Jewish leaders, U.C. chancellor hold meeting to clear the air

Jewish community leaders left a meeting with U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and other school officials last week with a reassuring message: "They understand."

"We had ample opportunities to discuss and share our concerns with the chancellor and other officials, and we walked away feeling that they really get it," said Rabbi Doug Kahn of the early morning Sept. 26 meeting.

The executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council was one of 13 Jewish organizational leaders or rabbis invited by Berdahl for a breakfast gathering with eight other U.C. staff and Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) at his on-campus home.

"They understand our concerns about the environment on campus, and with that concern comes the sense that they are devoting real time, energy and commitment of resources to ensure a safe and intimidation-free environment for all the students on campus, including Jewish students," Kahn said.

Along with Hillel Executive Director Adam Weisberg and Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, Kahn presented Berdahl with a handful of main goals in combating hate and intimidation on campus.

The Jewish delegation stressed the importance of evenhandedly applying university policies, condemning hateful speech even in cases where it must be protected and creating a streamlined grievance process for students.

David Cooper, spiritual leader of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, said he thought the university officials did a good job of clearing up the inner workings of the school while fielding questions and comments from the Jewish leaders.

He felt his congregant, Janet Adelman, who is a professor and English department chair, aptly encapsulated the fine line the university must walk. She mentioned "how we have to be careful to make a distinction between creating an environment where people feel safe but, at the same time, the university is a place where people's ideas and assumptions are challenged," recalled Cooper.

"When we are politically or intellectually challenged, we feel like we're on the hot seat," he said. "Yet, at the same time, we don't want the university to be a place where we appeal to the lowest common denominator and no one is challenged intellectually."

As seriously as he took the Jewish contingent's concerns, Berdahl allowed that he can't be everywhere at all times.

"One thing that is very clear is that I can't assure anyone that people won't be harassed. I can't police every human interaction on Sproul Plaza. Those things happen and they're unfortunate," said Berdahl.

"We've had the same kinds of complaints from the Muslim community, particularly after Sept. 11. They said they were being harassed, and there's a limit to what one could do when people say hurtful things. But, obviously, with a physical threat or an act of violence or vandalism, we must respond and must respond quickly and decisively. I think I need to be more outspoken in condemnation of any act of anti-Semitism or anything directed against any ethnic or religious group on campus. And I intend to do that."

Berdahl was outspoken in his condemnation of the U.C.-wide Israeli divestment movement, which was inaugurated by the U.C. Berkeley chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine.

"I'm very much opposed to it," said Berdahl. "It is intended, I believe, to undermine the capacity of the state of Israel to survive, and I think we are committed to the existence of the state of Israel."

The chancellor stopped short, however, of agreeing with Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who claimed the divestment movement is anti-Semitic in singling out Israel. In Berkeley, Berdahl noted, a divestment petition regarding Burma is also circulating.

"I'm sure some in the divestment movement are motivated by anti-Semitism, but I don't think that's true of everyone. I don't see it as a necessarily anti-Semitic movement but an anti-Israel one. And I oppose it because I think it poses a threat to the survival of Israel."

Berdahl characterized the meeting as highly positive, and said "lines of communication" have opened between his office and the Jewish community. He also maintained that U.C. Berkeley is a safe campus for Jews, and felt "it would be a great disservice to the Jewish students on this campus if, as a result of exaggerated reports or some kind of misrepresentation, Jewish students declined to come to Berkeley."

Kahn also characterized the meeting as positive, but added that the level of its productivity will be measured in how the university handles future disruptions.

"Even while they 'get it' with respect to our concerns, the real proof will be in the actions undertaken at the university," he said. The school must "consistently apply its rules, treat acts of intimidation seriously and find its own voice to condemn hateful and extremist speech."