UC Berkeley (Photo/file)
UC Berkeley (Photo/file)

At Berkeley Law, Israel is trapped in the identity politics of the progressive left

In August, nine student affinity groups at Berkeley Law amended their bylaws to ban speakers with pro-Zionist views from addressing their organizations. (Five more groups have since joined the effort, according to Jewish Currents, bringing the total to 14.) The original nine included Women of Berkeley Law, the Queer Caucus and the Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association and others.

Negative reactions were immediate and ranged from accusations of antisemitism to suppression of free speech. 

Hostility to Israel from the progressive left (a loose term; I intend to include factions from the center-left to the most “woke” factions on the far left and many of those in between) springs mostly from political ideology and has only a loose connection with antisemitism despite the conventional wisdom that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

If that slogan were true, it should also hold that “antisemitism is anti-Zionism.” But while antisemites on the far right loudly curse “the Jews,” they normally have nothing to say about Israel “the Jewish state.”

Progressive left hostility toward Jewish students on the campus has a closer connection to antisemitism. But it is very indirect: By focusing on Israel as a common enemy, it helps build tribal solidarity within the progressive left.

The progressive left is one tribe in a political jungle. It needs to prove its mettle to neighboring tribes and to also prove to itself that it is strong, unified and embodies sacred tribal values.

Having a common enemy is useful, and Israel is a good one. It affirms the sacred ideological beliefs of the tribe, demonstrates the presence of common enemies, provides a means of virtue signaling and feeds the store of legends recounted around the campfire.

Like any tribe, the progressive left needs to worry about loyalty. Tribes have their initiation rituals, for instance, which typically entail undergoing physical and mental hardships. These test loyalty but also help build it. The progressive left version of this loyalty affirmation process centrally involves expressions of opposition toward Israel.

In most tribal initiation rituals, nearly everybody passes, though quality of candidate performance gets judged and influences the assignment of tribal status. Political loyalty tests, however, do not envision universal success.

The loyalty test of the progressive left is not forgiving. This can be very painful. As one law student and board member of the Jewish Students Association said during a public meeting, “They make Jewish students choose to either be OK denouncing an important part of who they are to be part of an organization, or to quietly exclude themselves.”

That is the whole point, of course. Jewish students who don’t pass the loyalty test are not wanted by the progressive left coalition in the first place, and those who do pass are expected to be signing on with increased loyalty to the coalition.

If a passing grade is achieved only by trashing Israel, many Jews will fail or, more likely, be reluctant to show up in the first place. Naturally, they suffer psychic distress. Progressive left leaders surely know this but don’t much care. As the stereotype goes, “The Jews are influential and rich and know how to look after themselves.”

This stereotype, while mainly reflecting radical egalitarianism, almost surely owes something to the history of antisemitism, particularly of the “passive” version. This passive version entails readiness to tolerate bad treatment of Jews and of Israel that would not pass scrutiny were it to befall other victims. It differs from the “aggressive” version of antisemitism, seen most clearly in Nazism and in the “Protocols,” which takes intentional aim at Jews, both actual and mythical, for religious or ethnic reasons.

Some examples of the passive version on the progressive left are discrimination against Jewish job candidates, delegitimation of Israel as a sovereign state and willfully overlooking the distress of Jewish peers within the coalition — both on campus and in the community.

If the antisemitism of the progressive left is passive and indirect, and is overshadowed by the coalition’s identity politics, should its anti-Zionism be attacked for being lukewarm antisemitism?

I doubt it, certainly not if it entails risks of being accused of Jewish hysteria and paranoia.

One largely untried approach could focus attention on the ugliness of loyalty tests in general and not just the one centered around Israel. Loyalty tests are illiberal, fallacious and often hijacked by demagogues, fanatics and bureaucrats with a stake in exaggerating evils and dangers. The words “McCarthy” and “Lubyanka” come to mind. University administrators and faculty cannot afford to say words such as these, but others have more latitude.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Eugene Bardach
Eugene Bardach

Eugene Bardach is professor emeritus of public policy at UC Berkeley.