Three Takeaways from This Week’s Disastrous Dinner for Berkeley Law Graduates

Pro-Palestinian student spouted anti-Israel rhetoric at Jewish dean’s dinner party
April 11, 2024

As I read UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s shocking statement about how a group of anti-Israel students attended and then ambushed a dinner for graduating students at his home on April 9, I felt sick to my stomach.

Perhaps it’s because I am Iranian and, in my culture, hospitality is inarguably sacred. One’s host has certain clearly-defined obligations, but one’s guests are also expected to conduct themselves with the utmost gratitude and civility. As I watched a short video that showed Palestinian American student Malak Afaneh, co-president of the Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, spouting anti-Israel rhetoric in Chemerinsky’s home, then claim it was free speech, I knew precisely how her mother and father would have responded had she been Iranian. Let’s just say it would not have been pretty.

Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish and I love to host Shabbat and holiday meals, and I felt truly sorry for Chemerinsky and his wife, law school professor Catherine Fisk, as their garden dinner for 60 students was hijacked by these shameless radicals, and the brilliant couple was quickly forced to act as boundary-setting parents of petulant children.

Whatever the reason, I was disgusted by what I saw and read. And then, I had a few realizations about what transpired at what was supposed to be one of three dinners Chemerinsky and Fisk were to host for graduating law students who, thanks to the pandemic in 2021, missed out on an annual opportunity to enjoy dinner at the dean’s home as first-year students:

A Pattern of Shameless Ingratitude 

Last Friday, an “Al-Quds Day” anti-Israel rally held in Dearborn, Mich. made headlines worldwide when videos showed a speaker and attendees chanting “Death to America!”— on American soil. I didn’t know which was more shameless and horrific — the unbelievable chants or the fact that “Al-Quds” rallies, which are borrowed straight from the genocidal playbook of the regime in Iran, now are being held in the U.S. Perhaps it was no coincidence that one protester even held up an image of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who originally conceived “Quds Days” and who labeled America “The Great Satan.” Tens of millions of Iranians associate Khomeini’s policies, which continue today, with brutal suppression of human rights, especially against women. As an American, I never thought I would see his vile face on a poster at a rally in the U.S.

I recognized the same shameless ingratitude as I watched Afaneh, cold and seemingly numb, refuse to give up the microphone as Chemerinsky repeatedly pleaded with her to stop. “Please leave our house,” he begged. “You are guests in our home.” The tense exchange was the very definition of civility versus incivility.

It should be mentioned that last week, a poster depicting a caricature of Chemerinsky holding a bloody fork and knife, with the words, “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves,” was on full-display at bulletin boards at the law school building and on social media. “I never thought I would see such blatant antisemitism, with an image that invokes the horrible antisemitic trope of blood libel and that attacks me for no apparent reason other than I am Jewish,” Chemerinsky wrote in his statement.

First, he was depicted as a bloodthirsty Jew, and then, students ambushed a dinner at his home. How cruel and shameless.

Anti-Israel Students Feel Safe Anywhere. The Opposite is True for Jewish Students

Isn’t it amazing that Afaneh and a group of other virulently anti-Israel students not only believed that their presence at the dinner would be allowed, but felt perfectly safe attending dressed in Palestinian keffiyehs as well?

Let’s imagine that during a non-Ramadan period, whether a group of Jewish students who were known to be part of a Berkeley Law School pro-Israel group had attempted to register for a dinner at the home of a Muslim dean who, just last week, had been the victim of an Islamophobic caricature. Putting safety aside for a moment (would any group of students wearing Israel flags be safe today among a wider group of students?), it would have been extremely inappropriate for those hypothetical flag-wearing pro-Israel students to have attended a dinner in such a manner.

And it would have been horrifying had one of them stood on the garden steps of the dean’s home, microphone in hand, and espoused anti-Palestinian messages. Why did anti-Israel students feel safe and entitled enough to ruin a dinner at the dean’s home? And why would Jewish students have most likely been assaulted if they had even dared to enter an event clad in blue and white flags?

Optics is Everything

As I watched the brief videos, I immediately suspected that it had all been a set up: Fisk tried to remove the microphone from Afaneh’s hand and to lead her back up the steps. “Leave,” she said. “This is not your house. This is my house.” Afaneh immediately responded by saying, “We have attorneys.” Another student can then be heard saying, “Stop touching her. You don’t have to get aggressive.”

And to no one’s surprise, later that day, another video of Afaneh’s disruption went viral and included captions alleging that Fisk had “assaulted a Hijabi” (a woman who wears a hijab, or Islamic head covering.) I can only imagine how many times Fisk will be called a “white Karen,” the same accusation that anti-Israel protestors recently hurled at one of my Iranian friends when she stood with a lone pro-Israel Jew at an LA rally.

I also understood that it had been a hijab-clad Afaneh, and not a burly male Palestinian student, who had taken the microphone and declared, “We refuse to break our fast on the blood of the Palestinian people — that UC has committed sending $2 billion dollars to weapons manufacturers …”

The optics had to work. No one would have accused Fisk of assaulting a male student. Between the camera-ready speech and the speedy warning about attorneys, all signs point to a set-up. Afaneh even informed Fisk that she would tell others that she “pulled a Muslim woman’s scarf during Ramadan.”

For Fisk and Chemerinsky, there was truly no winning that night. I write without exaggeration that the disruptive students’ behavior reminds me of actions from Hamas’s playbook, namely: Instigating Israel, causing chaos and then declaring themselves the sole victims once Israel chooses to respond.

For Fisk and Chemerinsky, there was truly no winning that night. I write without exaggeration that the disruptive students’ behavior reminds me of actions from Hamas’s playbook, namely: Instigating Israel, causing chaos and then declaring themselves the sole victims once Israel chooses to respond.

What a sad memory for the innocent students who simply wanted to attend a garden dinner at the dean’s home. And that’s saying nothing of the anticipated anti-Israel remarks that will surely dominate students’ speeches at various commencement ceremonies at Berkeley next month.

The Limits of Free Speech

The biggest irony was that Afaneh and fellow anti-Israel students wholly believed that their free speech entitled them to do whatever they wanted in Chemerinsky and Fisk’s Oakland home. At one point, Chemerinsky said to Afaneh, “This is my house. The First Amendment doesn’t apply.”

As an American, I am a lifelong devotee to First Amendment speech rights. But I also feel compelled to print Chemerinsky’s words on a T-shirt, one that I may wear at home. It should also be noted that few people, including myself, thought they would ever see the day when the legendary Erwin Chemerinsky would listen to a student speak and declare, “The First Amendment doesn’t apply.” But he was absolutely correct.

In the statement, Chemerinsky wrote that two more dinners would proceed on April 10 and 11. “I hope that there will be no disruptions; my home is not a forum for free speech,” he said.

Surely, these students knew that they had entered the home of one of the world’s most eminent legal scholars. Chemerinsky has authored numerous works on the First Amendment; he is also the author of “Constitutional Law” and, along with Howard Gillman, also wrote the book, “Free Speech on Campus.” In his statement, he even acknowledged that posters containing the antisemitic caricature of him were “deeply offensive,” but nevertheless “speech protected by the First Amendment.”

But Chemerinsky’s backyard garden was not the Berkeley law building, as 10 graduating Berkeley law students would surely have known. The fact that they still disrupted the peace and sanctity of their own dean’s home and, if they are not reported to the bar, that they will soon become lawyers, should serve as nothing less than a wake-up call for all Americans who value safety, civility and that quickly-fading social more once known as common decency.

Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X/Instagram @TabbyRefael


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