Jewish-free zone? Berkeley law students ban pro-Israel speakers

Nine different student groups at the law school of the University of California at Berkeley – the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s – have amended their bylaws to ban speakers who support the state of Israel and Zionism.

“If it wasn’t so frightening,” observed an alumnus of the law school, Kenneth L. Marcus, “one might be able to recognize the irony in the sight of campus progressives trying so hard to signal progressive virtue that they fall victim to a deeper moral shame.”

The groups enacting the ban include Women of Berkeley Law, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, Middle Eastern and North African Law Students Association, Law Students of African Descent, and the Queer Caucus.

Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote about the ban in a column for the Jewish Journal titled “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones.”

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He received a response to his commentary from the dean of Berkeley’s law school, Erwin Chemerinsky, whom Marcus described as “a progressive Zionist.”

Chemerinsky said Marcus “paints a misleading picture,” insisting there is no “Jewish-Free Zone” at the Berkeley law school. The dean said he knew of no instance in which a student group has denied admission to Jewish students.

Marcus, however, never said Jewish students were being denied admission to the groups. His concern was grouping excluding pro-Israel speakers.

On that point, Chemerinsky argued it was “only a handful of student groups out of over 100 at Berkeley Law did this.” The dean said he wrote a letter to the leaders of the student groups stating that excluding speakers on the basis of their viewpoint is inconsistent with the school’s commitment to free speech. And he said condemning the existence of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism.

Chemerinsky concluded it’s “important to recognize that law student groups have free speech rights, including to express messages that I and others might find offensive.”

In a written response to Chemerinsky, Marcus challenged the dean’s argument that only a “handful” of groups, nine, formally exclude Zionist speakers.

“This in and of itself is a highly concerning argument,” Marcus wrote. “Would it be okay for only 5% or 10% of the campus to be segregated? What percentage of the Berkeley campus should be open to all? Shouldn’t it be 100%? And what is the right number of doors that should be closed to students of any race or ethnicity: isn’t it zero?”

Marcus said Chemerinsky “misses the point when he insists that all clubs admit Jewish students as members.”

“No one denies this. Nevertheless, an unmistakable signal is sent to those same students when they are told that they would be barred from appearing as invited speakers,” he wrote. “This sends a clear signal: Jews are not welcome unless they deny their support for Israel which, for many, is an integral element of Jewish identity.”

Marcus further argues that excluding Zionists is not merely viewpoint discrimination, such as a Democratic club excluding Republican speakers.

Excluding someone “on the basis of their ethnic or ancestral identity” is different, said Marcus, arguing it “would not be acceptable for students to adopt bylaws banning Black or Chinese speakers.”

“Those who want to talk about Israel should be free to do so, regardless of their perspective; they should not silence one side of the debate,” he concluded. “And they should certainly not use this as an excuse to restrict the participation of any ethnic or religious group.”

In his commentary for the Jewish Journal, Marcus noted that Berkeley law students are not the first to exclude Zionists:

At the State University of New York at New Paltz, activists drove two sexual assault victims out of a survivor group for being Zionists. At the University of Southern California, they drove Jewish student government vice president Rose Ritch out of office, threatening to “impeach [her] Zionist ass.” At Tufts, they tried to oust student judiciary committee member Max Price from the student government judiciary committee because of his support for Israel.

He writes that these exclusions “reflect the changing face of campus antisemitism.”

It’s no longer about toxic speech, now anti-Zionist groups targeting Jewish Americans directly, he points out.

He contends anti-Zionism “is flatly antisemitic.”

“Using ‘Zionist’ as a euphemism for Jew is nothing more than a confidence trick,” he writes, “treating Israel as the ‘collective Jew’ and smearing the Jewish state with defamations similar to those used for centuries to vilify individual Jews.”

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