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Opinions | U.C. Berkeley chancellor responds to concerns about Jewish student safety on campus

In the wake of an Oct. 15 demonstration on the U.C. Berkeley campus organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, my office received a lengthy letter from the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, and the director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, Susan Tuchman. (See www.tinyurl.com/ZOA-letter-2015.) They reported allegations of a physical confrontation involving a Jewish student, shared their belief that the First Amendment did not protect the rhetoric used at the demonstration and expressed concerns about our campus climate.

Because of our deep and abiding commitment to the well-being of our students, and the importance we assign to fostering and sustaining a mutually respectful and rewarding relationship with the Bay Area’s Jewish community, this response is intended to add context and background to J.’s coverage of the events in question. (See www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-ZOA-Cal-2015.)

Dear Mr. Klein and Ms. Tuchman: We appreciate and share your concern for the well-being of Berkeley’s Jewish students. As chancellor, I have made it very clear on multiple occasions that among my many responsibilities, nothing comes before the security of our students. I can assure you that we have been and will continue to be unrelenting in our efforts to ensure that every student on this campus feels safe, respected and welcome regardless of origins, beliefs or perspectives.

I am therefore particularly disturbed by your description of an incident where the use of physical force is being alleged. I can confirm that our Office of Student Conduct has received a complaint consistent with the incident your letter describes. I also can assure you that we take this matter very seriously. We will pursue an investigation according to our standard procedures, and if the allegations are substantiated we will take appropriate action.

While it is not possible to deter or prevent every single potentially illegal or impermissible act on campus, when we have evidence of bias-motivated violations of law or policy, we respond decisively. For that reason, the campus has a number of resources that provide channels for the confidential reporting of alleged misconduct on the part of students, staff and faculty. I would urge you to help us ensure that every Berkeley student who observes or is subject to misconduct knows they have someone to turn to, and that we want and need to hear from them.

One of the reasons your report about the alleged physical confrontation stands out is that it represents what would be a rare and isolated case of violence. I believe the infrequency of such incidents is no accident. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy engaging with and monitoring student groups, informing them about acceptable behavior and the consequences when rules are violated, and educating them about the distinction between constitutionally protected expression and unlawful conduct.

In short, we are both proactive and quick to respond when lines get crossed. This is one reason, I believe, that our data indicate the vast majority of Jewish students at Berkeley believe our campus environment offers exactly what your letter says they deserve: a place that is, as you wrote, “psychologically safe and conducive to learning.”

In response to a recent campus climate survey that sought to measure levels of comfort by religious affinity, 75 percent of our Jewish students said they felt “very comfortable” or “comfortable” at Berkeley. This number is essentially identical to the campus average of 76 percent, and 2 points higher than comfort levels reported by students with a Christian affiliation.

However, we believe we can do better still, not just for Jewish students but for all of our students. That is but one of the reasons we have formed the committee on Jewish student life that your letter acknowledges and applauds. I look forward to working with students, faculty, staff and leading members of the Bay Area’s Jewish community who are joining us in this important effort.

 

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in U.C. Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza on Oct. 14 photo/courtesy standwithus

And, as you already know, we have a large number of other programs and projects that seek to foster and sustain a campus climate where equity and inclusion are fundamental values. In your letter you refer to unfortunate incidents that occurred in 2010 and were later part of a civil suit that was brought against the university — litigation that contested the extent to which another SJP demonstration was protected speech. Upon dismissing the case on First Amendment grounds, the federal judge also specifically cited how university administrators had “engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the opposing parties in an attempt to ensure that the rights of all persons are respected, and to minimize the potential for violence and unsafe conditions.”

 

I want to assure you that those efforts continue. We require every new student to participate in a program designed to foster civility, tolerance and respect. Beyond that, our dean of students proactively reached out to every one of our student groups with any connection to the Middle East and invited them to meet with him individually.

Yet, we are undeterred. In the wake of this recent demonstration, I instructed my chief of staff, the dean of students and our vice chancellor of equity and inclusion to try once again to engage these students in a discussion about principles of engagement and the extent to which certain tactics and language choices, while constitutionally protected, may not be conducive to building the sort of campus community I believe we would all like to see.

Please allow me to be clear about something else: It is not the university that “allows” the sort of demonstrations you condemn. Rather, it is the Supreme Court that has made it amply and repeatedly clear that, like it or not, this sort of speech and expression is protected by our Constitution. The fact that this public university must respect and defend free speech must not be mistaken for an endorsement of the ideologies, perspectives and strategies espoused and supported by the dozens of groups that every year hold demonstrations on this campus. As a public institution, U.C. Berkeley may not prohibit or punish speech based on its content, even content that is highly offensive, hateful or bigoted or that advocates violence as an acceptable form of political action. Courts have repeatedly and consistently stricken attempts by public universities to regulate offensive and racist student speech that violate these principles. The university therefore does not review or approve the message or content of student demonstrations, and university “approval” of a group’s planned activity means only that the group has agreed to comply with content-neutral regulations.

At the same time, I understand that constitutionally protected speech may be disturbing and insulting to Jewish students — yet another reason that the engagement and educational efforts I have described above are so important. I also want to state, unequivocally, that we have and will continue to condemn anti-Semitism, although I agree with you when you state that “not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.” As I’m sure you are aware, the regents of the University of California, the governing body of the system, are still discussing how or if the university will adopt a formal definition of anti-Semitism. As U.C. Berkeley’s chancellor, I must await the outcome of those discussions.

Finally, I want to be sure you know that this campus takes great pride in its vibrant Hillel chapter, the broad range of other Jewish student groups, the Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Studies at the Berkeley law school, our Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and our world-class Center for Jewish Studies. I am pleased to report that the center is expanding the breadth and depth of Jewish studies scholarship at Berkeley while connecting more students to the wealth of Jewish studies resources across the campus, and enriching the university’s engagement with the Jewish community in the Bay Area and beyond.

Nicholas B. Dirks is chancellor of U.C. Berkeley. (Photo of Dirks by John Blaustein)