Paula Kabalo, a visiting professor at UC Berkeley's Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies teaching a seminar.
Paula Kabalo, a visiting professor at UC Berkeley's Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies teaching a seminar.

Silencing voices on Israel at Berkeley Law disadvantages all students

Several articles and op-eds in the domestic and international Jewish press have addressed the controversy at Berkeley Law regarding the adoption, by certain student organizations, of bylaws attempting to limit the free speech of speakers perceived to be Zionist.

None of these pieces has attempted to justify these wrong-headed bylaws; on the contrary, they have assailed them for what they are: disgusting, discriminatory and exclusionary.

However, certain articles have sought to put this incident into perspective, pointing out the ways the Jewish press has amplified what were otherwise marginal voices by giving them a mouthpiece in the wider press — perhaps causing greater harm to Jewish students in the process.

So, too, several writers affiliated with UC Berkeley have sought to correct the record by providing details of what has been happening over the past decade to make Berkeley Law and UC Berkeley an inclusive and welcoming space for Jewish students and an open place of education, engagement and empowerment for all students.

UC Berkeley has a thriving Hillel, a Center for Jewish Studies, the Antisemitism Education Initiative, the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies (of which I am the executive director) and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. It also has a Chabad house.

Possibly no other university boasts such a wealth of resources for Jewish life and for Jewish and Israel studies. These resources include cultural and religious resources for exploring and expressing Judaism and Jewish identities, a robust academic curriculum in Israel and Jewish studies, impressive scholarship, an annual calendar of academic programs, a rich collection of Jewish art and material culture and ongoing training on antisemitism for students, faculty and staff.

The Helen Diller Institute alone is sponsoring 20 courses in Israel studies this academic year; over the past decade, the Institute has brought 50 Israeli visiting professors and offered more than 150 courses in 20 different departments. To accomplish this, the Helen Diller Institute has forged partnerships across the campus, both institutionally and interpersonally; Berkeley’s greatest resources for supporting Jewish and Israel studies and Jewish life on campus are in fact its human resources.

Students enjoying a UC Berkeley Hillel event in 2019. (Photo/File)
Students enjoying a UC Berkeley Hillel event in 2019. (Photo/File)

If anything, I would argue for greater visibility for the network of institutions and people supporting this rich tapestry of academic, cultural and religious life, so that those on campus and in the community know these resources exist and use them more fully.

I understand that nothing can take away the hurt experienced by Jewish students at Berkeley Law and on the UC Berkeley campus each time another incident of antisemitism occurs. To Jewish students, it may ring hollow when we focus our energies on correcting the record rather than on rectifying the real harm they feel.

In reality, we have to do better at addressing both the distortions in the media (note the recent stunt of trucks driving around campus with images of Hitler and the Holocaust, playing on our worst fears) and the palpable sense of exclusion and hate students feel day to day.

Jewish students are being asked the impossible — to check part of their identity at the door when they participate in student groups reflecting a different aspect of their interests and affinities. Many are instead opting not to join, acting on the exclusion they already feel.

I am concerned about something else as well: the chilling effect that attempts to silence voices on Israel has for all students. Here at the top public university in the country, our constituency is broader than Jews. The students enrolled in the classes offered in Israel studies mirror the diverse demography of the university.

When the Helen Diller Institute partnered with the Study Abroad Office to send students to Israel on the Global Internship Program, those students came from diverse backgrounds and academic majors, eager to immerse themselves in Israeli society; study Hebrew; learn about the country, its history, politics and communities; and work toward social change in a wide array of internships. Widespread student access to Israel as a subject of rigorous academic exploration and as a place for experiential learning drives our academic mission.

Attempts to stop speakers from expressing views on Israel are meant to deter any student who wants to take a class on Israel, study Israel, write about Israel or travel to Israel. They aim to silence critical inquiry in general. Without open access to all ideas and viewpoints, a university can no longer call itself a center of higher education. We must not let this happen either at Berkeley Law or on the UC Berkeley campus.

Rebecca Golbert
Rebecca Golbert

Rebecca Golbert is the executive director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley.