Chancellor Carol Christ in front of Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo/Courtesy UC Berkeley)
Chancellor Carol Christ in front of Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo/Courtesy UC Berkeley)

Does UC Berkeley have an antisemitism problem? Chancellor Carol Christ weighs in

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Two weeks after a violent protest shut down a UC Berkeley event hosted by pro-Israel Jewish students and forced them to flee for safety, J. received a request from the university for a sit-down interview with Chancellor Carol Christ.

Since Oct. 7, the campus has become an ideological battleground around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more intense than at any time in recent memory. Large demonstrations drawing hundreds wearing kaffiyehs and chanting in support of Palestinians and against Israel have been held with frequency. The same students have orchestrated campus “shutdowns,” walkouts, rallies and teach-ins.

The protests began soon after the Hamas terrorist attack in southern Israel. By Oct. 16, before Israel began its ground war in Gaza, more than 100 pro-Palestinian students were protesting outside UC Berkeley’s iconic Sather Gate, chanting “intifada” and accusing Israel of genocide.

In November, a progressive Oakland city councilor, who is Jewish, was disinvited from speaking about his work on environmental policy because he supports Israel. Meanwhile, UC Berkeley is still dealing with reputational fallout from 2022 after student groups at its prestigious law school pledged not to host speakers who support Zionism.

Led by the anti-Zionist campus group Bears for Palestine and other activists, the post-Oct. 7 protests have called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for the U.S. to stop aiding Israel. They have also insisted that Cal divest from Israel-linked companies and begin an “academic boycott” of the State of Israel — demands the UC system has long rejected.

Some of the protests have turned ugly. At an Oct. 25 “walkout in support of Palestine,” a counterprotester holding an Israeli flag said that two people tried to steal his flag and that one struck him in the head with a metal water bottle. On Feb. 26, demonstrators stormed the theater where an Israeli attorney and reserve military officer was scheduled to speak. The protesters overtook police and caused minor injuries to Jewish students. The demonstration forced the event to shut down and required attendees to flee the theater inconspicuously through an underground hallway.

Over the past month, pro-Palestinian students have held daily demonstrations at Sather Gate, again demanding that the university divest from Israel-linked companies and support an academic boycott.

Some say that the demonstration falls squarely within the parameters of acceptable student protest. Others say protesters have shouted at or filmed Jewish students whom they recognize or they identify by their jewelry, such as a Star of David necklace.

Meanwhile, longtime professor Ron Hassner, who launched a sit-in last week to protest campus antisemitism, remains ensconced in his campus office where he has been eating, sleeping and teaching.

In an hourlong interview on Wednesday, Christ addressed a number of topics, including what went wrong on Feb. 26, whether hate speech is permitted at UC Berkeley, whether shouting “intifada” at Jewish students is permissible according to campus policy and whether antisemitism is a problem on campus.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Note: Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for communications and a board member of UC Berkeley Hillel, was also present for the interview and participated throughout.


GS: You have stated publicly that something went wrong [on Feb. 26], and I’m curious what you think it was that that went wrong? 

CC: You know, it’s really hard for me to put myself in other people’s heads. Because obviously, I don’t know.

I think one of the things that went wrong is — we have a major events policy that takes unusual measures and precautions. The organization sponsoring the event has to ask and has to present a security plan. I can’t remember how long it is before the event. It’s a number of weeks.

But this particular event didn’t fall under that policy because they anticipated having fewer than 50 people there. They can just go in the classroom reservation system and reserve a classroom.

So we didn’t know about the event until 24 hours beforehand. That’s on us. We really have to change our policies and procedures. So when there is an event that doesn’t fall under our major events policy, where I think you anticipate an audience of over 200, that we are alerted to it and can make the appropriate preparations.

So if you had known about it in advance, or it fell under the major events category, would there have been additional police presence there? 

CC: Two things would have happened. First of all, we would have had it in a different venue. We changed the venue of the event just a few hours before the event. And it turned out, in retrospect, not to have been the best venue. It was better than the original one. But it wasn’t the best one, in terms of ability to protect it.

And we would have had time to hire additional security before the event. When an event happens, you can either hire extra security before the event but you need lead time, and quite a bit of lead time, to do that.

I know that police are investigating some of the activity on Feb. 26. But I’m wondering, were there violations of university policy in addition to potential crimes? And if so, what violations of policy are you looking at? 

CC: Well, let me explain that, first of all, that a lot of people don’t understand that these two investigations have to be sequential.

First, the criminal investigation takes place. I have no idea whether the people that allegedly committed criminal violations were students or not. And if they weren’t students, this student conduct process is irrelevant to them.

Also, we never do a student conduct investigation until the police have completed the criminal investigation, because we don’t in any way want to interfere with the criminal investigation. Then, when the police finish their investigation, we look at both who the individuals are who are involved, whether they’re students and whether there’s a violation of our student conduct policies.

Indeed, if the alleged behaviors, in fact, if investigation shows they did happen, those behaviors would have violated our student conduct policies in addition to laws. But those two processes are always sequential. And they’re also confidential.

The Anti-Defamation League and others are calling on the university to take measures against students, after, I suppose, the criminal investigation is complete. To take some kind of disciplinary action, either against students or against Bears for Palestine, the campus group that organized the protest.

CC: The organizations are not under criminal investigation.

That investigation and deliberation about the organizations, and whether any sanction is called for against them, is going on right now.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators block Sather Gate with a sign about Israel and the US committing genocide against Gaza during a “Liberate the Gate” protest against antisemitism at UC Berkeley on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators block UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate with a sign accusing Israel and the U.S. of committing genocide in Gaza, March 11. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Sorry, you said that an investigation about whether any sanctions on the organization are called for is going on? 

CC: Yeah, that’s right. Yes.

We’re in this moment where questions about free speech — people are asking themselves when does it cross the line? I’m actually just curious, broadly speaking, does hate speech violate campus policy in any way? 

CC: It’s actually a complicated question. I’m going to sound like those ladies in front of Congress.

So hate speech in an abstract context is protected by free speech. I could say something like, you know, in the context of a dinner party at my house, I could say, ‘I hate the Chinese.’ And that would be protected if there weren’t individual Chinese people there that were threatened by that speech.

If my speech creates a harmful atmosphere that detracts from the educational benefits that a student might receive — if I said that very same thing, ‘I hate the Chinese,’ in a classroom in which they were Chinese students — that would not be protected. And I would be subject to discipline.

The thing that determines what is not protected is if it is understood as a threat to the people hearing the speech.

So it would have to be understood as a threat? Let’s say for example, someone posts on Snapchat, you know, something overtly Islamophobic. Calling Muslim people terrorists, and 300 people see it. Would that violate campus policy?

CC: No, it would be protected free speech. We’ve actually had instances of that. And the only thing we can do is if a person makes a comment like that, on a website, for example, that attaches itself to the University of California, they can’t do that. But if they’re using some sort of vehicle in the marketplace like Snapchat, they can say an alarming range of really abhorrent things that is protected speech.

Well, let me ask you, and this is not a hypothetical. There were groups of protesters at the Feb. 26 [protest] chanting, “intifada, intifada,” essentially at Jewish students who were attending the event. Would that violate school policy? 

CC: I don’t think so.

Despite “intifada” referring to “uprising” and associated with a series of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings and so on so forth?

Dan Mogulof: I’ve asked the question myself. And I’ve asked it from none other than [UC Berkeley Law School Dean] Erwin Chemerinsky, who knows a thing or two about the Constitution.

In order for there to be incitement—

Sorry, you wouldn’t think that chanting “intifada” outside of an event would interfere with the education of—

DM: Let me finish.

OK.

DM: In order to cross the line to incitement, it has to create an imminent threat of mob level violence. That chant has been heard around the campus quite often since Oct. 7. And it hasn’t.

As we’ve said before, we’ve had dozens of events without any violence, without any outbreak. We couldn’t go to a court. We would be sued, and we would lose. And I think the last thing we want is for something like that to happen. We don’t want to make martyrs and heroes of people who, who would sue the university.

We’ve told students, if you believe that was harassment or discrimination, you report that to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, and it will be investigated, we promise, and it will be responded to. And we have reports alleging exactly what you just repeated from Feb. 26. And those two are being followed up on.

So you’re admitting that there have been repeated instances of protesters on campus chanting “intifada, intifada” at Jewish students? 

DM: No. Now you’re adding something else.

That’s what they were doing on Feb. 26. They were chanting “intifada.” 

DM: They didn’t see the students. We were standing there. They were surrounding a building.

But still students have made reports, and we’re investigating that. You’re right.

OK.

DM: But there is a difference. Again, there is a difference between the two situations that you’re describing.

This university is not looking for reasons or excuses or loopholes to enable expression to happen that is deeply disconcerting to some of our student body. Not now, not ever. We’re looking to create a campus where every single student can feel safe, respected and welcome. Regardless of who they are and what they believe in.

We have great attorneys. We have an incredible dean of our law school. We are doing everything in our legal power to address the very things you’re asking us about, and the very concerns that have been expressed so clearly by the Jewish community. And the only thing that limits us is the law.

CC: The law for public institutions in the United States is very permissive of speech that we may find abhorrent. And we don’t have tools other than persuasion and emphasis on the values of community to change the speech.

What about the actions of that group on Feb. 26 violated campus policy?

CC: Well, damage to property.

OK, so is it just damage to the window?

CC: No, they also damaged the door and pushed through the door.

The speaker and the audience both had to be evacuated for their own safety. So that violates campus policy, not allowing a speaker to speak. There were claims of physical assaults, as well as directed hate speech at individuals. And so those things all violate campus policy as well as the law.

Chancellor, just sort of a more general question, do you think discussion of antisemitism belongs in the same general category as discussions around anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of bigotry? Does it occupy that same space at Berkeley?

CC: Absolutely. But one of the things that I’ve learned is each of these forms of bigotry is somewhat different, given the context, the historical context of the bigotry. But they absolutely belong, all in the same category.

Berkeley has a division of equity and inclusion, as most universities do. You have Centers for Educational Justice and Community Engagement. The website describes them as a “collaborative of offices and centers that advocate for, build capacity with and dialogue among and across diverse communities.” There’s an office for African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, Chicanx students, an office for gender equity, Native American equity, and something called the multicultural community center. 

Do you think an office for Jewish students, who make up a pretty sizable chunk of Berkeley students, should exist in that matrix?

CC: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. And certainly the office of equity and inclusion, the Division of Equity and Inclusion, understands both Jewish students and Muslim students as part of their charge. They are frequently present at events, frequently talk with those communities. So it’s not as if they don’t think of Jewish students as a distinct ethnic group whose sense of belonging isn’t part of the mission of their office. That’s certainly true.

But they don’t have a particular office that’s connected, connected to the Jewish community. However, there are resources that the Jewish community has. There’s a center for Israel studies, the Center for Jewish Studies. There’s Hillel. So some of the community-building work that these particular programs in equity and inclusion do is carried out by other kinds of units on the Berkeley campus.

Chancellor, do you think that there’s a problem with antisemitism on campus at Berkeley?

CC: Yeah, that’s a hard question to answer.

I think that there are problems with lots of different kinds of prejudices. On the Berkeley campus, I hear from Black students that they feel that they’re victims of prejudice. I hear from Muslim students that they feel they’re victims of prejudice. We live in a world in which there is a lot of prejudice and bigotry. Asian students often talk to me about the prejudice that they feel.

So I don’t think antisemitism is unique in the kind of bigotry that students suffer. What is different about it is this national narrative that’s gotten attached to it. That really complicates the situation in a way that’s quite different from some of our other groups.

So you don’t think there’s a specific problem with antisemitism at Cal that’s unique?

DM: There’s no doubt we’re receiving a lot of reports from students — of just sort of passing in the hallways, things being said to them. I mean, things that we see in society as a whole, yes, we are also seeing on the campus. The campus doesn’t have a wall up between it and society.

Yeah, I wanted to mention that I was reminded of this poll of young people out of Harvard recently. I’m looking at it now. It showed that 67% of respondents ages 18 to 24 agree that Jews as a class are oppressors.

DM: You’re citing data that substantiates your question and our concern. We didn’t launch the Antisemitism Education Initiative last November. We launched it five years ago because this is an institution that recognizes that challenge.

Yeah, perhaps I should have phrased the question differently. Chancellor, I wasn’t saying, is the university responding inadequately to antisemitism. I’m more asking: Is there a problem originating from the students or perhaps from faculty as well that contributes to too much — a special atmosphere of antisemitism at the university? Or is it simply one form of prejudice among many that has been sort of blown out of proportion in the media?

CC: I don’t think either of your two alternatives is right. I think it’s a form of prejudice that has taken a particularly anguished and painful form because of the current conflict in the Middle East.

I think it’s unique, or different from the other kinds of prejudice that I see at Berkeley in that there’s a kind of … what should I say … a political and historical story that those supporting the Palestinian cause often embrace. I think it’s a wrong story. But I think not putting it in its current historical and world context leads you to think of it as simply and merely bigotry. And I don’t think it’s simply and merely bigotry. It’s gotten attached and complicated by very strong political opinions and a very strong political narrative, which you can agree with or not agree with.

But I don’t think it’s a kind of clear issue that is just about antisemitism. I don’t think you can separate it from people’s extraordinarily strong views about what’s going on in the Middle East.

Understood. Even though many students do describe it, experience it, as antisemitism.

CC: Yeah, no. I mean, it’s incredibly, incredibly sad to me. But yes, I agree.

[Let’s discuss] Dan Kalb, the Oakland City Councilmember. Students in an environmental studies class said they didn’t want him in their class to talk about advocacy that he’s done throughout his career because of his support for Israel.

CC: It was absolutely wrong. It was absolutely wrong for the person to be disinvited. We’ve talked to those involved.

DM: Kalb came back. Kalb was invited back to the campus. He spoke on campus. The provost wrote a letter of apology and also wrote a letter to all faculty about the extent to which what had happened was unacceptable.

But you wouldn’t say that the Kalb incident was antisemitic necessarily? I’m just trying to square this — perhaps you would say that there are issues of bias like that, that occur for all sorts of different folks, at different periods of time. I’m just trying to square the claim that there’s not a problem with antisemitism.

DM: Nobody said that.

CC: Nobody said that. And that’s not what — what I’m trying to say is there are problems with prejudice against a number of different ethnically identified groups on the Berkeley campus so it’s not that the Jewish population is unique in being the victims of prejudice. This is regrettable. It’s horrible. We’re working to change it.

However, in the case of the current situation, it’s enormously complicated by what’s happening in the Gaza war and people’s views of the Gaza war. So it is hard to separate, for both sides, antisemitism with criticism of the State of Israel.

DM: I want to add — look, the question is a really good one, and it’s a difficult one.

The students, as wrong as they were, they didn’t cite the councilmember’s religion, ethnicity, nationality. They cited his posts in favor of — I don’t know what it was, I think Israel’s military operation in Gaza?

No, not exactly. He was saying that the conditions in Gaza had deteriorated based on Hamas’ leadership over the past 20 years.

DM: I stand corrected. What I’m saying is their desire, their belief that he should be disinvited, which was egregious, and contrary to the university’s values, was based not on his Jewish identity, but on a position that he took. But there was an overlap, as the chancellor was saying.

That’s fair.

DM: Regardless of how it’s defined, it was unacceptable. Bottom line, unacceptable.

Let’s talk about Ron Hassner briefly. Professor Hassner remains in his office. He says he’s prepared to stay for as long as it takes. He said his daughter’s birthday is in two weeks and he plans to celebrate it from his office. I want to talk about his demands. 

DM: Requests.” Ron would not feel comfortable. He actually did say “requests.”

Man sits on sofa
Ron Hassner in his office at UC Berkeley on March 8, the day after his sit-in started. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

OK, requests. So that he may go and take a shower, he requests that the — what is being called a “blockade” of Sather Gate be taken down. He says not only is it a matter of safety, but that students are identifying Jewish students — whether they’re wearing a Star of David or whether they’ve been active in on-campus pro-Israel activity. And they’re calling them out, and they’re filming them as they walk through and back through the gate. He’s saying this is harassment. 

I would imagine if that were true, that would violate university policy. Can you provide an update on what’s going on with that?

CC: The space in the middle of Sather Gate is often used for protests. As long as you don’t block the gate entirely — which these protesters are not doing, you can freely walk through the gate on other side of the arches — and you don’t attach things to the gate or use amplified sound, you are allowed to protest in front of the gate, which is what has been happening.

Indeed, it would violate university policy if you were to make prejudicial comments or take prejudicial actions against people walking by in any circumstance, whether it’s by the gate or not by the gate. But we depend upon the students to complain and identify the action that they were a victim of.

Let me ask about his request for mandatory Islamophobia and antisemitism training for all staff. What’s the status of that?

CC: We’re talking about it. We have run into trouble in the past when we’ve tried mandatory trainings for many different groups, and it’s hard to get agreement. When you have mandatory training about discrimination of one group, you have a line going out the door for all the other groups that want mandatory trainings. But we’ve decided we need to return to this issue. And so we’re just beginning a conversation about it.

OK. This might be a very easy question, chancellor. 

DM: Oh, no, that would be a change!

I keep seeing activists saying that “Zionists are not welcome at Berkeley.” And I’m wondering: Are Zionists welcome at Berkeley?

CC: Of course Zionists are welcome at Berkeley.

DM:  I was just in the chancellor’s office yesterday, and she didn’t throw me out.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.