Chancellor Carol Christ on the Cal campus. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)
Chancellor Carol Christ on the Cal campus. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)

JCRC to honor UC Berkeley chancellor for ‘courageous leadership’

When the UC Berkeley student newspaper published a cartoon in 2017 widely seen as anti-Semitic, Chancellor Carol Christ — only two months into the job — put out a statement condemning it. But she also sat down with the editorial board to talk about why publishing the cartoon was problematic. She said she did that because young people can change.

“Their positions aren’t formed and hardened,” she said in an interview with J. “And they’re capable of growth and learning.”

Christ, who is being honored this year at the Jewish Community Relations Council’s annual awards gala on March 11, has had more than a few occasions during her tenure to try that approach.

“I think incidents are teaching moments,” she said. “And you try to use them this way.”

The S.F.-based JCRC is presenting Christ with its Courageous Leadership Award, which usually goes to someone outside the Jewish community. Philanthropists Jennifer and Tony Smorgon will receive the Distinguished Leadership Award, and San Francisco café owner Manny Yekutiel the Jewish-Civic Leadership Award. Rita Semel, longtime Jewish interfaith activist, is being given a special lifetime achievement award.

Christ is being recognized for the way she has positively affected campus culture and improved Jewish life on campus, said JCRC spokesman Jeremy Russell. It also highlights the way she’s responded to incidents of conflict and anti-Semitism.

“We’ve seen her response as exemplary in these trying times,” Russell said.

Ethan Katz, a history and Jewish studies professor, said the award is deserved.

“It’s really an opportunity for the community to appreciate the degree to which Cal has moved in a really positive direction in the last few years,” he said.

Christ said she approaches difficult and sensitive matters by stressing to students that there is a balance between free speech and the responsibilities of community members to behave with respect toward each other.

“You try to put the question in front of the community in as many different ways as you can,” she said.

Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, and she’s been willing to take a stand.

She got a chance to do that most recently just a few weeks ago. At a Feb. 3 student government meeting, a Jewish student senator and member of a pro-Israel campus group introduced a resolution objecting to a display of photographs in an office space used by Bears for Palestine (but visible to other students). The display included photos of militants who targeted Israeli and diaspora Jewish civilians. An intense shouting match ensued, which led to complaints of verbal harassment and online threats from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students, despite the efforts of senators to keep things civil.

Christ’s response tried to avoid taking sides and made a plea for civility, issuing a statement to the media that said the incident represented “a difficult challenge that we must acknowledge and continue to confront — the tension between Free Speech and our commitment to creating a campus environment where everyone must feel safe, respected, and welcome. Each side has an equal right to express and have heard their perspective.”

Responding to incidents like these is part of Christ’s job, and is also one of the things the award is recognizing, according to Russell.

“Her responses have been clarion,” he said. “They have been clear and strong, and that’s part of what we’re applauding.”

“Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, and she’s been willing to take a stand,” said law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon. He chairs the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate, established in 2016, and said Christ had been “extremely supportive” of Jewish students, faculty and the committee.

Katz, also a member of the committee, agreed. “There’s no sense of equivocation on important issues, and there’s a very real sense of access,” he said. He added that the chancellor had been very supportive of a new online module that explains anti-Semitism to incoming students and staff who may not understand the complexities of the issue.

Outside of the faculty, staff and students who are deeply involved in tracking campus incidents and the environment around Israel, others are simply going about their day-to-day lives.

Michelle Margolies, a senior majoring in architecture and conservation resource studies, hadn’t heard about the February student senate brouhaha. She also didn’t hear about the chancellor’s committee, although she admitted that she easily could have missed the email.

Margolies, who has participated in organized Jewish events and had a Hillel fellowship, said she hasn’t found it hard to be a Jewish student on campus, nor has she noticed a change in campus climate in the years she’s been a Cal student. “I don’t think I’ve noticed any significant changes,” she said. “I’ve been here since 2015.”

Margolies is focusing on her education. And that’s the kind of freedom and choice that Christ wants for every student.

Christ can’t guarantee that a Jewish student at UC Berkeley will never see anti-Semitism, “just like you can’t promise that in any community,” she said. But can she promise that every Jew at UC Berkeley will be treated with respect by her office?

“Absolutely,” she said.

JCRC Behind the Scenes 2020

5:45 p.m. March 11 at San Francisco War Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave. Tickets start at $180.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.