A sign reading “Fascist Free Campus” on the University of California, Berkeley, campus in the aftermath of the cancellation of a speech there by conservative political commentator Ann Coulter on April 27. Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Jewish life, like college campuses, could use a little more free speech

Sunday night in Teaneck, New Jersey, Daniel Kurtzer and Ruth Wisse spoke at separate synagogues, roughly at the same time, about a quarter mile apart.

Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a professor of Middle East studies at Princeton, supports the two-state solution and doesn’t think the Israeli government is heading in the “right direction.”

Wisse, a famed Yiddish scholar at Harvard, regards Jewish support for the peace process as “self-delusion” and planned to speak on the topic “Are American Jews their own worst enemies?”

Kurtzer spoke at a Conservative synagogue, the majority of whose members, I can say from personal experience, are essentially on board with his views of the Middle East.

Wisse spoke at a modern Orthodox synagogue whose members, it’s probably safe to say, tend to share her skepticism about the two-state solution, Democrats and liberal Zionism.

I wish they had switched places.

Efforts by protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, to shut down a speech by conservative Ann Coulter and at Auburn University to block an appearance by white nationalist Richard Spencer are being held up as examples of left-wing academia’s inability to tolerate — or even listen to — dissenting views. Right-wing sites condemn campus “snowflakes” who are willing to deny free speech to those with whom they disagree. Republicans in the Michigan state Senate have introduced a bill that would punish college students who “have converted our fundamental freedom of speech into a freedom from speech,” as a sponsor put it.

It’s not just the right who are critical of the “shut it down” left: Liberals object that attempts to silence speakers are violations of a fundamental right to free speech, a perversion of the whole idea of a university education and simply bad politics, giving the right a cudgel with which to beat the left. As Bernie Sanders said of Coulter’s opponents, “What are you afraid of — her ideas?”

In some ways the debate has become a little hysterical. As Jesse Singal noted in New York magazine, recent surveys at Yale suggest students there are about as likely as the general population to support free speech — that is, by wide margins. On the other hand, Pew reported last year that 40 percent of students say the government should be able to “prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.” Singal says that’s not far off from the number of Americans who say some forms of speech should be banned by the government.

The idea that a small number of extremists can hijack an event and shut down a speaker in the name of what they deem “acceptable” speech is troubling — a point pro-Israel activists on campus have been trying to make in recent years, with far less success than supporters of Coulter or even of Spencer. From Brown University, where protesters objected to a speech by a transgender activist because it was being sponsored by the campus Hillel,  to the University of Minnesota, where hecklers disrupted a speech by the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, Israel has become a flash point in the free speech debate. J. — The Jewish News of Northern California had an important article last week on San Francisco State University and its “tepid” responses to various anti-Israel incidents, like the successful attempt by a pro-Palestinian group to shout down Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during a Hillel-sponsored appearance in April 2016.

Not to be outdone, right-wing supporters of Israel are taking a cue from the left-wing protesters they profess to despise. Last week, a synagogue in the Detroit suburbs canceled a scheduled appearance by the Israeli singer and peace activist known as Noa after fielding threats from protesters presumably on the right. The synagogue explained it wasn’t able to guarantee security for the event, although it also pointed out, apologetically and unnecessarily, that the event was “not intended to reflect political viewpoints.”

Noa, a member of the board of the New Israel Fund, has never made a secret of her left-wing views or her support of Jewish-Arab coexistence. But her concerts aren’t peace rallies, and even if they were it is depressing to see how easily one side in a political argument is willing to support threats — not arguments, not rival events, but physical threats  — to shut down the other. Take a look at the comment section in an article about the Noa cancellation in The Times of Israel and see how giddy her opponents are in seeing a synagogue event canceled for fear of a violent reprisal.

The pro-Israel right also celebrated last month when Fordham University denied a request by Students for Justice in Palestine to form a club there on the grounds that its goals “clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values” of the New York City school. SJP chapters are harsh and often dishonest in their attacks on Israel, and Fordham is a private university, but are we really comfortable with administrators deciding which causes are acceptable and which aren’t? And if we are, can we really say we value the right to free speech?

But what about speech that is so reprehensible that it truly doesn’t deserve a hearing? (The First Amendment, by the way, doesn’t say anything about “deserving” the right to free speech.) One option is to ignore it and not give awful speakers the attention they crave. Another is to fight back with more speech, which is what the Founders evidently intended.

The very worst option is to criminalize it or try to shut it down with a real or implied threat of violence.

It’s easy to blame “kids these days” for a climate of political correctness or a narrowing of what is and isn’t acceptable thought on campus. But the university is merely reflecting a broader culture in which people are less inclined to listen to or tolerate opposing views. Thanks to technology and an explosion of narrow ideological media channels, they don’t have to. The presidential campaign of 2016 was in part a reflection of the failure of each side of the political divide to hear the other.

I wish Kurtzer and Wisse had crossed over to presumably less friendly venues precisely because of the possibility that one side might have something to learn from the other. Both are incisive intellects whose arguments cannot be dismissed as thoughtless or delusional. They may not have changed any minds, but they may have made each side more thoughtful in its own views and perhaps have established a small sliver of common ground.

UC Berkeley suspends student’s course labeled anti-Israel by critics

U.C. Berkeley has suspended a student-led course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” after an outcry from Jewish community leaders who called it biased, anti-Zionist and in violation of the university's academic standards.

The university made the decision Tuesday after determining that the student facilitator, Paul Hadweh, “did not comply with policies and procedures that govern the normal academic review and approval of proposed courses for the DeCal program” for student-led courses, said Dan Mogulof, the school's assistant vice chancellor.

A day earlier, Berkeley Hillel had called upon U.C. President Janet Napolitano and U.C. Berkeley administrators to condemn the one-credit course in a strongly worded statement.

“Any perusal of the syllabus will show that this is a one-sided course which puts forth a political agenda. It does not tell the truth. It ignores history. It ignores facts, such as the inconvenient one that Jews have inhabited Israel for 3,000 years,” Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and Berkeley Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman said in the statement. “This course seems to be a matter of political indoctrination in the classroom and is a violation of the newly adopted principles by the U.C. regents on intolerance.”

The course was to be offered as part of the university's DeCal program, in which students propose and teach one-credit courses under the supervision of a faculty sponsor. Other DeCal classes offered this academic year include “Cal Pokeman Academy,” “Art Anatomy” and “Science in Oakland Elementary Schools.”

The course syllabus said it would cover the history of Palestine from the 1880s to the present and “explore the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism.” Students were to be required to attend an event “relating to Palestine” during the semester and make a final presentation proposing a “decolonial alternative” to the region's problems, not restricted to the two-state solution.

Forty-three Jewish and educational organizations signed a letter by the Santa Cruz-based Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that monitors anti-Semitism in higher education, addressed to U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, expressing deep concern about the course.

“A review of the syllabus … reveals that the course's objectives, reading materials and guest speakers are politically motivated, meet our government's criteria for anti-Semitism and are intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish State and take action to eliminate it,” the letter stated. The letter called the faculty sponsor, Hatem Bazian, “a well-known anti-Zionist activist who is also the chairman of American Muslims for Palestine.”

Wedding of lesbian activists, both 76, is a celebration of Jewish and ‘Aquarian’ traditions

When Shoshana Dembitz and Abigail Grafton first met, they spent several long moments gazing into each others’ eyes.

But this wasn’t a love-at-first-sight occurrence. Rather, the two were attending a Shabbat service in which participants were split into pairs to look into each others’ eyes, an exercise to create intimacy within the group, as well as facilitate seeing God within one another.

After services, Dembitz gave Grafton a ride home — and with it, her phone number.

Grafton didn’t call. For the next three years, they’d say hi when they saw each other, but that was the extent of their relationship. However, things changed when they both turned up at the same retreat to celebrate the ordination of the then-leaders of their unique community, the Aquarian Minyan.

As it turned out, Grafton — who had been in short-term relationships with both men and women — needed time to process a lasting attraction to another woman. But once she did, Grafton and Dembitz were rarely apart.

After 18 years together, the Berkeley couple, both 76, married on June 27 under a grove of redwood trees at the Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito.

Grafton and Dembitz are very active in their Jewish community. “The Aquarian Minyan is our baby that we have nurtured together,” said Dembitz.

Both serve as “shomrot” (guards) of the minyan, which eschews more traditional language like “trustees” or “president.” Grafton is in charge of long-term planning and budgeting; Dembitz manages and schedules events, along with editing the newsletter. They also lead services, sometimes together.

Founded in 1974, the Aquarian Minyan — which calls itself “a beacon of creative, spiritual and egalitarian Judaism” — grew out of a kabbalistic retreat that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, led in Berkeley. It was also greatly influenced by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known to many as the singing Chasidic rabbi, who had established his “House of Love and Prayer” in San Francisco.

“The Aquarian Minyan has been a huge influence on me and vice versa,” Grafton said. “Its motto is about finding the rebbe in each of us, and it allows you to find your own creativity and your own spiritual voice and contribute that to the community.”

Not surprisingly, both halves of the couple are no strangers to the concepts of creativity, voice and community.

As a young child, Grafton lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her father, Samuel Grafton, was a well-known liberal journalist who wrote a syndicated column, “I’d Rather Be Right” and socialized with the likes of composer Richard Rodgers and playwright Arthur Miller. The family — which did not practice Judaism, except for Passover — moved to Connecticut when Grafton was 7.

Grafton dropped out after a year at Swarthmore College to live in an anarchists’ collective on the Lower East Side. She was a regular participant in both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.

In 1970, she moved to the Bay Area, finished college and then got a master’s degree at Sonoma State University. She started her own psychotherapy practice and founded the Sonoma Institute, which trained psychotherapists with a feminist slant.

Dembitz grew up in Washington D.C., in a family of Reform Jews and strong Zionists — her maternal grandfather was an associate of Theodor Herzl and her paternal grandfather was a cousin of Louis Brandeis. Her father worked for the Federal Reserve; her mother was a civil rights attorney, until she was accused of having communist affiliations. She was killed in a car accident when Dembitz was 15.

Dembitz graduated from Radcliffe; at Harvard she met her husband, a “red-diaper baby,” as the children of leftists were known as then. After serving in the Peace Corps in Kuala Lumpur, they moved to California and lived off the grid in Humboldt County, where they raised three daughters. Dembitz helped found the B’nai Ha-aretz Jewish Community, a congregation inspired by the Jewish Renewal movement; a one-room non-profit elementary school called the Salmon Creek School; a community credit union and a natural food co-op. With the exception of the food co-op, all still exist.

After Dembitz and her husband divorced, she moved to Berlin in 1991 with a new partner and her youngest daughter. The partner didn’t stay long, but Dembitz and her daughter were happy in Germany. She helped found Die Egalitarische Minyan, the first post-World War II egalitarian Jewish community in Berlin. It remains active today.

Dembitz returned to California in 1995, settling in Berkeley, and began to seriously educate herself about Judaism, becoming active in the Aquarian Minyan. She was in her early 50s then, and “it was like I had a bug in my ear saying, ‘If not now, when?’” she said.

Grafton had been part of the minyan — which was largely composed of fellow East Coast transplants like herself who headed to California to embrace the counterculture — since almost the beginning. Back then, some of the members lived together in a communal house. They included Shefa Gold, a well-known Renewal rabbi, and Burt Jacobson, a rabbi and co-founder of Berkeley’s Kehilla Community Synagogue (now in Piedmont, California), with whom Grafton fostered two children in a non-romantic relationship.

Today, the Minyan consists of about 80 households, most of them around the age of the couple.

“I find Abigail really fascinating,” said Dembitz. “She’s so creative and loving and she’s the head of the ‘let’s do something for fun’ committee in our relationship because I’m kind of a workaholic. She’s brilliant and she comes up with these amazing ideas, and some of them she actually puts into practice.”

Grafton said of Dembitz, “I love that she is sweet and practical, things I’m not particularly, and she’s an unending source of love and constant forgiveness, which I badly need. She is also very smart and wise, and appreciates that I’m smart, too. With men I was always trying to be less smart, less large, less loud and more demure.”

“‘Demure’ is not one of your strong suits,” interjected Dembitz.

“And she introduced me to being a lesbian,” Grafton added. “I’ve been very, very happy since I became a lesbian.”

Though Grafton had been asking Dembitz to marry her for years, Dembitz always declined, saying she didn’t see the point unless it was legal. Once that day came, the couple patiently waited their turn after a few family milestones.

Now, they are taking each other’s last names before their own. “I like that we’re each taking each other’s illustrious name,” Grafton said.

Their wedding was not only a reflection of their personalities, but of the Aquarian Minyan’s past and present.

On Friday, June 24, the couple hosted a Shabbat dinner,  during which their extended families met for the first time. During Saturday morning’s aufruf, a synagogue event to honor an upcoming marriage, Grafton spoke about the pain of the recent mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

On Sunday, with Grafton’s siblings present, they buried her parents’ ashes in a nearby Jewish cemetery then went out to dinner — courtesy of her parents’ estate. “If you had known my parents, you’d know that they would have loved nothing better than to know that I was finally getting married, and that they were getting to host a rehearsal dinner right after getting buried,” Grafton quipped.

The couple married that Monday afternoon. Prior to the ceremony, each held court at a separate “tisch,” a gathering traditionally reserved for the groom and his male guests. At the Grafton-Dembitz wedding, Karen Roekard, author of “The Santa Cruz Haggadah,” urged guests to find their inner male or female to decide which tisch to attend.

They both wore turquoise: Dembitz in a long caftan; Grafton in a pants suit with a chunky necklace. Grafton walked the aisle with her two brothers and Dembitz was escorted by her three daughters and their families. Their basset hound, Tessie, also was walked down the aisle, while Voices Lesbian A Capella for Justice sang Mozart’s “Overture to The Magic Flute.”

Jacobson and his wife Rabbi Diane Elliot conducted the ceremony.

When they exchanged rings, Dembitz and Grafton presented each other with a ring from their own grandmothers, and said, “With this ring, I consecrate you as my wife in accordance with the emerging traditions of Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Ruth, Naomi, Shifra and Puah.”

Most of those names are probably well known to most Jews, but the couple added Shifra and Puah — two midwives who tried to prevent the slaying of the firstborn by Pharoah — because, said Grafton, “while we don’t know if they were Jewish, they were conscientious objectors and shit disturbers.”

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg opens up to UC grads about her deep grief

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, for the first time publicly described the depth of her grief following the death of her husband — at a commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dave Goldberg, the 47-year-old CEO of Survey Monkey, died suddenly in May 2015 after sustaining a head trauma when he fell off of a treadmill while vacationing with his family in Mexico.

Sandberg, 46, said she was “swallowed up in the deep fog of grief — what I think of as the void — an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.’’

The couple was married for 11 years and had two children.

“The greatest irony of my life [is] that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family and the laughter of children,’’ she said.

“I’m sharing this with you today in the hopes that on this day in your lives, with all the momentum and the joy, you can learn in life the lessons I only learned in death. Lessons about hope, about strength and about the light within us that will not be extinguished.”

Sandberg is the author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” On Mother’s Day, she wrote a post on Facebook in which she acknowledged that she did not realize how hard single working women had it until she was one herself.

Five killed, at least eight injured in Berkeley balcony collapse

Five young Irish citizens were killed and at least eight other people were injured when an apartment balcony collapsed early on Tuesday in the Californian city of Berkeley, Ireland's foreign minister said.

Earlier, Berkeley Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Coats said the survivors' injuries were “very serious and potentially life-threatening”. She confirmed the death toll but did not give the nationality of those involved.

Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said police had indicated they did not believe any other nationalities were among the dead.

“My understanding is that four people were declared dead at the scene, one later died in hospital. Up to eight or nine others have been taken to hospitals. Those involved are believed to be Irish students for the most part,” Flanagan told national broadcaster RTE.

“My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the deceased and those who have been injured.”

Thousands of Irish students travel to the United States on temporary working visas every summer.

Coats said callers had first reported the collapse at the multi-story block in the downtown area of the college city near San Francisco at around 12:45 a.m. local time.

Californian police are working with the fire department and city officials to work out what caused the collapse, Coats said.

Flanagan said the balcony collapse seemed to be an accident.

Campus Anti-Semitism at UC and Stanford

So far as we are concerned, Berkeley’s Golden Bears have already won the Stanford Axe, the trophy in their annual “Big Game” with the Cardinals, despite the fact that college football season is still months away.

Our reason: the contrast between recent actions of the presidents of UC and Stanford to the challenge of campus anti-Semitism.

First, the good news: UC President Janet Napolitano for personally agreeing with the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes denial of Israel’s right to exist—not criticism of Israeli government policies—as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. The State Department’s “working definition” reads: “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Examples include: accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, and accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.

Both Rabbi Meyer H. May, Executive Director of the Wiesenthal Center, and Aron Hier, director of the Center’s Campus Outreach program, have attended meetings over the course of months throughout the state urging UC Regents, chancellors, and policy makers to adopt the State Department definition which will also be voted on by the UC Board of Regents this July.

In contrast, Stanford’s SAE fraternity house has recently been defaced with a swastika, in addition to painted personal slurs and epithets.

Liana Kadisha, president of the Stanford Israel Association told the Stanford Daily that there has been a “rise in hostility toward Jewish communities,” on campus since the university student senate approved a divestment resolution. Kadisha also said: “My parents are from Iran and left that country because it wasn't open really to Jews anymore and so I don't think they would ever expect that at Stanford, so many years later we would be dealing with these types of incidents.”

Nationally, the SAE fraternity, site of the Stanford swastika, has a history of racial and religious discrimination. It banned Jews until some time after World War II, and only in recent years has it really opened its doors to Jewish members. Unfortunately, as is clear from the national headlines about what happened at the University of Oklahoma, it is far from outliving its history of bigotry against African Americans.

In a related incident, Stanford undergraduate Molly Horwitz, a candidate for the Student Senate, was vetted by the Students of Color Coalition about her fitness for office. This followed February’s ugly campus debate that ended in a vote for a resolution for divesting in companies doing business on the West Bank as a way of punishing Israel.

During the divestment debate, Horwitz wrote several posts on Facebook against it. But then she and her campaign manager scrubbed Horwitz’s Facebook page to hide all posts indicating support for Israel, including a photograph of a pair of shoes decorated to look like the Israeli flag. Why? Because: “We did it not because she isn’t proud—she is—but the campus climate has been pretty hostile, and it would not be politically expedient to take a public stance.” Reportedly, Horowitz’s inquisitors are also being investigated for allegedly asking its endorsed candidates to sign a contract promising not to affiliate with Jewish groups on campus.

What’s the response by the Stanford authorities to the latest swastika incident? Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) spokesman Bill Larson said that the incident will be recorded as a hate crime. Well and good.

But what about the response by University President John Hennessy? He said: “I am deeply troubled by the act of vandalism, including symbols of hate, that has marred our campus. The University will not tolerate hate crimes and this incident will be fully investigated, both by campus police and by the University under our Acts of Intolerance Protocol. This level of incivility has no place at Stanford. . . . I ask everyone in the University community to stand together against intolerance and hate, and to affirm our commitment to a campus community where discourse is civil, where we value differences and where every individual is respected.”

This sound good, but lacks one critical component: any mention of anti-Semitism. President Hennessy, who commendably has opposed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, suggests that we examine the University’s “Acts of Intolerance Protocol.” We have. This 4-page document’s definition of “acts of intolerance” includes: Gender or gender identity, Race or ethnicity, Disability, Religion, Sexual orientation, Nationality, Age, Social or economic class. Very inclusive. But anti-Semitism—is it a crime against “religion” or “ethnicity” or “nationality” or some hybrid?—falls between the cracks. Significantly, when the reader gets to page 4, there is a listing of two dozen “University resources available to students, faculty and staff.” No inclusion of Hillel, the Stanford Israel Association, the Jewish Students Association, or any other group with a Jewish or pro-Israel identity. 

What’s going on here is a form of “euphemism” practices on campus from the U.S. to the UK. George Orwell, who satirized “Double Speak” in 1984, treated euphemism as a wide variety of techniques to distort and obfuscate reality, often for political reasons or what we would call today political correctness. We can still smile at the Victorians’ description of a pregnant woman as “being in an interesting condition.” Describing torture as “an enhanced interrogation technique” is something else again. As to anti-Semitism, the euphemistic strategy is to deny it any specific mention in a list of “hate crimes.”

Adopting the State Department’s definition is an important step in the right direction.

Aron Hier is Director of Campus Outreach for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Historian Harold Brackman is a Center consultant.

The Obamacare Apocalypse

Last week, a professor of physics and astronomy ” target=”_blank”>Koch brothers’ plan to stop them.  It’s possible that some of the Republican governors who refused Medicaid money for 8 million of their constituents will find themselves so wildly unpopular that they’ll do a 180.  It’s possible that people in the individual market stranded by the law and their insurance companies will find solutions.  Hell, it’s even possible that healthcare.gov will work.

So it’s not nuts to think that by the time Obama leaves office, the American health care system will be better in lots of ways, Obamacare will be the new normal and solid majorities will like it.  There may be no “Keep Your Hands Off My Obamacare” signs during the 2016 campaign, but it’s possible that the painful rollout of the exchanges will be forgotten.

That would ruin things for the drama queens in the media.  Their master narrative is Countdown to Armageddon.  Demagogues need end times to raise money.  News needs to shout apocalypse to get attention.

It’s not just Obamacare.  Imagine that CBS News had no reason to retract the Benghazi piece on “60 Minutes.”  If accounts of Dylan Davies’s F.B.I. interviews hadn’t made their way to the ” target=”_blank”>The Last Hours: Warming the World to Extinction,” a 10-minute movie written by Thom Hartmann and directed by Leila Conners makes terrifyingly clear, climate change is on track to cause the sixth mass extinction in geologic history. The fifth, the K-T extinction 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid hitting the earth off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula – and it killed the dinosaurs.  The third mass extinction – the Permean, the worst – was caused by volcanic eruptions in the Siberian Traps that warmed the oceans six degrees Celsius and melted trillions of tons of methane that had been frozen beneath the sea floor and ice sheets.  The methane this released into the atmosphere doubled the warming the volcanoes caused and killed 95 percent of all life on earth.  Today, fossil fuel burning and industrial agriculture are increasing greenhouse gases at rates never before recorded by humans, physicist Michael Mann says in the film, “far greater than any of the most rapid events that happened in the deep geological past,” including the Permean extinction. 

Talk about doomsday scenarios.  If this keeps happening, Obamacare, along with everything else we love, hate or talk about, will be irrelevant, because our species won’t be around to love, hate or talk about anything. But you would not know that things are as dire as they are from watching the news, which is just how Exxon-Mobil, Monsanto and the Koch brothers like it.

The day before the Times reported a tenfold increase in the odds of an asteroid strike, Erik Petiguara, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley martyk@jewishjournal.com.

UC Berkeley to open Center for Jewish Studies

The Berkeley campus of the University of California announced on Oct. 16 the launch of a Center for Jewish Studies, enhancing the state’s reputation as a magnet for scholars and students in the field.

UC Berkeley has committed $1 million for the new center, and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said, “The campus is fully committed to the center’s growth and success. The center will expand the breadth of Jewish studies scholarship here, connect more students to the wealth of Jewish studies resources across the campus, and enrich the university’s engagement with the Jewish community in the Bay Area and beyond.”          

The center will serve as the focal point for faculty and courses from various disciplines and departments, ranging from comparative literature and law to theater and dance.

Heading up the center are professor emeritus Robert Alter, a renowned scholar in Hebrew literature and the Bible, as founding director; architecture professor Jill Stoner as chair and director of graduate programs; and law professor Kenneth Bamberger as co-chair and responsible for undergraduate programs.

In phone interviews, Dirks, Stoner and Bamberger outlined some of the features of the center:

• Doctoral students in various disciplines will be able to take Jewish studies as a “designated emphasis,” or minor, in their major fields. For instance, someone studying for a doctorate in history could take Jewish studies as an area of concentration.

• For undergraduate students, the center hopes to establish a minor in Jewish studies, with the possibility of a major in the field in the future.

• Growing interaction with the Bay Area Jewish community through popular public lectures and other campus programs.

UC Berkeley has slowly expanded its Jewish studies offerings over the past century. Currently, there are programs in Israeli and Jewish law, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, the Hillel student center and the campus library’s Judaica, Yiddish and Hebrew language holdings.

More than $8 million in current endowment funds underwrite three chairs in Jewish history, rabbinics and Hebrew Bible; post-doctoral and graduate fellowships; and two annual lectures.

The two other major Jewish studies centers in California, one at Stanford and the other at UCLA, welcomed creation of the third center at Berkeley.

Professor Steven Zipperstein at Stanford noted that “UC Berkeley has long enjoyed a reputation as a distinguished center of Jewish learning with among the finest faculty in North America in literature, the Bible, history, the Talmud and other fields.”

At UCLA, professor David Myers, chair of the history department and former director of the campus Center for Jewish Studies, noted that “Jewish studies has had a presence on the Berkeley campus for well over a century, since the arrival of the Semiticist Max Margolis in 1897. There has been a string of distinguished Jewish studies scholars ever since.

“But UC Berkeley has lacked a Center for Jewish Studies, a surprising absence given [the university’s] distinction and the exponential growth of the field over the past quarter century. Now that institutional anomaly has been rectified, and this is a good thing for Berkeley, for Jewish studies, and for the healthy competition between Berkeley and UCLA. With major centers in Los Angeles, Stanford and now Berkeley, California has fortified its role as an international power in Jewish studies scholarship.”

The International Directory of Academic Jewish Studies Centers lists 23 university centers for Jewish studies in the United States and Canada, and a much larger number of universities with related courses and programs.

At Berkeley, the new center will report to George Breslauer, executive vice chancellor and provost.

There are an estimated 3,000 Jewish students at Berkeley, making up roughly 10 percent of the entire student body, but students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds are enrolled in Jewish studies classes.

Dirks assumed the chancellorship at Berkeley last June, and in July he joined an academic mission to Israel, meeting with officials at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University.

UC Berkeley, Santa Cruz anti-Semitism complaints dismissed

The U.S. Department of Education has dismissed complaints against the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz that had accused the universities of allowing a hostile environment for Jewish students to exist on campus.

In a letter dated Aug. 19 and released Aug. 27 by UC Berkeley, the education department’s Office for Civil Rights indicates that it is closing its yearlong investigation after concluding that events that took place on the Berkeley campus — such as mock military checkpoint demonstrations held during Israeli Apartheid Week by Students for Justice in Palestine — constitute “expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community.”

“In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience,” the letter states. “In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment.”

The complaint was levied by two graduates who had an earlier complaint dismissed by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg. He ruled that there was no evidence that university officials violated the Jewish students’ rights.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in a statement that he was pleased with the outcome.

“The claim that there is a hostile environment for Jewish students at Berkeley is, on its face, entirely unfounded.”

He said the university is proud of its Jewish community and of the many cultural opportunities it affords.

“We will continue our ongoing efforts to protect free speech rights while promoting respectful dialogue and maintaining a campus environment that is safe for all out students,” Dirks said.

A similar complaint against UC Santa Cruz was dismissed in an Aug. 19 letter. The complaint alleged that a 2009 “A Pulse on Palestine” event that included a film and a panel discussion between external guest speakers that was moderated by a university professor, among other things, created a hostile environment.

“This campus values the free and open expression of ideas, and we diligently safeguard our students’ civil rights,” UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal said in a statement. “We are, therefore, pleased that these allegations have been thoroughly investigated and dismissed.”

Calif. board votes in student leader of BDS movement as regent

A student leader in the anti-Israel divestment campaign at the University of California, Berkeley, was elected to serve on the University of California system’s Board of Regents.

Sadia Saifuddin, a student senator at Berkeley, was voted in by the board on Wednesday as a regent for 2014-15. She was up against two other students for the post.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, in a statement criticized the selection.

“The choice of Sadia Saifuddin as student regent sends the wrong message and in fact, defeats the Regents own goal of being more inclusive,” she said.

The Berkeley student senate’s Israel divestment resolution co-sponsored by Saifuddin called  for divesting $14 million in university and Associated Students funds from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings because they profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Jewish settlements. The nonbinding resolution passed in April by a vote of 11-9.

Saifuddin, Rothstein said, “instigated a bigoted campaign that purposely marginalized one group of students on campus. How can she be expected to represent all students when she has an extremist point of view against those who do not agree with her?”

The daughter of immigrants from Pakistan, Saifuddin told the campus newspaper following the resolution vote, “I don’t want one cent of my money to go toward fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters,”

A former UC student regent, Jonathan Stein, praised Saifuddin.

“Sadia is what kept UC Berkeley from cracking apart through that experience,” he said.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center had launched a petition against Saifuddin’s nomination.

Saifuddin graduated from the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Youth Leadership Program in public speaking, media relations and governmental activism in 2008 and has maintained close ties to the organization, which has been accused of promoting radical Islam.

The Board of Regents sets educational policy for the 10 universities in the UC system and appoints their senior officers.

Student leader in BDS movement up for regent post in Calif. system

A student leader in the anti-Israel divestment campaign at the University of California, Berkeley, is a candidate for student regent in the University of California system.

Sadia Saifuddin, a student senator at Berkeley, is up against two other students for a regents post in 2014-15 in the vote on Wednesday by the UC Board of Regents.

Saifuddin co-sponsored an Israeli divestment resolution this spring that called for the divestment of $14 million in university and Associated Students funds from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings, saying they profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Jewish settlements. The resolution passed the student senate by a vote of 11-9.

“I don’t want one cent of my money to go toward fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters,” Saifuddin told the campus newspaper following the April 17 vote.

Saifuddin, the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan, also opposed the UC Regents report on Jewish students’ concerns about a hostile campus environment, according to StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organization which has mobilized its membership to oppose the nomination.

“While it would be an important milestone for a Muslim student to become the student regent, Ms. Saifuddin is an ill-advised choice because she promotes activities that marginalize a large group of students on campus, and she advances extremist positions,” StandWithUs wrote in an open letter to the Board of Regents.

“If you appoint a student who is prominently associated with the ‘BDS’ movement, you would send a message normalizing and even rewarding the very activities that are greatly harming the campus environment,” the letter said.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center also launched a petition against Saifuddin’s nomination.

Saifuddin graduated from the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Youth Leadership Program in public speaking, media relations and governmental activism in 2008 and has maintained close ties to the organization, which has been accused of promoting radical Islam

The Board of Regents sets educational policy for the 10 UC universities and appoints their senior officers.

Outstanding Graduate: Raphi Heldman — Lessons on the run

While a typical high school student may spend  weekends relaxing, 17-year-old Raphi Heldman is much more likely to be on the run — for up to 26.2 miles, to be precise. Since entering high school, he has run in the Los Angeles Marathon four times.

“It’s a lot of commitment, and one of the things I can take pride in,” said the senior at Hamilton High School’s humanities magnet.

Running has made him part of a community, given him a sense of identity and offered plenty of life lessons, he said.

“The insane amount of commitment that the guys have, and their tendency to push themselves when their knees are buckling, legs cramping, [is inspiring],” Heldman said.

In addition to exploring Los Angeles on foot, Heldman likes to exercise his cerebral muscles. For the past two years he has been a member of Penn Model Congress, which involves students simulating sessions of U.S. Congress by writing their own legislation and debating it. 

He would have participated for a third year, but as a sophomore his appendix ruptured, landing him in the hospital for three weeks. An infected blood clot complicated matters.

“I think my parents were a lot more afraid than I was; it was just out of their control, and I didn’t feel a sense of impending death or anything like that,” Heldman said. “I was kind of fed up with staying in the hospital, I wanted it to be over as soon as possible, so I made it a point of mine to keep walking and exercising to the extent that I could, to get out faster.”

That he did. Ultimately, he said, “It sort of taught me the value of patience and always waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

[Next Grad: Joelle Milman]

This past year, Heldman worked as a volunteer on the political campaign of former California State Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, making phone calls and canvassing on her behalf in her campaign for the 50th Assembly District. After losing in a close race, she announced that she will seek the 62nd Assembly District in 2014. 

Heldman, who was confirmed at Temple Isaiah, said he appreciated being surrounded by synagogue volunteers who, being Holocaust survivors, shared their stories. 

He said he identifies most with the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and with Jewish culture. With that in mind, he organized book fairs to benefit afterschool programs for the underprivileged as part of the citywide volunteer weekend Big Sunday.

Graduating fourth in his class of more than 550 students, Heldman plans to attend University of California, Berkeley, next year and major in either economics or biological sciences.

BDS: Frustration, but with hope

Senate Bill 160, which calls for targeted divestment from companies that profit off of human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, passed this last week in the University of California, Berkeley, student senate. The debate it sparked left us both frustrated with the broken campus dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hopeful due to the changing conversation in the Berkeley Jewish community.

We come from Jewish homes in Los Angeles, where we spent countless Shabbat mornings in shul and two respective high school semesters studying in Israel. We both arrived at Berkeley as dedicated supporters of Israel looking for an open space in which to ask challenging questions about Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. 

We found that space in J Street U. We found people who believe, just like us, that American Jews have an obligation to protest and discuss the injustices we witness — especially those in Israel, a place with which we have deep, personal connections. 

The fall before we arrived at Berkeley, J Street U was rejected from our Jewish Student Union (JSU). More than a year later, we still hear members of the new JSU board declare that “now is not the time” for us to be invited into the community. Despite the vibrant support system we have found in J Street U, we still hear others in Hillel murmur that we are not pro-Israel enough. 

Upon hearing that a divestment bill was returning to the senate, we braced ourselves for what we anticipated would be a contentious discussion within Berkeley’s Jewish community. 

Instead, however, members of the Jewish community, representing perspectives from Tikvah to J Street U, were invited to collaborate on writing an actionable alternative to divestment. Although the negative experiences of Berkeley’s 2010 divestment debate still haunted Hillel, with many in our community either disengaged or defensive, we viewed this as a hopeful sign that 2013 would be different.  

Our suggestions to oppose Israel’s occupation and promote American responsibility in achieving a lasting peace became the focus of the bill the student leaders wrote in response to divestment. In Jewish community meetings, the necessity of taking proactive steps toward a two-state solution became central to our messaging.  

Unfortunately, this was not the message heard by the hundreds of students who packed into the senate hearing for the bill. Many members of the Jewish community who spoke emphasized their own marginalization, instead of acknowledging the legitimate grievances presented by Palestinian students and their allies. For example, they defended Israel’s security barrier as a necessary security asset, ignoring how it has bifurcated private Palestinian land and impeded everyday life. 

But problematic rhetoric was not limited to the anti-divestment side. 

Advocates of divestment called for a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea,” ignoring the lengthy history of Jewish connection to the land and directly exacerbating Jewish students’ sense of marginalization. They snickered when Jewish and Israeli students told stories about terrorism, failing to acknowledge these real and legitimate security concerns. Most paradoxically, they mocked students who were seriously attempting to wrestle simultaneously with Israeli and Palestinian narratives of suffering, alienating the people, like us, most interested in finding common ground.

People spoke past each other without truly hearing or respecting the other side’s narrative. They did not realize that recognizing one community’s claim to self-determination inherently requires that they recognize the other. 

We did not support the divestment resolution because it did not explicitly endorse the Jewish people’s right to a homeland, but it is hard for us fully reject its premise. We recognize the bill as a well-intentioned effort to fix real problems we, too, are frustrated with, and we had hoped to convince the senate to choose alternative actions that would constructively engage more members of the Jewish community.

Moreover, as part of the anti-divestment community, we could not ignore the irony of hearing our peers declare themselves, “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace.” The same members of the Jewish community who have previously sought to exclude our message from the JSU suddenly selectively appropriated it on the senate floor without internalizing what those words mean.

To those students, we say, join us. 

We believe that peace can come in our lifetimes and that we have an important role in bringing it. We are proud that, at the Berkeley senate meeting, many in our community pressed for a two-state solution. We hope to hear these same individuals speak out against settlement expansion, support democratic rights for all who live within Israel’s borders, and be willing to openly criticize Israel’s human rights violations — and not just when they are desperate to defeat divestment.

The Jewish community will only be considered a serious partner in campus discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once we demonstrate our commitment to making the necessary sacrifices for peace. If we can back up our rhetoric with serious action and sustained political engagement to achieve a two-state solution, hopefully we will empower pragmatic moderates on the other side to do the same.

Berkeley’s divestment debate was just the beginning. Join us, and let’s prove to our peers that the Jewish community is committed to peace, justice and freedom for all — and that we, too, have a strategy for acting on our values.

Shayna Howitt and Zoe Lewin are undergraduate students at University of California, Berkeley.

BDS campaign spreads with little effect

The multinational boycott campaign targeting Israel, aimed at stopping the country’s perceived injustices against Palestinians, has a venerable history, but the movement showed a new spurt of activism this month.

Most of the attention has focused on the University of California and its campuses, two of which have just come down on opposite sides of the issue following emotional, all-night debates.

On April 18, the student senate at UC Berkeley voted 11-9 in favor of a resolution calling on the statewide UC administration to divest of stock in American companies providing technology or weapons used by the Israeli military in the Palestinian territories.

One week earlier, the UC Santa Barbara student senate defeated a similar resolution aimed at “companies profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine,” by an even thinner margin of 11-10, with one abstention.

Previously, divestment petitions were approved by the student governments at the UC San Diego and Irvine campuses, as well as at UC Riverside, but the latter group reversed its stand in a subsequent vote.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement originated in the 1990s in a worldwide campaign to pressure the white minority regime in South Africa to change its apartheid policies discriminating against the majority black population.

When that campaign was seen as successful, some of its methods and techniques were adopted and re-aimed at the Israeli government as the primary target.

In 2002, the student governments at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) passed divestment-from-Israel resolutions, and some major church bodies in the United States and Canada followed suit in 2004.

The resurgence of the BDS movement at some of the 10 University of California campuses has raised questions as to its effectiveness and its impact on Jewish students.

In terms of practical results, the BDS campaigns have not realized their professed goal of changing Israeli policy by hitting the country, and foreign companies trading with it, in the pocketbook.

As far as the record shows, not a single university administration in the United States has accepted or acted on the various resolutions passed by their respective student bodies.

Typical is the response of UC’s governing body, the Board of Regents, which in 2010 adopted a policy statement introduced by its chair and vice chair, together with UC President Mark Yudof.

Noting the Regents’ existing policy of divesting only “when the U.S. government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide,” the statement declared, “We must take great care that no one organization or country is held to a different standard than any other.

“In the current resolutions voted by the UC student organizations, the State of Israel and companies doing business with Israel have been the sole focus. This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.”

Even the BDS Web site, which lists every commercial, academic, government or artistic boycott move across the world in great detail, makes no claim of actual divestment by an American university.

In a month-by-month compilation of achievements in 2012, BDS lists numerous resolutions and petitions, but its closest claim to concrete success in academe is the action by the University of Glasgow (Scotland) in dropping Israel-produced Eden Spring Water from its cafeterias.

Much harder to gauge is the movement’s impact in fomenting anti-Israel sentiment and actions on campuses, as well as the impact on the comfort level of their Jewish students.

UC President Yudof, after hearing reports of harassment of Jewish students, particularly during campus “Palestine Awareness” weeks, and lack of response by campus administrators, appointed a committee in 2010, which interviewed Jewish students on six campuses over a seven-month period.

The voluminous study yielded a number of conclusions and recommendations, some controversial, and emphasized two points: Political and social opinions among Jewish students were diverse, and often opposed, even on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and while many such students felt resentment and outrage at some of the charges and attacks by Muslim student groups, none of the Jews interviewed felt in physical danger on campus.

Veteran journalist Dina Kraft, who has reported for The New York Times and the Jewish Journal, among others, last month interviewed a number of students involved on both sides of the BDS issue for the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Kraft asked whether the movement will now spread to colleges in other parts of the country and got one answer from Amal Ali, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Riverside.

“The University of California has been at the forefront of social protest movements, so when any campus here makes any statement, the rest of the country listens. … This is the beginning, not the end,” she said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel executive director at UCLA, said he believed at this point the BDS movement was targeting the UC campuses as a testing ground, before deciding whether to expand the campaign nationally. A similar view was expressed by Rabbi Evan Goodman, Hillel executive director at UC Santa Barbara.

Seidler-Feller also noted that an attempt to introduce a divestment resolution at UCLA two weeks ago didn’t get off the ground, thanks largely to preventive moves by Jewish students.

For her part, Kerri Copans, the Hillel director at UC San Diego, emphasized that the BDS movement “does not define the Jewish experience on campus … we have a vibrant community,” she told Kraft.

Copans said that her group is countering the calls for divestment with a plan for investment by helping to create a university scholarship for students, Jewish or not, to study in Israel.

One of the most interesting viewpoints on the BDS confrontations came from Meggie Le, president of the Associated Students at UC San Diego and the 21-year-old daughter of Vietnamese immigrants.

She had worked hard, initially, to tone down and then to defeat the divestment resolution, explaining, “I believe that divestment is horrible for the campus climate. … It divides people on cultural identities, and I don’t believe that’s OK,” she told Kraft.

The reaction to this stand illustrates the intense emotions triggered by the BDS confrontations, with Le noting that she has been the object of persistent verbal abuse by pro-divestment advocates.

In the month preceding the UC San Diego vote on the issue, Le said, she received 11,000 e-mails on the issue from Congress and community members, faculty, students and others.

Cal-Berkeley student senate passes divestment measure

A student senate at the University of California, Berkeley narrowly passed a measure calling on the school to divest from three companies with dealings in the West Bank.

Following 10 hours of sometimes heated debate, the Associated Students of the University of California senate early Wednesday morning passed the resolution in an 11-9 vote, the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, reported.

The resolution calls on the school to divest more than $14 million in university and Associated Students funds from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Cement Roadstone Holding, saying they profit from Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Jewish settlements there.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, a proponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, came to support the resolution. Many faculty and community members attended the debate.

“Tonight is not about corporations,” Sadia Saifuddin, one of the resolution's co-sponsors, told the Daily Californian, according to the j. weekly. “It's about asking ourselves before we go to sleep whether our money is going toward the destruction of homes, toward the erection of a wall” — a reference to the security fence.

Saifuddin added, “I don't want one cent of my money to go toward fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters.”

Jason Bell, an opponent of the divestment measure, told the student paper, according to the j., that the resolution language “frames Israel as the sole aggressor.”

“This is more than just divesting from three companies,” he said. “Divestment is undoubtedly taking a side in the conflict.”

Similar resolutions have been passed at the University of California campuses in Irvine and San Diego.

The University of California, Riverside's student government passed a BDS resolution last month that was overturned on April 3 — opponents argued that they were not given enough time to prepare for the vote. BDS measures also were rejected in the last two months at UC-Santa Barbara and Stanford University, the j. reported.

Berkeley student senate passes divestment bill SB 160 11-9

In a dramatic vote that was emotional for all sides, the ASUC Senate voted 11-9 to divest from companies affiliated with Israel’s military early Thursday morning.

The heated debate began Wednesday evening and carried on for 10 hours, continuing into Thursday. Anna Head Alumnae Hall overflowed with hundreds of UC Berkeley students, faculty and community members engaging in a contentious debate regarding the bill, SB 160.

[RELATED: Cliffhanger divestment vote at UC Santa Barbara]

SB 160, authored by Student Action Senator George Kadifa, calls the UC system a “complicit third party” in Israel’s “illegal occupation and ensuing human rights abuses” and seeks the divestment of more than $14 million in ASUC and UC assets from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings. According to the bill, these companies provide equipment, materials and technology to the Israeli military, including bulldozers and biometric identification systems.

Read more at The Daily Californian.

For California mountain man, road to God runs through kosher wine

Producing wine atop a tranquil mountain in a remote area of northern California is quite a way to make a living. For Benyamin Cantz, whose one-man operation in the hills of Santa Cruz produces kosher wine from organic grapes, it's also a calling.

“This is my livelihood but I don’t quite run it like a full-fledged business,” Cantz told JTA in an interview on his vineyard, Four Gates Winery. “It could definitely be run more efficiently, but I don’t see the process like that. I just love making wine and the holy concept behind it, and I just want to share it with others.” 

Four Gates is one of the smallest kosher wineries in the country, producing only 400 cases a year. It's also one of the only ones in the world that grows its own grapes organically.

The vineyard is located deep in the folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Just getting up Cantz’s driveway is like an amusement park ride, with a newly paved road meandering up and around a labyrinth of thick foliage. The journey ends at a quaint sign greeting visitors in Hebrew. Beyond, sprawling green pastures give to way to breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.

Cantz, 65, arrived at this mountaintop 42 years ago for a summer job doing handywork and never left. He had studied calligraphy in college, never intending to become a winemaker. But after becoming religiously observant with the help of a Chabad rabbi he met in town, Cantz says he came to understand the spiritual transformation grapes undergo on their way from the vine to the Shabbat table, and he felt a strong desire to become involved in the process.

“In a non-irrigated vineyard, the water literally comes down from the heaven as rain, and that rain goes through a whole spiritual journey just to give us our wine,” Cantz says. “From the sky, down to the earth, into the grapes, then crushed and bottled for our Friday night tables, it just reminded me of the whole enterprise of living. And I liked the idea of a physical voyage that manifests to find something physical to elevate God through. It’s hard to keep this image in my head every day, but it’s what keeps me going and its why I do the entire process myself.”

In 1991, Cantz planted four acres of vineyards, despite having no formal training. “There was no YouTube to figure these things out,” he said. It took Cantz many seasons to figure out the right way to plant and get his wine to taste just right — not to mention backbreaking labor and help from nearby vintners..

Cantz doubles as vineyard manager and winemaker, tending to his vines on four acres of a 60-acre parcel of land that once was managed by Mary Holmes, an art history professor at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz. Cantz moved to the mountaintop to help Holmes tend the parcel and eventually took over her 50-year lease. He shares the land, which has a horse stable and is filled with 150-year-old redwood trees, with Holmes' son, who lives in Berkeley but drops by occasionally. Cantz never married.

Maintaining a vineyard is strenuous work, especially for someone working alone who doesn't use pesticides and must tend his vines on a slope where tractor use is impossible. In the spring and summer, Cantz spends his days planting, sowing, pruning and watering. In the fall and winter, he lives in isolation in a slightly dilapidated yet charming shack made of plywood and cinderblock that he built himself. There he crushes, presses, ferments, barrels, bottles, corks and labels his wine. While Cantz’s crop is certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers, his wine doesn't qualify as organic because Cantz uses sulfur dioxide to prevent further aging — a practice European wineries consider organic but Americans do not.

These days Cantz is growing merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet grapes. In a good year, he produces 5 to 8 tons, from which he extracts about 1,000 gallons of wine. The product is sold exclusively through his website, fourgateswine.com. Cantz handwrites invoices and treks down the mountain to the post office himself to ship bottles. 

Like every agricultural business, there are good seasons and bad, and the past few were horrendous. Last summer, an excruciating heat wave struck California, killing half his crop. The season before, late summer rains caused a fungus which rotted his grapes. But Santa Cruz has been showered with abundant rains this winter, and Cantz is optimistic that this next crop will produce his best wine yet.

“Honestly, it’s really not that hard to make wine,” he says. “But making good wine means that you need to have all your ducks in a row. And the secret to the best wines is the perfect amount of fermentation.”

Cantz will release new lines of pinot noir, petit verdot, syrah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the next few weeks, ahead of Passover. He also saves a few bottles of his bestsellers to re-release the following year. This season, he's offering cabernet and cabernet franc from earlier vintages. His wines generally range from $20 to $50 per bottle; his most expensive bottle, the cabernet franc, sells for $60. 

Because mountain-grown grapes tend to be sharper in flavor than valley-grown ones, Four Gates wine has a bit of a kick to it. But consumers don't seem to mind. Cantz's wines have sold out every season, even though Cantz doesn’t do any advertising. He relies entirely on word of mouth.

Every now and then, Cantz says, he will get an email from a client begging to take over the winery when he retires. But Cantz has a lease on the land until he’s 92, and he doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.  

“I feel so lucky that God has blessed me with the opportunity to do something that I love,” Cantz says. “Wine has a whole scientific aesthetic to it, and includes so many elements of life I get to watch. It’s vigorous, but it’s all worth it.”

U.S. civil rights office probing claims of anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley

The civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Two recent graduates of the university filed a complaint charging that campus officials allowed a hostile campus environment for Jewish students to continue unabated by not stopping anti-Israel protests on campus, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The complaint alleges that the campus officials have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that recipients of federal funds are barred from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education extended Title VI to include the protection of Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campuses.

The charges filed in July refer specifically to the annual February Apartheid Week, saying that the campus event led to an increase in anti-Semitic hate speech, the newspaper reported on Oct. 3.

A complaint filed by the same students was dismissed in December by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg, who ruled that there was no evidence that university officials violated the Jewish students’ rights.  

In that complaint, the plaintiffs said that they and other Jews were harassed during the annual Apartheid Week event at the university held by Muslim student groups to protest Israeli policies. Seeborg ruled that the conduct of the Muslim students fell under the category of “pure political speech,” which is constitutionally protected.

For Shavuot, Bay Area Jews head to the wilderness

Most Jews around the world observe Shavuot in the relative comfort of their synagogues and homes. Not so for Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit.

On May 25, for the fifth consecutive year, the group will celebrate the commemoration of God’s giving the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai by creating a temporary village on a literal mountain just outside of Oakland.

Since 2007, Wilderness Torah has been organizing backcountry celebrations of Jewish festivals: For Passover, which remembers the Israelites’ leaving Egypt for the Sinai desert, they travel to a desert near Death Valley; for Sukkot, the final harvest festival of the agricultural year, they camp on a farm; and for four days over Memorial Day weekend, about 150 Jews and non-Jews will join Wilderness Torah’s staff to create what the group’s leader calls a “dynamic pluralistic village” for the annual “Shavuot on the Mountain” celebration.

Zelig Golden, a former environmental lawyer and founding co-director of Wilderness Torah, recently spoke about his organization at an event in Culver City and his hope to rekindle an appreciation for Judaism’s roots in the wilderness.

“Judaism is based in an ancient land-based culture, and our traditions, our stories, our ritual objects, they all come from a relationship with land,” Golden said. And though, as a religion, Judaism can seem to be more about books than about earth, Golden sees a need for Jews, like everyone else, to be rooted in the land.

“If we don’t follow the mitzvot,” he said, citing verses from Leviticus, “and we don’t have a relationship with the land in certain ways, like the laws of shmita, resting the land … the environment’s going to turn on us.”

Celebrating in the wilderness isn’t always easy. Participants are required to bring their own tents, their own sleeping bags, even their own dishes.

“People come because it’s challenging,” Golden said. “Because it’s out of their comfort zone.”

Browns pick Schwartz in NFL draft

The second round of the NFL draft was not 30 minutes old when the phone rang in the Schwartz home on the afternoon of April 27.

The family recognized the Cleveland area code. Mitchell Schwartz, the Cal offensive lineman who was expecting to be drafted, picked up the phone. Then he smiled.

“I’ve never seen such a huge smile,” older brother and current NFL pro Geoff Schwartz said.

With the fifth pick of the second round (37th overall), the Cleveland Browns selected Schwartz.

“The best part was that I didn’t expect to go that high,” Mitchell said on April 29. 

The NFL now has two Jewish offensive linemen, from the same family. There are several pairs of brothers in the league, including offensive linemen Matt and Ryan Kalil, but none are Jews. Matt Kalil was taken fourth by Minnesota and will be Geoff’s new teammate. Geoff previously played with Ryan in Carolina.

Although Geoff’s draft experience was less than stellar — he had to wait until the seventh and final round to be chosen — he was pleased at his brother’s good fortune.

It was fortunate because, as father Lee Schwartz said, once one gets past the obvious first-round choices, “[I]t’s really a crapshoot.”

Before the draft, Mitchell traveled to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Kansas City, and met with team officials. Lee said his son left Atlanta with the impression that if he was still available when the Falcons picked 55th, they would take him. (Atlanta ended up taking another offensive lineman.)

The family knew Cleveland could take him at 37, but they had seen mock drafts that had Mitchell going 58th to the Houston Texans or 63rd to the New York Giants.

Most mock drafts had Matt Kalil going to Minnesota, but Geoff said the addition does not affect his job.

“He plays left tackle; I play right guard,” Geoff said.

So when Mitchell’s name was called, the family whooped it up and hollered and screamed and jumped up and down.

And then came two realizations: First, “The draft was over for us, and we had no reason to watch it,” Geoff said.

Second, the family had planned a celebratory dinner for Saturday, not Friday.

They went out both nights, Mitchell said.

Univ. of California president defends Farrakhan appearance on campus

University of California President Mark Yudof defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s right to speak at the university’s Berkeley campus.

Farrakhan’s speech Saturday was billed as being about black empowerment, but was also peppered with anti-Semitic and hate speech, students told The Daily Californian student newspaper.

A petition circulated after the speech by Jewish student leaders, which opposed Farrakhan’s speech and character, but not the Black Student Union’s right to bring him to campus, garnered more than 350 signatures, the student newspaper reported.

“Louis Farrakhan is a provocative, divisive figure with a long history of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic speech,” Yudof said following the speech, which was part of the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference. “It was distressing in the extreme that a student organization invited him to speak on the UC Berkeley campus.”

“But as I have said before we cannot, as a society or as a university community, be provoked by hurtful speech to retreat from the cherished value of free speech,” Yudof said.

The remarks come two days after Yudof condemned the disruption of an event on the University of California, Davis, campus featuring two visiting Israeli soldiers.

“I condemn the actions of those who would disrupt this event. Attempting to shout down speakers is not protected speech,” Yudof wrote in an open letter.

Anti-Semitic harassment suit at UC Berkeley is dismissed

A federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed by two Jewish students against the University of California, Berkeley, alleging that the school did not protect them from anti-Semitic attacks.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ruled late last week that there was no evidence that university officials violated the Jewish students’ rights, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The plaintiffs said that they and other Jews were harassed during the annual Apartheid Week event at the university held by Muslim student groups to protest Israeli policies. Seeborg ruled that the conduct of the Muslim students fell under the category of “pure political speech,” which is constitutionally protected, according to the newspaper.

The complaint alleged that the Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association, another pro-Palestinian group on campus, harass and attack Jewish students, and that the university knows about it and has not taken sufficient steps to protect its Jewish students.

The complaint further charged that university officials have tolerated “the growing cancer of a dangerous anti-Semitic climate on its campuses” that violates the rights of Jewish and other students “to enjoy a peaceful campus environment free from threats and intimidation.”

The suit called for damages and a jury trial.

Berkeley Hillel leaders urge students to reconsider J Street rejection

Hillel leaders at the University of California, Berkeley, are urging the Jewish Student Union on campus to reconsider its rejection of J Street’s campus affiliate.

The Jewish Student Union, an umbrella body for UC Berkeley Jewish student groups, voted last month to deny membership to the school’s J Street U chapter.

“We respect the right of the Jewish Student Union, an organization sponsored by UC Berkeley student government, to make its own decisions, but we encourage JSU to reconsider its vote and include JStreetU as a member,” wrote Berkeley Hillel’s board president, Barbara Davis, and its executive director, Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, in a letter sent to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and to j. weekly, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish newspaper.

They also wrote that the J Street U chapter will receive support from Berkeley Hillel, explaining that the dovish student group adheres to Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.

The Jewish Student Union’s Nov. 16 vote to exclude J Street garnered media attention and spurred commentary around the world. There were 10 votes against admitting J Street U, nine in favor and two abstentions; admission requires a two-thirds majority, according to j. weekly.

“J Street is not pro-Israel but an anti-Israel organization that, as part of the mainstream Jewish community, I could not support,” Jacob Lewis, co-president of the campus Israel activist group Tikvah, told j. weekly, explaining his opposition to admitting J Street U.

In an Op-Ed in the Forward newspaper, four leaders of UC Berkeley’s J Street U chapter wrote that the exclusion was “emblematic of a larger trend.”

“Even as pillars of the American Jewish establishment recognize the need to include J Street U and others like us in the broadening tent of pro-Israel advocacy, those on the right double their efforts to shut us out,” the four students wrote.

Berkeley’s Jewish student union says ‘no’ to J Street U

U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union includes groups such as Challah for Hunger, Bears for Israel and the Jewish Business Association.

J Street U will not be joining them.

At a Nov. 16 general meeting, the union voted to deny membership to the Berkeley chapter of J Street U, the college division of the left-leaning and often controversial Israel lobby. The final tally: nine for, 10 against, two abstentions.

It takes a two-thirds majority to approve membership. Representatives from each JSU member organization, as well as select individual members, have a vote.

Jacob Lewis, co-president of the pro-Israel student group Tikvah and one of those casting a “no” vote, said, “J Street is not pro-Israel but an anti-Israel organization that, as part of the mainstream Jewish community, I could not support.”

Now two years old, J Street U has chapters on 32 campuses across the country and a presence on many others. This is the first time a chapter has been denied membership in a Jewish student union, according to national director Daniel May.

The Berkeley chapter of J Street U has 11 members and has been active for more than a year, staging events and bringing guest speakers to campus. Israeli-born member Alon Mazor said he had been excited about “having a voice on campus and especially being part of the Jewish community. The obvious way was becoming a member organization of the JSU.”

He knew it would be no cakewalk. Mazor, 21, expected resistance from some within the JSU, which is why he and fellow J Street U member Simone Zimmerman prepared their case at the meeting.

“We presented our group, the mission and why we wanted to be part [of JSU],” he said. “There was a silence in the room. Then the discussion got more heated. A lot of people had prepared statements and quotations. It became a very charged atmosphere.”

Zimmerman, 21, also expected resistance but said she hoped to “appeal to students through framing it in the lens of J Street adding to the conversation. It’s OK to disagree with our political views, but we want you to recognize that we’re part of this community, and we have a right to have these conversations.”

Lewis, 20, said he had been suspicious of the group ever since attending a J Street U event last year. The guest speaker was Assaf Sharon of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement in Israel, which aligns with east Jerusalem Arabs who claim Israel is encroaching on their neighborhoods.

Lewis remembered Sharon saying Jerusalem “is a symbol of violence, and that anything beyond the Green Line is a settlement. It was a virulently hateful event about Israel.

According to the J Street U website, the group supports “Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, a democratic state, and a sovereign nation with the right to defend itself against external threats.”

Lewis stressed that it was not only his group, Tikvah, that opposed admitting J Street U, but rather a majority of voting members and representatives from JSU member groups.

“It demonstrates that this is pretty much a main view of the Jewish community,” he added.

Although the Jewish Student Union is an independent group within Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California, it is also affiliated with Hillel of Berkeley and derives some funding from that organization.

Hillel of Berkeley executive director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman did not attend the Nov. 16 meeting, but he said Hillel has no say in how the Jewish Student Union runs its affairs.

“As any [Hillel-affiliated] group, they do have to follow our kashrut, Israel and spending guidelines,” he said, “but they are an ASUC group we support and fund. What their criteria are for adding groups, I can’t speak to.”

Though he wouldn’t comment directly on the vote, Naftalin-Kelman did say that “We have to be very careful in how we talk about Israel and how we define our tent, because the stability and strength of Israel’s future is dependent on the strength of our Jewish community, and by that I mean every facet of our community. We always have to be careful about who we include and exclude.”

When the vote was announced at the meeting, J Street U’s Mazor wasn’t surprised.

“We were ready for it,” he said. “But it was very emotional because of the things that were said, like ‘We can’t trust you.’ To exclude people from the conversation doesn’t seem to be productive.”

Added Zimmerman, “It was hard listening to a group of people who don’t want us to be part of this community. We are going to continue … but I think it is a pretty serious blow that we were rejected from being part of the established community.”

Lewis said the vote does not deny individual J Street U members from participating in JSU activities or Jewish life on campus. He said, however, that Berkeley’s umbrella Jewish student group has a right to establish guidelines that “conform to a basic idea of being pro-Israel.”

“There’s a lot of room for criticism of [Israeli] policy,” Lewis said. “That’s a good thing. People will have a wide variety of criticisms. But it’s a matter of how and why you criticize.”

Colleges reminded of legal duty to prevent harassment

An Israeli civil rights group has sent letters to 150 U.S. college presidents reminding them of their legal obligations to prevent the harassment of Jewish students on their campuses.

In its letter dated Sept. 8, the Shurat Din-Israel Law Center in Tel Aviv also reminded the administrators that their schools have a duty “to reasonably prevent university funds from being diverted to unlawful activities that are directed against the state of Israel.”

The center, which according to one report was credited with mostly shutting down the second Freedom Flotilla to the Gaza Strip this summer, cites specific cases of what it calls anti-Israel hostility and Jewish harassment at Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley. The letter noted a recent lawsuit by a Berkeley alumnus contending that the university failed to protect her from physical attacks by a pro-Palestinian student.

While academic and political debate are a right, the letter said, “there are limits to these that students and campus officials must be made aware, especially with regard to anti-Israel activities.”

The letter was signed by Kenneth Leitner, a lawyer for the 8-year-old center, which also has offices in New York.

According to Commentary Magazine, the center was able to prevent most of the 10-boat Freedom Flotilla II from sailing to Gaza from Greece by informing insurance companies, satellite providers and Greek authorities of potential liabilities issues stemming from the flotilla.

At Berkeley campus, Jewish students on far left and far right on Israel talk about their motivations

It’s March, which means the days get longer and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up on campuses across North America with the annual staging of Israel Apartheid Week.

Last year, pro-Israel activists countered Apartheid Week events ranging from anti-Israel speeches to the staging of mock Israeli army checkpoints with pro-Israel events on 28 campuses highlighting Israel’s diversity and progressive character. This year, more campuses are expected to join in.

One of the most politically active campuses in the nation has been the University of California, Berkeley. Last year it was the scene of a protracted debate over an anti-Israeli divestment bill that tore apart an already fractured campus community and left many students shaken, others angry and still others too exhausted to care anymore.

In recent days, JTA spoke to four Jewish student activists at Berkeley about what motivates them on Israel-related issues. The students span the political and religious spectrum, from an ardent Zionist to a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, from Orthodox to secular. They all have strong Jewish backgrounds—three are day school graduates, and the fourth is an Israeli army veteran.

Here are their stories:

Jacob Lewis, leader of Zionist student group

Jacob Lewis (Photo by Matthew White)

While 100 people chatted noisily in the crowded room at Berkeley where Arab affairs expert Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University was about to start his lecture, Jacob Lewis was off in the hallway quietly unfolding more chairs for latecomers.

That’s his style. The 20-year-old sophomore isn’t the firebrand one might expect of the president of Tikvah, an avowedly Zionist student group that broke away from Hillel three years ago because its founders thought the established Jewish student organization on campus wasn’t pro-Israel enough.

“We’re the Zionist voice at UC Berkeley,” Lewis says firmly. “We advocate for Zionism as the national movement for self-determination of the Jewish people in their homeland, Israel. We were founded because no one else on campus was making that argument. No one was standing up to the rhetoric.”

Tikvah brings pro-Israel speakers to campus. Its activists distribute leaflets next to Israel Apartheid Week events and spearhead letter-writing campaigns to protest anti-Semitism. But they also present the diversity of Israeli culture and society by hosting events like a recent demonstration of Krav Maga, a form of self-defense developed in Israel.

The point, Lewis explains, isn’t that Israel is all good, but that it’s not all bad either.

That’s his main beef not only with Israel’s detractors on campus, like the Apartheid Week activists, but also with Hillel-affiliated groups, like the one that brought to campus speakers from Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli army veterans who oppose Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Lewis said they “nitpicked details” of a very complex situation, and thereby generated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hostility instead of thoughtful conversation.

“They make the delegitimization of Israel on campus much more legitimate because they’re seen as a mainstream group, part of Hillel,” Lewis charges of the group that brought Breaking the Silence to campus.

On the other hand, Lewis is wary of right-wing Jewish community members who spew anti-Islamic hatred at meetings attended by Tikvah students. He doesn’t want them controlling the Israel dialogue on campus either.

“We don’t believe Islam is the cause of our problems,” he says.

Referring to the adults from the larger community, Lewis adds, “When people come and talk about ‘what all the Arabs want’ or ‘this is what Islam says,’ that’s difficult for us to deal with.

“We walk a very fine line,” he acknowledges. “Different elements from the community want us to do different things. But we’re 100 percent a student organization. We don’t really care what other people think we should do. We know what we need to do.”

Tikvah exists only at Berkeley, Lewis notes.

“Berkeley is an absolutely crazy place,” he says. “The rhetoric is much more venomous. The campus is much more sympathetic to a leftist worldview. And we don’t get the same support from the Jewish community that you might get on other campuses.”

Yet Lewis chose to attend Berkeley after 12 years of Modern Orthodox day school in Chicago precisely because of the Bay Area’s diversity.

“In high school I was surrounded by people who believed like I did, but I was usually to the left of my friends,” he says. “Then I got to Berkeley and I got involved with Tikvah right away. I feel like I’m wrong no matter where I am.”

Noah Stern, student body president active in Hillel

Noah Stern (Noah Stern)

Noah Stern has many demands on his time. The 21-year-old senior is an active member of Hillel, a fraternity brother at Delta Chi—and president of the student body. Plus he tries to squeeze in a little skiing.

Stern is the third Hillel activist in 10 years to be elected student president.

“We’re all Jewish guys from Los Angeles, and all in the same frat,” he says.

As president, Stern must navigate between his responsibilities to the entire student body and his personal Jewish convictions. It was easier last year, he says, when as a student senator he could represent his own constituents during the acrimonious debate over an Israel divestment bill.

Stern voted against the bill and went on to co-author a substitute resolution that did not single out Israel. The first bill passed but was vetoed by his predecessor; the second was voted down.

Now as president, Stern is happy the issue hasn’t resurfaced this year.

“My feeling is there’s acknowledgment that perhaps the [student assembly] is not the most appropriate venue for international politics,” he says.

Stern has a fine pedigree for a student activist: His father is a Reform rabbi, his mother works for the Jewish Federations of North America, and he attended Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camp throughout his childhood. He spent a year after high school in Israel with Kivunim, a Jewish program that encourages multicultural literacy and understanding.

In the same vein, last year he and a Muslim student co-founded Breaking Bread, an organization that sponsors coexistence dinner discussions on campus. The Jewish-Muslim dinner last December focused on cultural and religious similarities rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I won’t pretend it solved the conflict, but this is how I prefer to engage with the issue,” Stern says. “In general I’m not a protester. It presents a black-and-white position on issues that are very gray.”

As student president, even if he liked holding signs on Sproul Plaza, the arena of choice for Berkeley protesters since the early 1960s, he would be enjoined from lending his voice to a particular cause.

Israel Apartheid Week doesn’t stress him out, and he’s equally sanguine about Jewish students who protest Apartheid Week events.

“These are students that believe adamantly in their causes and are visible about it,” Stern says. “That’s how we do it here. Israel Apartheid Week, Israeli Peace and Diversity Week—it’s the Berkeley way.”

For his own part, he is way too savvy to speak, or act, off the cuff.

Asked about Peter Beinart’s New York Review of Books essay, which raised establishment hackles by suggesting that young Jews don’t have the same attachment to Israel and the Jewish community as their elders, Stern says Beinart was right on.

“I don’t think the adult Jewish community is as in tune with Jewish college students as they sometimes think,” he says, measuring his words carefully. “Strategies that might have worked in the past don’t necessarily meet the needs of today’s students.”

Not all Jewish students care about Israel, Stern says, nor should they be forced to. Those who do care don’t always agree, and that’s fine, too.

“The fact that different Jewish groups with difference stances on Israel exist on campus shows there’s a need,” he says.

UC Berkeley Gets Institute for Jewish Law and Israel

Less than a year after the student government at the University of California, Berkeley fell one vote short of pushing through a bill to divest from American companies providing materials to the Israeli military, UC Berkeley’s School of Law on Thursday, Feb. 24, announced the launch of a new institute to advance the study of Jewish Law and of Israel on campus.

With the help of a $750,000 seed gift from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the new Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society will advance academic work in these fields through coursework, grants and support to faculty and through public forums.

“The law school has deep strengths in both the study of Jewish law—and religious law more generally—and also focuses on the study of Israel,” said Kenneth A. Bamberger, an assistant professor and the institute’s faculty director, who has been teaching courses in Jewish law and ethics at the UC Berkeley law school for the past two years. “As more people got involved, it seemed like a real contribution could be made to those engaged in the discourse around Jewish law and Israel on campus.”

The institute will build on resources already available on campus, supervising Berkeley Law’s seven-year-old joint Tel Aviv/UC Berkeley masters degree program; coordinating programs with the university’s Jewish Studies department and the joint UC Berkeley/Graduate Theological Seminary PhD program and making use of the university’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

Half of the institute’s mission—to develop and broaden the discourse around Israel on campus—can be seen as a response to the student-government body’s targeting of Israel on campus, which reached a fever pitch at the school last year.

In March 2010, before a veto by the president of the Associated Students of UC Berkeley, the association had approved a bill calling for divestment from General Electric and United Technologies. The companies were targeted for allegedly being complicit in Israeli war crimes and for helping to perpetuate the occupation of Palestinian lands. After being blocked by Will Smelko, the student body president, in mid-April, the bill failed to garner enough votes to overturn the veto.

It was, to say the least, an uncomfortable time for Jewish students at UC Berkeley. “There was a lot of friction,” Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, said. “It created a ton of divisiveness in the campus community.”

At the time, Naftalin-Kelman said, Hillel worked to organize Jewish and pro-Israel students to fight the bill, with the help of Hanan Alexander, whose permanent academic home is University of Haifa, but who was then serving as the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Visiting Israeli Professor at UC Berkeley.

Which explains why Naftalin-Kelman is enthusiastic about the work that the institute will do to extend discussion and debate about Israel—in ways that go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The institute is an amazing step forward to bring a balanced perspective of Israel on campus in an academic setting and to also offer courses that are not necessarily politically motivated but to look at Israeli society through a diverse perspective,” Naftalin-Kelman said.

Numerous Israelis are already at UC Berkeley, both as students and visiting faculty, and the new institute will provide an academic umbrella for them all. The two separate institute programs have already launched working groups for their graduate students in order to encourage and support their scholarship.

In the two months since the institute was opened, it has organized two meetings of a monthly colloquium. Arieh Saposnik of UCLA spoke about his research on Israel studies in U.S. universities; Dana Blander of Tufts presented on the possible uses of the referendum in Israel to decide political issues. It also brought Suzanne Stone from Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University to deliver the 2011 Robbins Collection Lecture in Jewish Law.

The institute has hired an executive director who will also lecture at the law school, and is in the process of organizing a multi-disciplinary conference about how the social, business and legal atmosphere in Israel helped to foster the growth of its high-tech sector. The conference is slated to take place in Spring 2012.

For the past two years, Bamberger and Rabbi David Kasher, senior educator at Hillel, have co-taught a course on Jewish law at Berkeley Law. The course is open to law students and undergraduates enrolled in the legal studies major.

Naftalin-Kelman has heard good reviews. “There are many Jewish students who see this as a Jewish experience for them, even though it’s in a classroom,” he said. Naftalin-Kelman noted that Rabbi Elliot Dorff of American Jewish University has been teaching a similar class in the law school at UCLA for decades.

Naftalin-Kelman estimates that there are between 2,500 and 3,000 Jewish undergraduates enrolled at UC Berkeley, or around 10% of the total student population. Over the course of a year, Hillel probably sees about 1,000 of those students in some capacity. Membership in the Jewish Law Student Association at UC Berkeley varies by the year, but Naftalin estimates that anywhere between 10 and 30 students usually take part.

Divestment bill vetoed at Berkeley

The student government president at the University of California vetoed a bill calling for divestment from two companies doing business with Israel.

Will Smelko, the president of the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, shot down the bill Wednesday, the Daily Californian reported. The association’s Senate had passed the bill last week by a 16-4 margin.

The bill, which singled out United Technologies and General Electric for supplying Israel with technology used to perpetrate war crimes, was widely condemned by Jewish campus groups.

“While the ASUC as a body has stated convincingly that it does not want ASUC and UC dollars going to fund weapons, war crimes, or human rights violations, this veto has to do with the mechanism by which the ASUC achieves its mission of building peace and goodwill in a way that avoids the shortcomings of the bill, [such as a] … selective, one-sided focus on a specific country that lacks important historical context and understanding,” Smelko said in a statement.

Smelko also said that the bill was perceived “as a symbolic attack on a specific community of our fellow students.”

Though divestment efforts are a cornerstone of the so-called BDS movement—shorthand for boycott, divestment and sanctions—the Berkeley bill was the closest any American campus has come to divesting specifically from companies doing business with Israel.

University of California reportedly endorses divestment

The student government at the University of California, Berkeley reportedly endorsed a divestment bill.

The Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley passed the bill by a wide margin early Thursday morning, it was reported.

The Daily Californian had reported that the association was considering the bill late Wednesday night.

The bill urges the university to divest from companies that supplied Israel with materials allegedly used to perpetrate war crimes. It targets the university’s investments of $135 million in five companies, such as Hewlett-Packard and General Electric, that supply Israel with electronics and weapons.

As with other divestment pushes, supporters of the measure contend that the investments enable Israel to commit atrocities and war crimes. Opponents claim that they single out Israel for unfair treatment.

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