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When the news spread in the fall that nine student groups at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law amended their bylaws to ensure that no Zionist or pro-Israel speakers would ever speak to them, it sparked outrage throughout the Jewish world. The groups had, as Kenneth Marcus, chairman of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law termed it, created “Jew-free zones” on the campus of one of the country’s most prestigious public universities.
Yet the curious thing about the controversy was how quickly it was downplayed. The list of those minimizing it included, of course, the leadership of the law school and university, whose jobs as officials at a state institution require them not to be associated, even tangentially, with overt antisemitism. But it also included two Jewish professors at Berkeley and left-wing Jewish journalists, who claimed that it was a lie that Berkeley had “Jew-free” zones.
According to The Forward’s Rob Eshman, the story was nothing more than a case of the Jewish Journal, which first published Marcus’s article, engaging in click-bait journalism. He said that even a cursory investigation of the allegation made it clear that it was “misinformation,” a standard smear of any revelations inconvenient for liberals, such as that about Hunter Biden’s laptop. And The Forward is so proud of Eshman’s specious defense of Berkeley’s tolerance for antisemites that it re-circulated the piece as part of its end-of-year fundraising campaign.
Nevertheless, and to the surprise of many, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has launched a formal investigation into the incident. Its decision to do so, though by no means a guarantee of a ruling against the antisemites, is something of a milestone. That’s because it’s the first time that the OCR, which is responsible for monitoring discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex has taken up a case of left-wing campus antisemitism under a Democratic administration.
Though, under the administration of George W. Bush, it took the first steps toward the government’s treating of anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism, it went much further when Donald Trump was president and Marcus served as Under Secretary of Education for Civil Rights from 2018 to 2020. During this period, Trump issued an executive order declaring that acts of discrimination against Jews would be “vigorously enforced” in accordance with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which includes anti-Zionism and Israel-Nazi comparisons among its terms.
In other words, targeting Jews and Israel-supporters—in the very manner that the groups at Berkeley Law have now done—would be considered violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and place the school in jeopardy of losing federal funding. This would be tantamount to a fatal blow, in an era in which nearly all institutions rely heavily on grants and allocations from Washington.
This was a move that the Obama administration, eager to distinguish hatred against Israel and pro-Israel Jews from that of traditional antisemitism, had refused to make. When Joe Biden took office, the expectation was that the OCR would similarly back away from tough Title VI enforcement against antisemitism.
This is what makes its decision to investigate the “Jew-free zones” at Berkeley so significant. It shows that, despite the cries of outrage from the left about Trump’s order—based on the false claim that he was seeking to silence criticism of Israel—the IHRA definition of antisemitism that he embraced is now settled law.
It’s a shocking development for left-wing Jews who believed that their labeling of the Berkeley story as “misinformation” would ensure that the OCR wouldn’t even look into the matter. They had mustered three different arguments against what they considered to be right-wing Zionist exploitation of a minor incident.
One was that it was just student groups declaring their own spaces, not the law school’s or the university’s, to be off-limits to Zionists. But an institution’s permitting of open discrimination against Jews on campus is tantamount to an endorsement. It would certainly and rightly be called out as such if a school allowed a student group to exhibit similar prejudice against blacks, Hispanics or Asians.
The second was that the nine groups adopting the discriminatory bylaws constitute only a handful of the more than 100 student associations on the campus. That’s technically true, but these aren’t merely tiny clubs for arcane hobbies like chess, opera-appreciation or bird-watching. They include the 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. Taken together, they represent a clear majority of the school’s students.
The third, articulated at length by Eshman, echoed the critiques of Trump’s executive order. He claimed that Marcus and other pro-Israel figures had been waging “a decades-long campaign to equate anti-Israel opinion and measures with antisemitism,” and linked his column to a piece in the far-left, anti-Zionist Jewish Currents publication that sought to legitimize efforts to destroy Israel—and to claim they had nothing to do with actual Jew-hatred.
The notion that treating anti-Zionist agitation and attempts to silence and shun pro-Israel Jews as antisemitism is “viewpoint discrimination” is standard on the left. It’s been employed to defend BDS and so-called “liberated ethnic studies” courses in California.
It’s predicated on the idea that Zionism and belief in the rights of the Jewish people to their historic homeland is just another political viewpoint and as deserving of a fair hearing as those articulated by Israel-supporters. It rests on a claim that essentially redefines Judaism and Jewish identity in ways that contradict what has been normative practice, as well as attitudes among both liberal and Orthodox denominations, for millennia. It’s precisely why many on the left refuse to accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Despite their assertions to the contrary, however, demonizing and advocating for the elimination of Israel—and labeling all who defend Jewish rights as racists undeserving of free-speech protection—is not merely criticism of the state or its democratically elected government. In order to argue that anti-Zionism does not contradict Judaism, you have to ignore the fact that love of the land of Israel and a belief in the Jews’ eternal, ineradicable ties to it has always been an essential part of Jewish faith and identity.
Seeing those who turn on their religion, their people and Israel as the only “good Jews” worthy of a hearing while calling their opponents racists is indistinguishable from any other form of antisemitism. Indeed, anti-Zionists are essentially treating the one Jewish state differently from any other country in the world. They are proclaiming that Jews are the only people who don’t have rights to their own country or its defense. Such singling out is textbook antisemitism.
We don’t know what the OCR will decide about Berkeley. Biden appointees may succumb to what is likely to be a ferocious pushback from the Democrats’ intersectional activist base. Either way, the battle against the growing acceptance of antisemitic activity on campuses has to continue.
The stakes in this struggle are high. Those rationalizing what happened at Berkeley are, at best, “useful idiots” doing the spadework for ideologues aiming for the eradication of Jewish life in Israel and for the marginalization of Jews everywhere.
Standing up to anyone legitimizing this form of Jew-hatred is more than important; it’s essential if Jewish life in the United States is to survive and thrive.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.