The following is a transcript of Episode 113 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Friday, October 14th, 2022.
So I graduated from Columbia in the year 2000, and then for the next few years after I left, I watched as a series of increasingly public events told a vastly different story about the climate for Jewish students on that campus than the one that I had myself experienced.
By 2004, an organization called the David Project had released a documentary in collaboration with a number of Columbia undergraduates called Columbia Unbecoming. Actually, I went back and watched it again this morning on YouTube. It describes a hostile environment on campus for Jewish students as related to their views on Israel, and in particular focused on a handful of professors in Middle Eastern studies who several students alleged had intimidated them both individually and in class.
I remember back in 2004 feeling a sense of whiplash when I watched the documentary. It wasn’t that I necessarily doubted those students’ experience, it’s just that I had found Columbia to be an extraordinarily hospitable place to be a Jewish student. I’ll even say that I often found the climate for me as a Jewish student on campus to be a little suffocating, which is kind of the opposite of intimidating.
I had also taken a course with one of the professors named in the documentary, and he did in fact say inflammatory things in class and got into several arguments with Jewish students about Israel, but it didn’t affect me the way that it seemed to have affected many other students. I’m not sure why.
So what was the difference between my experience and that of the students? Just a few classes behind me. So first, there were a few major historical events in the interim, 9/11, of course, as well as the second intifada, which continues to be underappreciated as a transformative factor for not just how Israelis and Palestinians process the conflict, but how it’s understood here in America and mapped onto pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian identities.
And second, I suppose, different people have different tolerance levels and then as well, different people have different experiences. I certainly didn’t have the experience that one student reports of being called out by one of her professors for her eye color, which the professor said disqualifies her and her people for making a claim to be semites.
And also college campuses are remarkable places in that they turn over their dominant population of citizens, their undergraduates, every four years. This is an amazing thing, and it’s a rebuke of sorts to anyone who would make a claim that the university is in any way static. It just is a different population to people every five years.
So there were at least two Columbias, in other words, for Jewish students trying to describe their experience and many more in the eyes of a general population trying to make sense of what was clearly and continues to be clearly an evolving and electric political reality for Jews on campus. I was reminded of this story a few weeks ago when news broke of a major new site for campus contention about Israel. I would call it actually an old new site for campus contention about Israel.
When several student groups at the University of California at Berkeley Law School signed onto a pledge not to invite quote speakers that have expressed and continue to hold views in support of Zionism, the Apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine, end quote.
This exploded international Jewish conversation, as issues on campus often do, through third-party narration of these events in national Jewish media and is as often the case amplified by national Jewish organizations who flag these as moments of Jewish vulnerability. The Jewish Journal op-Ed on the subject was titled quote, Berkeley develops Jewish Free Zones.
Since then, the Dean of Berkeley Law School, Irwin Chemerinsky, responded arguing that the story is overblown, that it reflects a narrative that some groups want to tell about Berkeley as a hotbed of antisemitism and drawing a distinction between protected speech, even if it’s offensive and actually discriminatory actions.
Two other professors, uh, affiliated with Berkeley, Ron Hassner and Ethan Katz, responded similarly with op-ed lauding Berkeley’s quote, many Jewish filled zones. There are then at least two Berkeleys. Dean Chemerinsky himself identifies as a progressive Zionist. And one of the biggest stories that the law school in recent years is the creation and now flourishing of a new center, which is really one of a kind nationally for Jewish law and Israel studies funded generously by local Jewish philanthropists in the Bay Area.
We at Hartman, in fact, I guess this is a kind of a disclosure, helped create a position there. The Koret Visiting Professorship of Jewish and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley, a role that also enables its holder to serve as scholar residents for the Shalom Hartman Institute based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
There’s a thriving Hillel on campus. on Sunday at 5:30 you can go have shakshuka in the sukkah, if you’re so inclined. The campus, in other words, is the canvas for a much bigger story that many of us seem to want to tell about Jewish politics and where Jewish life in America is heading, whether we seek for that story to be optimistic or pessimistic.
So to unpack all of this, the story itself, what it feels like on campus, what actually is taking place, and what it all reflects. I’m joined today by two close observers of this story. Professor Ethan Katz, who I alluded to earlier as one of the authors of a response to these incidents on campus. Professor Katz is in the History department. He writes on modern Jewish history, including on Jewish Muslim relations and Holocaust studies, and on secularity and modernity, but also plays an active role on campus as the vice chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate, and as the co-founder and co-director of the Antisemitism Education Initiative at Berkeley.
As well as by Professor Masua Sagiv, who is the current Koret Visiting Professor Hartman Scholar in Residence, whose appointment at Berkeley is in this very law school where the drama is unfolding. Her previous appointment was as academic director of the Menomadin Center for Jewish and Democratic Law at Bar Ilan in Israel. She’s a legal scholar of Judaism and democracy in Israel.
Thank you both Ethan and Masua for joining us and for joining us relatively last minute to help, uh, cover this important story.
Ethan, let me start with you. Help us fill in the details of the actual stories as transcribed, the gaps in what might not have covered or might have gotten wrong in the story, so that when we unpack its implications, we have kind of the full narrative, uh, of the events.
Ethan: Sure. Thanks for inviting me on the show. Um, I don’t think you got anything wrong. Uh, inevitably, you couldn’t cover everything. So I’ll, I’ll just fill in a couple of things that I think are important. The first thing is that this exclusion, in terms of these bylaws and the part of these clubs, it took place in August.
Um, and there was an immediate response then from Dean Chemerinsky, uh, in which he wrote a letter to all the clubs at the law school. Uh, and he said very pointedly that while clubs have a right to express political speech, he worries a great deal about bylaws like this, making students feel excluded. He reminded people of the principles of community of a university.
He reminded people, uh, at that time of the chancellors on record in print more than once opposing BDS. And he said very pointedly, you know, if one were to follow these bylaws as they’re written, I could not speak at your meetings because despite my criticisms to the state of Israel, I am Zionist, right? So, uh, many people at the time praise that response.
And it’s important, I think, to note that, uh, by and large, the Jewish law students have felt in part because of that, and in part because of ongoing conversations with the dean, they have felt very supported, uh, by the dean. This is something that was ongoing that, you know, a number of people were trying to figure out what, how can we best respond to the situation in the intervening weeks.
And then it’s this story, written in the Jewish Journal, a little over two weeks ago that made it into a national story. And that is the reason that we’re sitting here and we’re talking about it.
Yehuda: So just as a point of clarification, does that suggest that between the time when this took place in August and when it appeared in the Jewish media, I guess in the late September, early October, um, was it kind of quieting down on campus before it gets up again?
Ethan: Correct. There were a few stories about it at the time. There was a story in the J. uh, of Northern California, there were comments from a few national figures like Ted Cruz. But it, it did not really generate that much heat and it was quieting down. I mean, basically one of the first things that Dean Chemerinsky said when the story broke in the Jewish Journal was, the great irony is this has basically almost gone away as an issue of a law school.
And the Jewish students are not telling me that they’re feeling threatened. I think it is important to note that the Jewish students still felt for, in my view, very good reason. They still felt excluded. They still felt saddened by what had taken place. And part of what we’re in the process of doing, uh, in the last couple weeks is not just dealing with this story out in the world, but working harder in a more multifaceted way to address their grievances on it.
Yehuda: Okay, so I’d love for, for both of you to reflect a little bit on what, what it has felt like. And it’s not the most, I guess, intellectually sophisticated question, but I actually am genuinely curious because you’re both observers of this as professors at the university, but also Jews, and I’m not gonna put you on the spot to identify what kind of Zionist you identify as, but you’re party to the story as well.
So before we get into, there’s a whole bunch of questions about what should happen, legal questions and otherwise, but I’m curious just what it’s felt like between August and now, both when this incident happens in late August, as well as with the influx of national media attention on the story.
I’ll start with you, Masua.
Masua: Great. Thanks Yehuda. I’m happy to be here. I mean, I read the story in the J. in August. I didn’t feel it at all, I have to say. My students didn’t know about the incident until I told them about it a couple weeks. I teach about Israel. This is the second year that I teach about Israel. I teach classes to undergrads, both in legal studies and in Middle Eastern studies and Jewish studies. I’ve taught Jewish students and non-Jewish students.
I can’t tell you that I personally felt something, but I know that people around me did. I know that some students are extremely frustrated, and feeling attacked. I can’t tell you about these experiences on my own.
But I can say I, I do want to stress even more what Ethan said, that there’s a huge difference between the discourse around August and the discourse that’s happening now, because in August it was a challenge in the university.
We have a lot of challenges in the university. We have a lot of challenges in the law school ongoing. It was a challenge. It needed to be dealt with. People overall felt it was dealt with and then, in September and October, it turned out to be something completely different. I got all these messages both from Israel and by the way, from a lot of our constituents in Hartman. American liberal Jews from the Jewish community who are very concerned, what’s going on in Berkeley, what is happening, why is the university banning Jews? And it’s really, it’s a puzzle to me.
Yehuda: Right. I mean, the part of that argument is implicitly if the university doesn’t sanction or forbid these student groups from doing what they’re doing, the university is effectively banning Jews, which may misunderstand how the university means to operate, but that’s, I think the logic behind it.
Let me stay with you for one more second Masua, which is, I assume that prior to coming to the states, that the narratives around what’s taking place on college campus are very prevalent. Especially they’re prevalent for, for Israelis about what’s the, the kind of psychosis of the American college campus.
Can you speak a little bit to the difference between the perception that you might have had before coming to Berkeley and what you’re describing as like, well, it’s not quite as bad as perhaps other people are presenting it.
Masua: Yes. It’s very odd. I kept thinking, because I also had a Columbia experience more than a decade ago, and I really anticipated the whole, you know, apartheid week and stuff like that because we hear about it really loudly in Israel. And I don’t know if it’s something wrong about me and my experiences personally, but I didn’t experience it.
I mean, I saw signs and I see people around, you know, Um, yesterday there was uh, a convening of a sort in the campus, initiated by Pro Israel activists. And there were three students with a megaphone yelling, Viva Palestine, Viva Palestine, for three hours, by the way. But I can tell you there’s something that I feel not from colleagues, not from students, I mean, my students have stigmas and stereotypes about Israel. But I have to tell you something, they have stigmas and stereotypes about most of the issues in the world around them. I don’t know if it’s because of their age or if it’s because a moment of our time, but there’s not much room for nuanced conversation, and I can’t really say that it’s just specifically about Israel. Not sure.
Yehuda: Mm-hmm. and Ethan, in contrast, you’ve been at the university for a while. In fact, you’ve been an, you’ve been active on the on campus around questions of antisemitism. So number one, what has that, what has that felt like over the last couple of months? But I’m also curious if you could give us a little bit of a historical arc of whether these events reflect any sort of change in terms of the culture on campus, or it’s just another series of these kind of events that take place every number of years.
Ethan: Right. Um, good questions. Yeah. So I mean, similar to Masua, the events in August, they were troubling. I, I, was interviewed briefly for one of the stories about it, and quoted in the story. And I was concerned. Um, the strong position taken by Dean Chemerinsky so quickly for many of us who work on these issues, we felt that that had had been a really ample response, in some ways, much more than we hope for, typically from a university administrator.
I mean, quite frankly, if we look at the landscape of university administrators in response to anti-Zionist incidents on campus, it somewhat unprecedented, almost, how strong his initial statements were. And so, uh, that I think made a lot of people feel like, okay, this has been well addressed. People are feeling supported.
Um, let’s hope that we can sort of work these things through over the longer term. The antisemitism education initiative that I helped to run, we’re always working on doing more trainings on campus, for different groups on campus. And so, we were thinking about can we find ways to do some more trainings at the law school, we did a few law school staff last year, but could we find ones to do for some way to do for some of the student groups, which we’re always trying to work on.
And then the story exploded two weeks ago. As soon as I saw that headline, I mean, not a public relations expert, but I was almost certain this was gonna be a thing. Now, did I think it was gonna be as big as it’s become? No. I don’t know if anybody did. But it was such an incendiary claim. I mean, I’m a historian, right? So Jewish free, as it’s pointed out in the article, that’s a term from the Nazis. Judenfrei, right? So the, to, to make a comparison between this troubling set of bylaws at the law school and Nazi Germany was so over the top.
And then it’s been doubled down on since. And a lot of people just read headlines. You know, for those of us who’ve been working very hard, we’ve built a real infrastructure of antisemitism education on campus for the last three and a half years. We get consulted by other campuses all the time to ask how we’ve done what we’ve done, not that we think it’s perfect. Right.
So to see that, to see the strength of Israel studies that exists, that’s been so well built by Ron Hassner, Ken Bamberger and others, the strength of Jewish studies, which houses the antisemitism initiative and, and all that’s going on at Hillel. And also Campus Chabad is really strong, a bunch of other groups.
To see all that sort of, you know, washed away quickly in that headline, of course it’s distressing and disappointing. At the same time, I wanted us to make sure, you know, as the chair, especially of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life, I wanted us to make sure that we had done enough to support the Jewish students at the law school.
And what’s gonna be the impact of all of these conversations on Jewish students on campus, which we’ll talk more about I minute, but it, but it’s caused a lot of fear and, and panic among a lot of students who didn’t even know previously about what had taken place at the law school. So we had an emergency meeting of the Chancellor’s Committee. We’re working on a series of measures.
I do wanna say something about the long arc. So I think we’re in a bit of a paradoxical place. There’s no question that the environment for Jewish students on college campuses in America broadly today is more difficult politically than it was when I was a student. I would say more difficult politically than any time in recent memory.
Zionism is really under assault from many campus activists. Its legitimacy is under full-throated assault. That’s very difficult for Jews who identify in some way as Zionists. It’s real, it’s present on dozens of campuses. Right. Berkeley is not unique.
The flip side is that Berkeley institutionally is much stronger than it was say, 14 years ago when there were the first BDS resolutions at Berkeley. And you could barely find a Jewish faculty member who was willing to speak. There was no Israel studies. You know, now we have what some people say is the leading Israel studies program in the country at the law school. We have the anti-Semitism education issue. We have really strong Jewish community institutions, and so we’re actually better positioned than most campuses to support our students, right?
There’s a reason that we get asked by other campuses what we’re doing on antisemitism education because a lot of other campuses are just figuring out that it’s important. So, that’s the paradox, right? We’re in a tougher place in terms of the overall political environment, but we’re in a much better place in terms of infrastructure that can support Jewish students when these challenges come along.
Yehuda: So that’s a very helpful frame because it gets to the question of dynamism, which really interests me, which is, if you said, okay, this is a much more volatile campus environment than it was 20 or 30 years ago, that suggests to people that like things were static. Pro-Israel was static. And here’s the rise of this movement that is increasingly hostile de-legitimizing of Zionism in the state of Israel, aggressive around the language of Zionism, et cetera.
But in the meantime, You have things like the IHRA process that’s been moving through this country and through many different institutions, which is actually building a stronger bridge between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
In the meantime, you have assertive actions, as I alluded to before, by Jewish philanthropy to build institutions of Israel studies and Israeli law on campuses. So there is an emboldening in some ways of what the pro-Israel, or at least the pro-Zionist position looks like. There is a kind of dynamism taking place here, I don’t think that can be kind of just described as the rise of BDS.
I don’t wanna say these are equal forces, but powerful forces about trying to articulate more assertively the Israeli or Pro Israel position. So how do we zoom out of our own experience to notice that?
Go ahead, Masua.
Masua: I want to note for a second how tragic it is that this is our conversation right now, because this almost reminds me about how we always resort to the Holocaust in Israel when we need to find arguments for stuff. And I really wished, what would it look like if the Jewish media after this incident, would have focused on, you know, what Ethan is telling us about, focused on the administration’s responses, focusing about, what does it mean for Jewish students to deal and navigate their own Jewish identity, Zionism, Israel.
Why aren’t we talking about what Hillel does? Why aren’t we talking about what Hartman does on campuses? Why aren’t we talking about what the Helen Diller Institute is doing on campus? And I think you’re right, Yehuda. We have trends that are rising in the world outside of campus and they have influence on campus, but we also have a responsibility in how we frame the discourse and what we want to signal, both to our students, but also to the actors inside the institutions. Part of them, as we know are Jewish.
And what are we signaling them now? We are signaling them that we don’t trust them, that we don’t trust institutions, that we cannot trust anything because of antisemitism and, that’s it.
Ethan: Yeah, so I think that Masua was absolutely right. I mean, a very different approach to supporting Jewish students on our campus would’ve been, and Ron and I tried to signal this in our column, reach out to us. We’re fortunate, we’ve got these institutions. We’ve also, it’s important to mention, right?
One of the reasons these things are thriving is we have the most supportive administration that we’ve ever had at Berkeley for Jewish students. We have a chancellor who is deeply supportive of all these efforts, who was awarded the Courageous Leadership Award by the JCRC of the Bay Area. We have Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.
You know, one of the, our big things we’ve done through the antisemitism education initiative is to really build a partnership with that office that did not exist at all before. Literally as we speak today, they are meeting with Jewish students from across the campus, anyone who wants to talk to them, uh, and air their concerns. So that was a totally different approach. I have to take a little issue with something that you said, Yehuda.
You, you mentioned the IHRA, um, complicated subject. We don’t have to get into the debates about definitions, but I think that I would not see the IHRA’s effort to stitch together anti-Zionism and antisemitism as aligned with the work we do. The work we do is locally based. It’s based in understanding the campus here. It’s based in local experts thinking through how best to talk about and work on antisemitism.
There are some folks who advocate the IHRA here, and do it locally on their campuses. But a lot of the effort on the IHRA has been outsiders who think that by imposing a definition on campuses, they’re gonna make Jewish students safer. And some of those are, are the same folks who have been lobbying, forgive me, grenades at Berkeley for the last couple of weeks. And making very strong assertions that equate anti-Zionism and antisemitism in very blunt ways.
And for reasons I think we’re gonna talk more about, I don’t think that serves Jewish students well. So I think homegrown initiatives like ours, of course we’re in conversation with national Jewish organizations. We have good relationships with a lot of them. And we partner with them, but it’s not the same thing as the IHRA effort. Uh, and I think the difference is important.
Yehuda: I, I, I agree. I was not trying to conflate the two. What I am suggesting though is that those who, those inside or outside the campus who believe that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitism. And a lot of that is the fuel behind the public voice about this. Berkeley is fostering an antisemitic environment because, since anti Zionism and antisemitism, and look the way that anti Zionism is becoming emboldened. And by the way, you know, when you do say someone who holds Zionist views can’t speak in an institution. It’s pretty antisemitic. I mean, it,
Ethan: I’m with you. I’m with you.
Yehuda: So, so once, once that happens, it’s, I guess what I’m saying is it’s not surprising to me that because that view is rising in significance in the general Jewish community, the dynamism is that pro-Palestinian voices on campus are doubling down in their own way,because they’re fighting IHRA at the same time as they’re fighting for, for their own pro-Palestinian position. They want to be more full-throated about their anti-Zionism and to insist that it’s never antisemitism.
That’s the dynamism that I’m trying to, to and pay attention to, and feeling as though, as you’re both describing, that the actual nuanced work with individuals and groups on campus is caught in between a much larger cultural and political divide that’s taking place here.
Go ahead, Masua.
Masua: It, it’s not just in campuses, right? It almost felt like the university is almost the last place, last institution that it’s still legitimate not to provide an echo chamber to one’s own views and beliefs. And, and even that feeling is, it’s being taken away from us.
I told you before that I see a lot of stereotypes and stigmas about Israel and about other things as well, but I think that’s okay. Because that’s, that’s the role of the university. The role of the university is obviously to convey knowledge, but not only to convey knowledge, but also to impart tools for critical thinking and for reflections and for this nuance discourse that is so missing in American society, but in Israeli society, I can say it about a lot of societies around the world.
This is the university either being caught or reflect this specific moment in time, this specific moment in time when we have two camps and, and there are these views in each camp that you, you must subscribe to all of those views in one camp or the other.
And, and it’s like two parallel lines that cannot meet. And that’s just the exact opposite of what the university means and what the university’s goals are. And then it’s really sad. I would expect the Jewish community to support this mission of the university and not just using the university as another tool in the political struggles of our time.
Yehuda: Great. So what I hear you saying is when student groups, I guess it was 9 or 10 student groups, it was initiated by Students for Justice in Palestine, but some of the groups who signed on included Women of Berkeley Law, Middle Eastern and North African law Students Associations, Women of Color Collective, Queer Caucus, a few others.
When they engaged in this type of overreaching boycott, we could debate the question of boycott in general. I think it’s pretty fair to claim the right to boycott is a first amendment right. But the overreach of the boycott is the unwillingness to entertain or engage with anyone who holds a wide set of views.
That feels to me like a great betrayal of the culture of what a university is supposed to be. And then you get an overreach in response, right? Which is, here’s how we mean to sanction it. So, what should the university professors, what should a response be that would actually be educative?
I don’t know if it means necessarily that the groups who signed on are gonna withdraw what they do, but what’s a response that is appropriate and contextual within the context of university that actually signals that these activities are contrary to our values? Go ahead, Ethan.
Ethan: Um, so, I think, some of that already exists, right? I mean, we have this anti-education initiative and it’s important to emphasize that that is an initiative that comes from a place of education, differently also than some of the forces in our community, that are very concerned about antisemitism on campus like we are, that are more in an advocacy mode.
That’s not a critique. That’s just sort of to go partly to Masua’s point about the function of a university. So we hope to do many more trainings, and we have support from the administration for that goal. Uh, no one can be compelled to come to a training, but I believe that as we schedule them, many, many students at the law school will come, and I believe it will open more conversations. And that’s very positive.
There’s a center for restorative justice on campus that wants to use this as an opportunity to open dialogue where there really is none. Right. As a person who’s written a lot about Jewish Muslim encounters, it’s very painful for me at a visceral level to see that there is no dialogue on our campus whatsoever between Jewish and Arab students around the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
And I think that needs to change. That’s one of the real opportunities for opening education, is to open these conversations, is for people to be able to push each other even a little, just to see each other’s perspective. It doesn’t mean minds are going to shift. It doesn’t mean, for instance, the bylaws are gonna be withdrawn. It doesn’t mean, for instance, that people are gonna come outta that conversation with changed political advocacy position.
But when we start to understand those with whom we disagree more, that is I think, part of education and it involves learning. Uh, so I think that’s all very good. I’m offering a Zionism and Israel course for the first time in the spring. I have a feeling there are gonna be more people who sign up for it, in this moment than, than might have otherwise.
So I think, you know, the university needs to, in some ways continue to do what it does. And I think administrators need to push harder to get students to hear things that are uncomfortable for them. And I’ve said that as well to administrators. I think when there are things like this that happen, when one group of students does something that is very painful for another group, and that cuts dramatically against the narrative of another group.
And that usually in a case like this, indicates tremendous blind spots, in education, to put it mildly right. We need to find a way to call those people into a room and say, you may not understand how painful this was. You may not understand all the reasons why what you did were way off from what this group understands to be reality. But you need to listen.
You know, first amendement rights. We can’t make you change your position, but you need to hear them out. And that cuts both ways, right? We have a lot of, you know, decent amount of protests in our campus every May around Yom Haatzmaut. I’ve said before, it would be good for the Jewish students to hear why that’s an uncomfortable occasion for Palestinian students and to have the opportunity to explain, for instance, that the IDF for most Israelis and Jews does not mean housing demolitions, right? There’s an IDF poster out there that’s not because we’re celebrating housing demolitions, because it means something very different to us that we proudly identify with.
Masua: I wish there was an event orchestrated by the university, initiated by the university, a public event for students. Let’s invite Zionist speakers, but let’s not do it in an advocacy way, but in a proper academic way, to really exemplify how an academic discourse on this topic would look like. How would we want the discourse to look like? And we can actually, we could actually orchestra it, I think.
Yehuda: Let me push back a little bit with a little bit of devil’s advocate. I, listen, I am dispositionally and professionally on the side of what you’re talking about, what you’re talking about is that you respond to political moments like this through working within the system. You talk about education, it’s essentially responding to cultures of exclusion with activities of radical inclusion.
We could go down a whole deep rabbit hole on how pluralists have to actually be more pluralistic than anti-pluralists, including the willingness to actually include them in political community. Like that’s, there’s a lot here. Right. I’m with you on all of this, but let me take two devil’s advocate positions that those who are really angry about what’s taking place on this campus would argue.
Number one, they would argue that as your political opponents, the political opponents of Zionism are fighting harder, more publicly, more explicitly, we are responding by essentially soft pedaling in response. Well, we can talk to people, we can educate them. They might not retract their views, but they might understand. Like that argument is it’s weak. It’s a substantively weak response.
The second component of the argument, and this is a tricky turn of phrase in this context, is that the ideas that are being advocated by the anti-Zionist position are not merely other ideas that people have to wrestle with existing in the world, but are actually dangerous ideas that manifest in actually constituting risk to Jewish students on campus, and therefore the instinct to do the kinds of things that you’ve been talking about so far are a willingness to kind of traffic in the intolerable as opposed to like fighting back in a much more serious way.
So take that as the challenge. What is the response to that kind of particular challenge? Go ahead, Ethan.
Ethan: Well, I mean, I would say they’re right. The ideas are dangerous. And we agree on that. We agree very strongly on that and that’s why we do the work we do. That’s why I’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the last three and a half years on antisemitism education. I think they’re just wrong about the approach.
Look, we actually don’t have to speculate. We’ve watched what people in our community refer to as hazbarah activism on campus. We’ve watched it for 10, 15, 20 years. It hasn’t been very effective at changing the narrative, maybe briefly here or there, but the fact is it has only polarized things further, it has not persuaded the staunchest opponents of Israel or even the sort of quieter, more careful opponents of Israel.
It has polarized people more and more against Israel. So what we find when we do our educational trainings is, the people at Students for Justice in Palestine. They have really strong feelings and I don’t think a conversation with them would be something that in many cases would necessarily be real.
But many people who sign on to these bylaws or many people who sort of hear one thing and then they’re ready to sign on to very anti Zionist positions, or even antisemitic ones, they don’t know very much. And when we do our trainings, we walk them through what is anti-Semitism, what is the history of antisemitism, what are what we talk about anti-Semitic tropes.
And then we get to Israel, we say, so let’s explain to you why we’re not, we have no problem with you advocating for the Palestinians. You have no problem with you being critical of Israeli policies, but here’s why these kinds of things that you may not have known are deeply offensive to Jews and, and really for us intolerable, right?
We don’t use soft language to describe the seriousness of what goes on, but we want to walk people through what they need to know, in order for them to reach, hopefully, the same conclusion that the way they were talking was antisemitic. The choices they made for how they were gonna advocate for a political position were deeply offensive to Jews and indeed dangerous.
So in terms of efficacy, we just think that that approach works.
Masua: I don’t want it to seem as if I’m looking likely on antisemitism. I agree that these ideas are dangerous. I agree that the environment or climate around Jews in America is very concerning, is very worrisome. But again, like Ethan, I want to distinguish between content and strategy.
We are talking about Jewish students feeling safe on campus. Yesterday I walked around campus and I saw a van, a truck with a big picture of Hitler and writing All in favor of banning Jews, Raise your hand. Now, it took me two minutes to think this is probably, uh, a Jewish organization gimmick, but in those two minutes, and even afterwards I was sick by seeing this.
And this picture by the way, is still around Twitter, not necessarily as a Jewish initiative to fight antisemitism, but as an antisemitic trope or image.
I’m just wondering, if our goal is to make Jewish students feel safer is seeing a Hitler truck around campus make them feel safer or are conversations and educational efforts, even if they are more gradual and they take more time and they are more quiet than other loud noise, does this really makes them safer? What really makes them safer?
Yehuda: I mean, I hope our listeners are still with us because I think we’ve stumbled on basically the fundamental paradox of liberalism, right? Number one, the university, Masua, I don’t think the point to the university is not to make people feel safe. That’s never been the point of the university.
The point of the university is, I don’t know, intellectual enrichment, free speech, open discourse, growth through ideas, et cetera. The problem is that in order to have that be the goal, everybody has to agree to those norms, and the minute that some people decide not to abide by those norms, then, it’s not just that I feel unsafe, it’s that I can’t participate in university life the way that the system is meant to respond.
And that’s what keeps bringing back to this question. Therefore, how might we respond? What, what Ken Marcus wants in his op-eds against the university is sanction. Wants the student groups to be sanctioned, wants students ostensibly to be blocked from articulating these views in public.
And basically is implicitly threatening litigation against the university system for failing to make it possible for Jewish students to be safe. And again, I don’t think, that doesn’t sound right to me. It doesn’t sound right to me like, of using the mechanism of sanction and litigation to prevent people from articulating a certain set of viewpoints.
But if it’s damaging the capacity of an infrastructure to enable students, not just to feel safe, but to engage in open intellectual discourse about even things that they’re passionate about. It feels like a rabbit hole that we can’t fully kind of get our way out of.
Ethan: I think there’s no simple solution, right? Uh, we wouldn’t be here if there was. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that the dean of the law school is a major free speech expert, and I do know, cause I’ve had a lot of conversations with him and with others, uh, in the administration that the general counsel of the university, the general counsel of the Board of Regents, they all agree very strongly that there’s not legal room to sanction this, that it’ll be sanctioning free speech.
And that it’s protected as speech as much as, they all find it distasteful. And as the dean himself has basically said, this is antisemitism. So it’s a very difficult situation. I think safety, there’s different kinds of safety, right? Yehuda, I mean, I agree with you a thousand percent. The point of the university is not to make people feel intellectually safe, actually, to make them intellectually uncomfortable, even to challenge us sometimes with our emotional assumptions, is really part of university life.
But when Jewish students actually feel physically less safe, which is what has happened over the last two weeks for undergraduate Jewish students at Cal who were basically either oblivious to happened at law school or it was a blip for them and now they’re being bombarded with messages from all manner. And then they have this truck on campus yesterday.
And I think we should just be fair and, and name things. Were it not for those editorials, that truck wouldn’t have been been on campus yesterday. That’s just a fact. So, this is making students feel actually physically unsafe and I think much less likely for them to thrive intellectually being able to express their full Jewish selves.
I think the administration has to work hard to signal for clubs who do these things, that they are, they may follow the letter of some law, but they’re absolutely against the spirit of all kinds of principles of the university. And the administration takes them very seriously and the administration’s watching closely because it’s not a very far step from those bylaws to having a speaker who has nothing to do with Zionism, be disapproved on the assumption that because he or she’s a Jew is a Zionist.
And that according to the law school dean and according to the rules of the university, that would be caused for sanction against the group. So I think the administration has to do everything it can to signal how seriously it takes this to support the Jewish students. And we have to work on the longer term to change the environment to one where these things are less likely to happen.
Masua: I don’t know. I just feel very uncomfortable when there’s a tendency of lawyers to use lawsuits to fight for moral causes, which I really, I sympathize with. And I want the same goals as them. I’m just not sure that lawsuits or, or sanctions would do the trick. They oftentimes cause the opposite, which is a backlash on the sanctions of banning speech or banning diversity of opinions.
Again, in the university, it’s the place to not do that, to not level sanctions, to turn into the educational route instead and really talk it through and challenge and reflect and criticize. I am not for a second saying that these bylaws were legitimate in my eyes. I am not for a second saying this is not antisemitic. I’m not saying this is not a threat to the Jewish students at Cal.
I’m just saying that as a university we have a responsibility to react in an educational way. And I’m also saying that I would expect the Jewish community, both in Israel and in the US to support the way that was both proved to be more effective. And the way that I feel is more true to the character of academia.
Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, I’ll just, I, the reason I’m struggling with this is only cause I was, I was asked to speak in a couple of weeks about anti Zionism and antisemitism for an event at a different law school. And one of the questions was about the question of litigation. How much should we be involved with litigation?
Whether it’s about the freedom of speech questions around anti-BDS laws and so forth. And my instinct has always been, no, I don’t think we should be engaged in that kind of litigation when it relates to BDS laws. And at the same time, I was openly and continue to be openly supportive of the integrity first for America legal strategy to take down the right following the Charlottesville, um, I don’t know what you call it.
Masua: Rally? The, the Unite the Right.
Yehuda: Right. The Unite the Right rally. And I don’t think that the answer is only because the Unite the Right rally ended in violence. I don’t think that can be the indicator, because of course whenever there’s violence, you can prosecute the violence. That’s not the point. The point is you’re actually trying to prosecute and eliminate the hate, and we’re gonna have to come up with a much sharp, sharper articulation. At least I’m going to have to for the next two weeks.
But I think our community more broadly, of like hate in one context, gets one set of rules and why hate in another context comes with another set of rules. And I don’t think it can simply rely on the fact that we are still unsure when anti-Zionism crosses over into antisemitism because then, you know, the conversation ends pretty fast.
Ethan: Yeah. No, I, I think that’s fair, Yehuda. And I’ve said a lot about things we’re doing at the university and problems with the way this is approached from the outside. I do want to just underscore how troubled and upset I am about the bylaws and about the experience, especially of Jewish law students and now of undergraduates who feel threatened.
Right. I mean, viscerally for me, it’s very painful to hear heir stories and talk to them and what they’re struggling with and why they’re upset. And we want to do everything we can to make them feel supported. And I also am pained by Berkeley alums who contact us, who maybe they don’t know the full story, but they know something happened that is legitimate, really, really bad at their law school and, and they’re angry and they’re just totally miffed. How did, how did these bylaws get passed?
Um, I think that’s all really fair. I think one of our strategies needs to be, and we try to use this. What would the standards be for other groups on campus? We want Jewish students to have as much protection as any other historically disadvantaged minority group.
We want Jewish students to not be looked at as some extra, or some group that is allegedly privileged, and we push this all the time and we ask this question all the time. And we’ve pointedly said if there were a Blue Lives Matter sign being hung by a group on campus, right? And that group said, we just wanna protect police officers. Many African American students said, no, it’s racist.
What would we be doing to educate the people who hung that banner?We should be doing the same level of intensive pushing to educate the people who did this, right? And we’re not there. I mean, I think we’ve made progress. I still think it’s really hard for administrators to take seriously enough why this is so threatening for Jewish students. And I think that’s a problem. And it’s something we have to continue to work at.
So I think that’s where a lot of our opening is with these issues on the left, is to underscore that Jewish students just want the same treatment as other groups.
Yehuda: Yeah, and I guess what makes this uniquely and difficult is that both sides in this particular issue would describe themselves as the more historically marginalized population. Jewish students on campus versus pro-Palestinian students on campus. So your Blue Lives Matter example is helpful and not helpful because, right, who gets to claim the framework of marginalization?
Well, thank you both for generously giving your time and your expertise to this, to Professor Ethan Katz and Professor Masua Sagiv. And thanks to all of you for listening.
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