OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Jewish students at Berkeley grow a backbone

Administrations have felt free to ignore antisemitism because of the inaction of students and faculty.

Students at Doe Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Credit: sarangib/Pixabay.
Students at Doe Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Credit: sarangib/Pixabay.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

Finally, after five months, comes a sign of life from Jewish students. Hundreds of Berkeley students, faculty and alums marched to protest the administration’s failure to address antisemitism on campus and guarantee free speech for Jewish students. They were ultimately moved to act after antisemites disrupted an event with an Israeli speaker two weeks earlier.

As at other universities, the administration failed to prepare for a predictable assault on Jewish students. The invitation of any Israeli is a magnet for protesters. Though Ran Bar-Yoshafat is a lawyer and not a soldier, the fact that he served in the Israel Defense Forces was enough to provoke Israel’s detractors to assault the lecture hall and its occupants. Unable to protect the event, as many as 200 bullies—many wearing keffiyehs over their faces to conceal their identity—stormed the building where the event was held, shattered a window, hurled anti-Semitic slurs and assaulted Jewish students. The lecture was canceled, and students had to be escorted out by the police.

The university said the incident was “an attack on the fundamental values of the university” and launched a criminal investigation but no immediate steps to protect students. If the past is prologue, the perpetrators will face no consequences.

Administrations have felt free to ignore antisemitism because of the inaction of students and faculty. While the antisemites march, hold die-ins and take over buildings, Jews grumble or file lawsuits and complaints with the U.S. Department of Education.

Jewish students taking action is so rare that the Berkeley protest prompted the media to cover it. Bad publicity, along with donors revolting, seems to be the only things that get the attention of administrators and trustees. The march began at the site of the melee and ended at Sather Gate, a campus landmark for free-speech protests. Before the march, the administration had allowed anti-Israel protestors to block the gate and harass Jewish students.

The administration, which has done nothing about antisemitism on the campus, dates at least to my time as a graduate student in the early 1980s. Back then, Arab students protested when Israel also acted in self-defense against Palestinian terrorists who were attacking Jews from Lebanon. My friend, Jeffrey Pearl, and I started the Israel Action Committee (continuing the work of predecessors like Natan Nestel). We sat in Sproul Plaza at a table with an Israeli flag distributing information about Israel. Next to us was the Muslim Students Association table with a sign that said Zionism = Racism and pamphlets with the highlights of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

We, too, had difficulty mobilizing our peers to act but fortunately did not face the degree of harassment Jews at Cal have faced in recent years.

Faculty at Berkeley is even more somnambulant, except, of course, the anti-Israel faculty like Judith Butler, who defended the massacre as “armed resistance,” arguing that it was not antisemitic and questioning reports of sexual violence against Israeli women. She also advocates “queer mobilization” in solidarity with the Palestinians, not caring that they would likely be killed if they lived in “Palestine.”

If there are pro-Israel faculty members at Berkeley, they have mostly been silent, as have professors around the country. Those who are untenured must worry that speaking out could be career suicide with tenure committees made up of sympathizers for Hamas. Those with tenure fear being ostracized by their left-wing colleagues.

Worse, some, like Berkeley Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky, have contributed to the problem. Before Oct. 7, he defended antisemitic law students. He claimed to have seen little antisemitism in his time at Berkeley, even though, among other incidents, a poster of Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz with a swastika on his face was plastered outside his law school. After admitting in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that he “refrained from speaking out against those who defended Hamas’ terrorist attack,” Chemerinsky said he could no longer be silent. For him, this meant defending critics of Israel, declaring his opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, expressing support for the Palestinians and endorsing the two-state solution. He courageously called on administrators to speak out against antisemitism—three weeks after the massacre.

One exception to the cowardly faculty is Ron Hassner, Chancellor’s Professor of Political Science and Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at the University of California Berkeley. He has launched a one-person protest by refusing to leave his campus office until the administration addresses the antisemitism problem. I hate to criticize one of the few faculty members standing up for Jewish students, but he has made several critical errors that minimize his opportunity to make an impact and some that are counterproductive.

University of California, Berkeley
Anti-Israel protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, bang on glass doors before eventually breaking them on Feb. 26, 2024. Source: NBC Bay Area/YouTube.

First, it’s hard to imagine the administration caring whether he sits in his office until the end of time. What might have made a difference is if he had first mobilized other faculty to join him. If dozens of faculty protested, then maybe the university would feel some compulsion to act. At Cal, like most universities, however, Israel’s detractors and Hamas fans swamp the number of faculty willing to defend Jewish students (see Faculty for Justice in Palestine below).

Second, Hassner discouraged students from marching, deluding himself into believing that passivity was a defense against the Huns.

Third, he made the egregious error now epidemic on the campus of conflating antisemitism and Islamophobia (Seth Mandel wrote in Commentary magazine that a new word has been coined: “antisemitismandislamophobia”). It’s an obscene comparison. No Jewish students (or non-Jewish) have rioted against Muslim students. As FBI statistics show, hate crimes against Jews are exponentially higher than those against Muslims. The combination of political correctness and virtue-signaling to appease left-wing colleagues and students lets universities off the hook by minimizing the extent to which antisemitism is the dominant form of bigotry on campus.

Fourth, Hassner earlier signed a letter with Hatem Bazian, a continuing lecturer in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, calling for peaceful dialogue on Oct. 12. This was a nice kumbaya moment. On Oct. 7, his response on X to the massacre was that “Palestinians have the right to freedom, dignity and security in their homes, lands and religious sites!” The next day, he complained that CNN hadn’t interviewed any Palestinians, erased Palestinian suffering and was “cheerleading for Israel’s violence.” Among his other tweets, he responded to U.S. President Joe Biden, “Stop inciting and supporting genocide in Gaza, 70% of those killed by Israel and Netanyahu are children and women!”

Bazian was a co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine, the principal group responsible for the antagonism of Jews on campus, which, after Oct. 7, praised the massacre and called itself part of the Hamas resistance movement. There is now a Berkeley Faculty for Justice in Palestine that accuses Israel of genocide and demands the university divest from Israeli and Israeli-related companies; protect those who attack Israel and Zionism (euphemisms for Jews); and not interfere in their use of the classroom to advance their political agendas.

Fifth, Hassner says he is not making any demands, only “requests” of the administration.

Seriously?

He sounds like a fraternity pledge being paddled, saying, “Please, sir, can I have another.”

He excitedly reports that administrators have stopped by his office. Here’s the response from university spokesman Dan Mogulof: “The administration is committed to confronting antisemitism and holds Professor Hassner in great esteem, and it is in conversation with him about his concerns.”

Meanwhile, while he’s begging for the crumbs of keeping the Sather gate open, apologizing to speakers who get shouted down and providing “Islamophobia and antisemitism training to staff,” the faculty for Justice in Palestine is making multiple demands that amount to protecting antisemites.

Even well-meaning Jews like Hassner don’t understand what we’re up against. This is a war, and it did not begin on Oct. 7. I’ve been writing about it for more than 30 years. Too many Jews act like the problem can be solved like a resolution at the Oxford debating society or a Talmudic disputation.

It is worth remembering that Nachmanides “won” the famous disputation in Barcelona in the 13th century. The result? He had to flee the following day and never returned. James I subsequently ordered the removal of passages deemed offensive from the Talmud. Failure to do so was punishable by a fine, and books that were not censored were burned.

Too many Jews think the war can be fought according to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules (like those who believe Hamas can be defeated without civilians dying), while the antisemites have adopted the “Chicago way” as described by Scottish actor Sean Connery’s character in “The Untouchables”: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

Bravo to the Jewish students at Berkeley who finally took off the gloves to fight.

Note: Hassner ended his sit-in on March 22 after he announced that the administration acceded to his requests. The decision likely had less to do with his protest than the international damage to Berkeley’s image from its inaction. Whether it will impact the prevalence of antisemitism at Berkeley remains to be seen, as the decision only has the immediate effect of monitoring protests at Sather Gate.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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