February 28, 2020

Jewish Progress Taking Place at UC Berkeley

Some of UC Berkeley’s Jewish students face anti-Israel portesters in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Tikvah: Students for Israel

When I tell Americans about my youth in Israel, many ask what it was like riding a camel to school. When I tell members of the L.A. Jewish community about teaching classes on Israel on the UC Berkeley campus, they often ask what it’s like “dealing with all the Israel haters.”

Both these views are out of touch with reality. SUVs have long since scared off the camels that once roamed the streets of Tel Aviv (there weren’t many of them in the first place). Jewish students who have taken back their campus have long since drowned out the anti-Israel voices in Berkeley. Berkeley now is a place where they and their peers who are passionate about Israel studies and Jewish studies can hold their heads high.

If you are a Jewish student on the Berkeley campus, you might start your day with a morning class on Jewish mysticism, the Holocaust or translating the Bible at the Center for Jewish Studies. Your next class might be on the causes and future of the Arab-Israeli conflict, taught by Berkeley’s Professor of Israel Studies (me), a class on social protests in Israel or a seminar on the history of Tel-Aviv. Next, you could lunch in the only kosher dining hall at any West Coast university. Then, it’s off to Berkeley’s Jewish museum, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, to conduct archival research on 18th-century ketubahs or the marvelous Vishniac collection of photographs from the shtetl.

In the late afternoon, attend a meeting with your student group at Berkeley’s Hillel to plan an event, volunteer or organize the next trip to Israel. In the evening, go to a public event at the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, where an Israeli journalist might argue with an Israeli political scientist about the upcoming elections.

This is what Israel scholarship and Jewish life is like on the Berkeley campus in January 2020.

Since many of our Berkeley students originally are from L.A., it is time for Southern California to discard its misconceptions about camels and myths about Berkeley. It’s time to celebrate good news for a change: There is an Israel studies miracle taking place at one of the greatest public universities — and it’s happening now.

For nine years, Berkeley has been home to the most ambitious Israel Studies program in the United States: the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Every year, the Institute invites half a dozen top-tier professors from Israel to teach classes about Israel across the campus. They reach hundreds of students every semester, teaching topics as diverse as Israeli high-tech, poetry, constitutional law and party politics.

This Israel Studies program is accompanied by a second institution, a center for Jewish studies, located halfway across campus. There, top scholars work with graduate students to study Jewish history, scripture and literature. At another end of campus sits the Magnes. No other university in the country has a Jewish museum. Berkeley boasts the third-largest collection of Jewish artifacts in any museum in the United States. As of last April, UC Berkeley is one of a dozen universities in the country with a permanent faculty position dedicated to studying Israel: the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies.

Life has not always been easy on our campus for students who wanted to study Israel, or who wanted to learn about their Jewish connections to Israel. 

There is no boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on the Berkeley campus; there has not been one there for seven years, at which time it failed. There is no “Apartheid Week” and no “Apartheid Wall.” Anti-Israel protests can be healthy and should be welcome on any campus. However, the Berkeley campus has not seen a public protest since October 2016. An image from that day, more than three years ago, speaks louder than words: 10 anti-Israel protesters face an arc of 30 Jewish students, representing three Jewish groups that are not on easy speaking terms with one another. In their hands are large Israeli flags and a poster inscribed “Zionism: Self-Determination for the Jewish People.” 

Berkeley is home to the country’s only program in Jewish law, thought and identity. The Berkeley Hillel, which recently underwent a $10 million renovation, welcomes 750 students during the High Holidays. More than 100 students celebrate Shabbat at Hillel every Friday night. The nearby Chabad House hosts another 100. Jewish student groups are flourishing: A Jewish law student group; a Jewish business student group; a Jewish a cappella group; a Jewish fraternity; and Jewish political groups representing right, center and left. Of the 20 student senators currently seated in the student council, two are Jewish students.

Every year, Berkeley’s Hillel organizes three student trips to Israel. Law students and business students organize annual trips of their own. The Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies offers summer classes in Israel that Berkeley students can take for course credit, as well as summer internships in Israel. Students who excel in my classes on the Middle East conflict will join me on annual study trips to Israel, starting in winter 2021.

The positive reality of Israel studies on the Berkeley campus raises two questions: How did this miracle come about? How have you not heard about it before?

Taking back the campus

Life has not always been easy on our campus for students who wanted to study Israel, or who wanted to learn about their Jewish connections to Israel. When I first arrived in Berkeley in 2004, two BDS attempts occurred in quick succession. The campus promptly rejected both. A bold public statement, signed by all 10 University of California chancellors in 2010, condemned BDS as “a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students.”

But accompanied (as they usually are) with vitriol and bigotry, these failed BDS efforts angered Jewish and Israeli students. That frustration was not directed just at the activists who had tried to bring hatred onto the campus: It was directed at us, the faculty, which had chosen to remain aloof. Our students shamed us. “Where were you,” they asked, “when we confronted lies and misinformation?” The students didn’t ask that we take sides in political debates on campus. What they demanded was knowledge and engagement. Where were the classes about Israel? Where were the challenging but nuanced opportunities to learn about the conflict in the Middle East? Where could they engage with their own Jewish identities, history, religion and culture?

UC Berkeley faculty rose to the challenge. As so often has been the case in Jewish history, threat and harassment provoked Jews to awaken and take action. Led by Kenneth Bamberger, a professor of law, we united to reform and establish Jewish and Israeli learning on our campus. We began with the founding of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies in 2011, headed by Bamberger and me. Twenty-five Berkeley faculty members sit on its academic board, and 20 undergraduates work closely with visitors from Israel and professors from Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, Haifa, IDC Herzliya and Ben-Gurion University, among others. They have taught journalism, sociology, art history, gender studies, Middle East studies, law, history, etc.

There is not a corner of the campus in which Berkeley students have not engaged with Israeli society, technology or politics.

“As so often has been the case in Jewish history, threat and harassment provoked Jews to awaken and take action.”

The institute offers dozens of classes, faculty seminars, graduate-student seminars  as well as public events. Guest speakers have included Israeli Supreme Court justices, former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and a one-time Nazi war-crimes prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials. Not once have these talks suffered protests or interruptions. The rooms are crowded with community members and students eager to learn more. Two years ago, our institute hosted the largest annual conference of Israel scholars anywhere in the world: the Association for Israel Studies. Three hundred and fifty Israel scholars converged on the Berkeley campus for a week of panels, lectures and workshops. If there were any BDS activists left on the campus, they surely seethed in silence.

Next, Berkeley acquired the Magnes collection, and the faculty reestablished the Center for Jewish Studies, now headed by professor Benjamin Brinner. It moved into a new space, appointed an executive director and began hiring new faculty, offering more classes than before. None of these efforts would have borne fruit were it not for an administration that recognized the significance of Jewish and Israel studies and encouraged their flourishing.

The Berkeley chancellor established a working group, the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life, headed by the former president of the University of California system, Mark Yudof. Its members include students and faculty, but also community members, and the Berkeley leadership. It is regularly attended by the chancellor, Carol Christ, the greatest supporter of Jewish Studies that our campus has ever known.

No camels here.

I visit L.A. often to tell audiences about Berkeley’s Israel Studies miracle. Many of our Israel Institute’s greatest supporters reside in L.A., as do the parents of many of our students. When I share our accomplishments with Jewish audience members, I encounter a significant amount of incredulity. I suspect that in part, this skepticism stems from an inherent Jewish fear of letting down one’s guard in the face of news that is “too good to be true.” The Jewish media carries its own share of blame: It is quick to “advertise” and dramatize the most feeble anti-Israel and anti-Jewish outbreaks on campuses. Jewish papers are far more subdued when it comes to spreading good news about success and community building. I’m reminded of the old joke about the Jewish telegram: “Bad News, Details to Follow.”

“It’s as easy for a miscreant to spray paint a swastika on the side of a university building as it is for a misguided student to initiate another failed BDS effort.”

This is a shame because it means anti-Israel efforts that fail on U.S. campuses — as most do — are hidden from the public eye, whereas rare cases of “success” (whatever that even means) are sensationalized. In turn, this encourages bigoted activists who contemplate riling up students. If success is cheap and rewarding and failure is invisible, why not attempt BDS for the third or fourth time? BDS spasms continue on campuses around the country despite nearly two decades of abject failure, in part because the Jewish community imagines it might succeed tomorrow.

Anti-Israel activism may well rear its ugly head from time to time. It’s as easy for a miscreant to spray paint a swastika on the side of a university building as it is for a misguided student to initiate another failed BDS effort. We ought to respond to these isolated incidents forcefully, but not provide perpetrators with free PR. We should welcome informed and constructive critiques of Israel. But when anti-Israel bigotry crops up, our instinct as empowered and emancipated Jews should be to throw our full weight into supporting the cause we value most: the education of future generations.

“The Berkeley community has spoken loudly and confidently.”

The Berkeley community has spoken loudly and confidently. Students and faculty have invested their efforts and passions into creating institutions at which Israel and Judaism are studied rigorously, carefully and enthusiastically. That effort would have been inconceivable had it not been for the support of the Berkeley administration and the generosity of the Jewish community of California and beyond. They have given of their time, their ideas and their resources to help us construct this miracle from scratch.

Our efforts have only just begun. In the next five years, we hope to hire five more faculty members to teach Israel and Jewish studies — one new hire every year. We intend to triple the number of graduate students who earn doctorates in Jewish Studies on our campus, and we plan on quadrupling the number of undergraduates who take our classes on Israel. Scholars from Israel will continue to flow to the Berkeley campus. Soon, we hope to offer our undergraduates the possibility of minoring in Israel Studies and in the years that follow, as we grow our faculty, an Israel Studies major. Imagine graduating with a degree in Israel from UC  Berkeley!

The more faculty and classes we offer, the greater the number of students we will attract to Berkeley — not despite Berkeley’s reputation regarding Israel, but because of Berkeley’s reputation as a center of excellence for the study of Israel. Last year, The Forward ranked UC Berkeley as the second-best place in the country for students who wish to engage with Israel.

That’s not good enough for the best public university in the world. We will not rest until we are ranked first. 

UC Berkeley has become a national model for Jewish studies and Israel studies. If that doesn’t match the image of Berkeley in your head, maybe it’s time you came for a visit. Better yet, send your kids.


Ron E. Hassner is the Helen Diller Family Chair of Israel Studies at UC Berkeley.