Dec. 2018 reopening of the remodeled UC Berkeley Hillel building. (From file)
Dec. 2018 reopening of the remodeled UC Berkeley Hillel building. (From file)

Despite Israel tension, a strong support system for Jews at UC Berkeley

When things heat up between Israelis and Palestinians, tensions tend also to rise here in the Bay Area. This happened recently at UC Berkeley with a highly offensive display glorifying terrorists and subsequent tumultuous Associated Students of the University of California meetings. It feels like we play out the conflict 15,000 miles away — without the actual existential danger, but with great passion and rancor.

On campuses across the country, we’ve witnessed pro-Israel speakers disrupted, students called racists for supporting the concept of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel, moral equivalency used to compare the IDF to terrorists and the word “Zionist” thrown at us as an epithet. Most pro-Israel students take the high road in their advocacy efforts in response, even as these virulent anti-Israel actions increase their sense of vulnerability. And Jewish students, and the community, have every right to feel upset that these hateful acts continue.

In 2013, when BDS challenges on college campuses were on the rise, a bill calling on UC Berkeley to divest from Israel passed the student senate. Even though the University of California was clear it wouldn’t actually implement divestment, this was a difficult time. Fast-forward to 2020, we still encounter flare-ups and rising tensions, but today there is vibrant Jewish student life on campus and a robust support system to manage these challenges.

The good news is a lot has changed at UC Berkeley since 2013. As UC Berkeley political science professor Ron Hassner wrote in his recent Los Angeles Jewish Journal article about Jewish student life on campus, “Berkeley now is a place where they and their peers who are passionate about Israel studies and Jewish studies can hold their heads high.” Today, there are robust programs in Jewish and Israel studies, including the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. The transformation is remarkable and continuing.

Berkeley now is a place where they and their peers who are passionate about Israel studies and Jewish studies can hold their heads high.

There is also a strong and vibrant Hillel, which has a multitude of programs for Jewish students and is more active than ever, as well as Chabad, a kosher dining facility, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and active pro-Israel student groups.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ has stated she is “committed to finding ways to build, not damage and destroy, the ties that can and should bind us together as a campus community and create a true sense of belonging for all.” A Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate, composed of students, faculty, staff and Jewish community representatives, was formed several years ago to improve life on campus for Jewish students; I am privileged to serve on the committee and the chancellor is deeply committed to its work.

In a public letter on Feb. 18, the chancellor wrote: “I want all to understand that while the campus acknowledges and understands that students have a constitutionally protected right to display the posters in question, using a campus location to honor those who killed unarmed Jewish civilians and/or bombed, or planned to bomb places frequented by unarmed Jewish civilians, is an affront to our Principles of Community.” She added, “I will in the future, as I have in past, speak out loudly and clearly in condemnation of antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, and other hateful ideologies and perspectives that target people based on their identity, origins or beliefs.” She also states that the Golden Bear Orientation for incoming students will use effective ways to provide information about anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness and other problematic ideologies. Chancellor Christ has pledged to work to help ASUC to better manage meetings that cover controversial topics and to address the safety concerns of the diverse student body.

We at the Jewish Community Relations Council have been in close contact with Hillel and the UC Berkeley administration. Challenges remain, and we must be vigilant and continue to support the Jewish campus community when they seek our help in resisting efforts to delegitimize Israel and in building a positive alternative narrative. We are confident that the UC Berkeley campus community will meet those challenges in a forward-thinking and positive way. There will likely be more flare-ups, but today there is a strong support network for Jewish students and a chancellor who has demonstrated true leadership. And that reality should not be lost in the current moment.

Karen Stiller
Karen Stiller

Karen Stiller is the director of the Middle East Project at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council.