Disinvited, Excluded, Discriminated Against: Jews at UC Berkeley

Since the October massacres by Hamas, a range of Jewish UC Berkeley faculty have experienced exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination on account of their Jewish identities. 
February 8, 2024
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Since the October massacres by Hamas, a range of Jewish UC Berkeley faculty — both visiting lecturers and speakers and those teaching regularly at the university — have experienced exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination on account of their Jewish identities. 

Israeli Yael Nativ had been invited to teach a course on contemporary dance in Israel, but was disinvited after Oct. 7. The head of the department apologized, saying she was under pressure from faculty and master’s degree students not to bring anybody from Israel or hold courses dealing with Israel.  

Nativ wrote in Haaretz that before she was disinvited from Berkeley, she “was excited about the possibility of social justice and the complex ways in which it is possible to talk about relationships between individuals and groups, about discrimination and exclusion, visibility and invisibility, pain, compassion, anger, remorse and even forgiveness.”

But Berkeley was not willing to host her, she explained, because she is Israeli.

Dan Kalb, a progressive environmental advocate and longtime Oakland City Council member, had been invited to address a course called Environmental Problem Solving, something he’d done in previous years. However, after October 7 some students searched his social media posts. Thirty students then sent a letter to the instructor accusing Kalb of “spreading pro-Israeli propaganda, which often equates pro-Palestinian voices as ‘antisemitic.’” The instructor regretfully indicated it would be best if Kalb not come. 

As Kalb told a reporter from Jewish News of Northern California, the students’ behavior was maddening and clearly bigoted.

“If someone wants to go speak about climate change — they are an expert on climate change — what the hell does Israel or Zionism have to do with that? Why not put a yellow star on our sleeve?“ – Dan Kalb

“If someone wants to go speak about climate change — they are an expert on climate change — what the hell does Israel or Zionism have to do with that?” Kalb said. “Why not put a yellow star on our sleeve? How about we do that too?”

 He also commented, “The problem of antisemitism – the problem of what we are seeing – apparently is not exclusive to the law school.” Over 20 student clubs ban speakers who support Zionism and/or practice forms of Judaism  — including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism — which integrate Zionism into their prayers, practices, and theology. The university enables and upholds this systemic discrimination against Jews despite it likely violating prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity and, in the case of some speakers, national identity. 

Other staff and faculty – as well as students – have reported similar discrimination and express concern about abusive hate speech and incitement of violence directed at Jews. 

Jewish identity is increasingly stigmatized and marginalized, with many students, staff, and faculty feeling isolated, intimidated, and unable to safely express themselves as Jews. While the university has responded appropriately in response to some of these incidents – in keeping with its legal and ethical obligations – in many other cases, it has not. 

Justice, equality, and equal protection only sometimes is not acceptable. When it is reactive rather than proactive – as in the case of Dan Kalb – that illustrates ineffective governance of the university and belated enforcement of its rules, code of conduct and civil rights law obligations. 

The university administration’s frequent denials of the severity and harmful consequences of anti-Jewish discrimination on campus are disrespectful of the Jewish students, staff, and faculty who report them. 

When university leadership engages in denialism, it is antagonistic and unhelpful, making the university less safe for Jewish people. 

As is true of many individuals experiencing discrimination and abuse in general – which is almost uniformly underreported by people of diverse racial, ethnic, religious, gender and other backgrounds – many Jewish individuals on campus understandably do not feel comfortable reporting their experiences. Months of reporting them have yielded little effective redress and meaningful support, but no shortage of criticizing the complainants. 

The claim of some university leaders that anti-Jewish abuse, harassment, vilification, and discrimination on campus are expressions of “free speech,” mere benign disagreements among different members of the campus community, is disconnected from the reality many students, staff, and faculty are experiencing. 

Such counterfactual characterizations only exacerbate the hurt and harm that Jewish members of the Berkeley community are experiencing. They increase our isolation and understanding that the administration is neither listening to us nor learning from our experiences and addressing them. They add insult to injury and embolden those who discriminate against Jewish people. 

Berkeley prides itself on being concerned with equity, diversity, inclusivity, belonging, and anti-racism. But when it comes to Jewish people, all too often we are excluded from these commitments. 

University leadership frequently cites the existence of active Hillel and Chabad branches as purported proof of a positive campus atmosphere for Jewish students.Yet these organizations are independently funded and operated and receive little support from the university. 

University leadership also makes frequent reference to the Diller Institute and its valuable and rich program of Jewish and Israel Studies at the Law School. But this too is not a demonstration of the university’s commitment to equality and inclusion for Jews, because it is entirely funded by philanthropic donations, not by the university.

The severely limited funding that the university’s commendable educational initiative to confront antisemitism currently receives illustrates the university’s true level of care and concern for Jewish faculty, students, and staff and their experiences of discrimination and abuse – ethically, empathetically and practically parsimonious, with minimal tangible support. 

It is superficial and largely symbolic, not substantive. 

Committees to advise university leadership on the concerns of the Jewish community on campus can and have been helpful to a degree. But their capacity to bring change is limited because they are intentionally invested with minimal resources and restricted to an advisory role. 

The university continues to refuse to provide Jewish students, faculty and staff with substantial resources and programs of support, despite clearly expressed need.

Had the university cared to adequately fund and support effective efforts to combat anti-Jewish racism and discrimination on campus years ago, it would have likely led to a more positive, safe, inclusive, and respectful environment for Jewish students, faculty, and staff and for the university as a whole. But the university did not prioritize this, and the Jewish community is suffering the consequences of its poor choices and lack of genuinely inclusive vision.

Although there are limits to the capacity of diversity training on any topic – including anti-Jewish racism – to shift beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, Berkeley’s leadership should initiate such training, just as staff are required to take other trainings, to encourage a shift in university culture regarding the rights and welfare of Jewish people. This is urgently needed and long overdue. 

Jewish faculty, staff and students will continue to share their experiences of discrimination and abuse irrespective of the university’s minimizations of our experiences, and the distress this causes us. 

Whether or not the university responds as we begin a new semester, whether they defend our Principles of Community and the university’s civil and human rights legal obligations, remains to be seen.

Noam Schimmel is a Lecturer in Global Studies with an emphasis on human rights at University of California, Berkeley. 

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