support our efforts, rather than effectively throwing a grenade from the outside? 

And I have to say, I mean, you know, what happened most recently, last week on campus, which I think many people have heard about by now was a truck going around the campus with a hologram on it, of Adolf Hitler, saying something like, you know, if you believe that Jews should be banned from Berkeley, raise your right hand. This was done by an organization that claimed to be looking out for Jewish students and to be very concerned. And just like that initial article raised a lot of alarm among Jewish students, both off campus and on campus, this, of course, scared many Jews on campus. And I know that it wasn't the intention of the articles that have been written. But by now five articles have been written continuing to claim there are Jewish free zones at Berkeley. Without those articles, those trucks would never have been circling our campus. So, we remain alarmed by the effect of this, and we don't think it's actually helping us respond the most effectively to what's taking place. 

Meggie: So along with the response on campus, there is kind of an inherent issue, or I would say, challenge that is always trying to be examined in situations like this. You had mentioned Charlotte earlier, Dean Chemerinsky, who himself wrote a piece in The Daily Beast. And in it, he acknowledges this tension, he talks about the need to honor free speech, which takes I think, renewed importance at a law school, honor, free speech, but also acknowledge that some of these tactics, including those of banning students who identify as Zionists are indeed at odds with free speech and can fracture student discourse. 

So these are tough questions. But my question and maybe Charlotte we'll start with you. And then Ethan, I'd love your perspective. Do you see this manifesting at Berkeley beyond just this incident? And have you seen these trends in academia more broadly? 

Charlotte: I do think free speech is an issue. When I was a student at Brandeis, I was the undergraduate representative on a university task force for free expression. And the purpose of the task force was to create a set of policies or principles that the university would abide by, to ensure that every student felt like they could have their voices heard and share their perspectives. And I'm a firm believer that, you know, more speech is how we get to the right answers. And if people have really extreme opinions on the left, the right, up, down, and aren't sharing those, then they can never be addressed. And, I mean, I think that this is, this is a perfect example of that, that, only one narrative is being heard. 

Hopefully from this, and I think it's sad that, you know, what I am, Adam, Billy and Noah are trying to do, is being portrayed as silencing Palestinian voices, because what we're trying to do is quite the opposite. And, you know, I went to Law Students for Justice in Palestine events last year, like I want to go to their events. So that A, I know what they're saying, and, you know, know what i might be up against B, maybe there's actually some common ground, which would be great, you know, if we can find common ground, maybe they agree with me on something that I didn't know about. And we can run from there. And C, quite frankly, what a great way to sharpen my tools. I can't possibly prepare to advocate for something I care about if I have no idea what other people are saying. 

Meggie: Ethan, I want to turn to you. How are you seeing this issue of a want to safeguard free speech, but be balanced with the reality that for many Jewish and pro-Israel students, they feel like their ability to proudly speak about their views is being limited because of social implications? How are you seeing this manifest within your work, in particularly so as the co-chair of AJS’s Task Force on Antisemitism and Academic Freedom?

Ethan: Yeah, I mean, I think Charlotte nailed a lot of it. The fact is, we're living in an age where a whole slew of actors across the political spectrum, and also in our own Jewish community, in different perspectives, have a very hard time with robust debate about issues that are dear to them. And the impetus for the creation of that task force was the feeling among certain of our Jewish colleagues, pretty far to the left, that certain conversations about antisemitism on campus, more from the right, were making them feel they could not be critical of Israel without being called antisemitic. 

And I know Palestinian voices are very upset about some of those efforts to shut down conversation. I think, justifiably so. So of course, it is really the height of irony and misfortune to then see the same tactic deployed by pro-Palestinian organizations to say, we can't harbor any kind of real conversation either. I think it's important to note, I mean, we all have, I think some sympathy for the fact that organizations want to create so-called safe spaces for those in solidarity with their causes. 

But these bylaws are not bylaws that say, unless you support the right of the Palestinians to a state you won't be allowed to speak, or unless you recognize the Palestinians are a people, you won't be allowed to speak. Those, I think whilst they would be controversial, some people, most Jewish students would not be offended by those. And I think we would all understand those more as really a matter of sort of visceral sense of safety for Palestinian students. This is so much more sweeping than that. And it really is to just silence the vast majority of Jewish students effectively, and to silence any kind of live debate on these issues. And one of the things that I'm concerned about, and I hear Charlotte is concerned, and that many of us are concerned about is that we will become so kind of siphoned off from each other in our own echo chambers. And that doesn't help anyone’s problems.

Meggie: I know that there are immense challenges, but there are also, and both of you highlighted these in the articles you wrote, there's a lot of opportunity and a lot of positivity happening on campus. So I want to turn to both of you, Charlotte, you are a budding lawyer. So you see both sides of the coin. And Ethan, given your professional purview, you have a long lens of Jewish history, you have seen the many ups and downs of our people. So I want to pose to both of you: what makes you hopeful about the Jewish student experience at Berkeley today, and more broadly, about Jewish life today? Maybe Ethan, we'll start with you.

Ethan: Well, very honestly, I think one of the things that makes me hopeful, and what young Jews today, in many cases, are doing to pursue challenging and complex conversations on these and a host of other issues. We can always find examples of shrill voices and people who don't want to listen to each other. But there are a lot of examples that I think are quite inspiring, brave. You know, I very much appreciated the article that Charlotte and other law students wrote in The Daily Beast, and the clarity with which they have repeatedly said, We're not against Palestinians, we're not against the notion of the rights of Palestinians, what we really want is the opportunity to be engaged in conversation, and to feel that we as Jews, our identities, are able to have a space, there also for their full expression. And I think, you know, there are a lot of people across the country, particularly young, young people who are doing this kind of work, to try to push back on multiple extremes. 

Charlotte: The way that, you know, the bylaws have played out on our campus has, for people who don't really know much about the topic made it look really, really bad to be a Zionist, and I think that's really scary. And a lot of students don't want to engage with that, and, you know, identify themselves as somebody who supports Israel, but a lot of students have and, you know, undergraduates, other graduate students, graduate students at the law school, have come out in a really respectful and I guess proud way to engage in this and, and I was feeling bad for myself before Yom Kippur war like, oh, I'm spending so much time on this I'm not having as much time to work on school like, this is such a bummer and and I did some reflecting on the holiday which I suppose is what it's for.

And it's like, you know what, what a great group of Jewish students that I have the privilege of working with and great Jewish professors and a fantastic Jewish Dean and, Rabbi Adam at Hillel has been phenomenal. And I feel really lucky and encouraged to be surrounded by and working with really great people who share a common goal to just be good, and make the world a better place. And so that's been, that's been really nice. And then, you know, in terms of Jewish life more broadly, I somehow got swept into the Jewish graduate student initiative last year and did like a six-week Jewish learning, ethical learning class online. And it was amazing. And I just was so blown away by how many young Jewish people there were, who wanted to engage with the texts and debate about what we're supposed to be taking away from these and how we can apply them to our lives. I am learning about an aspect of Judaism that is so rich and meaningful, and I do think is making me a better person. And that feels really good. And I think it's doing the same for other young Jewish people. And I'm, that gives me hope about the future. 

Meggie: Thank you both for making time to share your wisdom with our audiences, for the activism and the leadership you're showcasing at Berkeley. And we wish you the best for the rest of the semester. Thank you.

Charlotte: Thank you.

Manya: If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to listen to my conversation with Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s US Director for Combatting Antisemitism. She helps unpack the origins of Kanye West’s conspiracy theories and stereotypes, and why the rapper’s hateful words matter to all of us.