Fight over liberal Jewish dean revives old complaints

tom tugend | jta

los angeles | The roller-coaster saga of the hiring, firing and rehiring of a prominent liberal legal scholar has further strained relations between the Jewish community and the leadership of U.C. Irvine.

Erwin Chemerinsky, 53, signed a contract Sept. 4 to be the dean of the new law school at U.C. Irvine, which is set to open in 2009. Just a week later, he was fired by Michael Drake, the university’s chancellor.

The firing sparked a bitter debate over academic freedom and emotional protests by faculty, students, lawyers and editorial writers, many of whom claimed that Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, was the victim of a political witch hunt conducted by conservatives.

On Monday, Sept. 17, the school backed down, announcing that the deal was back on after clearing up “several areas of miscommunication.”

The controversy is reviving old questions about Irvine’s handling of Jewish- and Israeli-related issues.

Drake, 57, is a prominent African American medical scientist, who became the school’s chancellor in 2005. His tenure has seen strained relations with parts of the Jewish community in Orange County that claim Drake has not responded effectively to the harassment of Jewish students by Muslim campus groups. These groups have sponsored outside speakers, who, critics allege, virulently espouse anti-Israel and anti-Semitic viewpoints.

Drake recently spoke out publicly and forcefully against the British boycott of Israeli universities, terming it “misguided, outrageous and wrong.”

In a Los Angeles Times opinion essay, Drake described the dismissal of Chemerinsky, a Duke University professor who taught for 21 years at the University of Southern California, as a “management decision” that was not politically driven. But speculation has been rampant that Drake caved in to pressure from donors and others in traditionally conservative Orange County who were against appointing an outspoken liberal as dean.

Chemerinsky was raised in what he called a “fairly traditional” Jewish family on Chicago’s South Side and once served as president of a Reform synagogue day school.

He helped found the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance and represented the family of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old activist killed trying to prevent the Israeli demolition of a Palestinian home in 2003. In July, he appealed to a federal appeals court panel to reinstate the family’s lawsuit against Caterpillar Inc., arguing the company knew, or should have known, the bulldozers it sold to Israel would be used to cause bodily harm.

At least one conservative Republican, Los Angeles County supervisor Michael Antonovich, pushed for Chemerinsky’s firing. Antonovich sent a letter to two dozen people, including regents of the University of California system, urging them to prevent the appointment.

Antonovich and Chemerinsky had clashed in previous public hearings over the removal of a cross in the Los Angeles County seal, with the law professor in favor and the supervisor bitterly opposed.

The emotions of the controversy were strongly reflected in the Jewish community, where Chemerinsky counts many friends and admirers.

Two of them, the high-powered lawyer couple of Douglas Mirell and Laurie Levenson, circulated an open letter to the University of California regents requesting a public meeting to reconsider Drake’s “reckless decision” and reinstate Chemerinsky’s appointment.

Besides violating fundamental academic standards, the letter declared, Drake’s reversal violated the California constitution’s provision to keep the university “entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence.”

Mirell, a well-known constitutional lawyer and first vice president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, termed Drake’s action “a horribly tragic blunder from which U.C. Irvine may not be able to recover.”

He and his wife are longtime colleagues and friends of Chemerinsky, and plan to attend his son’s bar mitzvah in North Carolina next month, Mirell said in a phone interview. Mirell said he had no reason to believe “that Chemerinsky’s Jewishness played any role in the controversy,” but his wife wasn’t as sure.

“I don’t know if the Jewish aspect had anything to do with the case, but it is absolutely possible,” said Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, former federal prosecutor and media commentator. “We may not find out until we know who were the conservatives who did Erwin in.”

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent