Students walk by Sather Gate, which is blocked temporarily by pro-Palestinian protesters, at UC Berkeley, April 24, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Students walk by Sather Gate, which is blocked temporarily by pro-Palestinian protesters, at UC Berkeley, April 24, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

How UC Berkeley’s next chancellor can make campus safe for Jews again

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As UC Berkeley welcomes Richard Lyons as its new chancellor, there is a great deal of reparative work to undertake in the areas of equity, safety, inclusion and general welfare of Jewish individuals and the Jewish community at Cal.

Discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization of Jews became normalized at UC Berkeley over this academic year. University leaders have profoundly broken our trust by gaslighting us and repeatedly downplaying our experiences and concerns. A dangerous, abusive culture of anti-Jewish bullying and bigotry has arisen at Cal.

Many faculty, staff and students feel unable to express their Jewish identities without risking hostility and harassment. They hide their Jewish background, practices and affiliation and no longer wear a kippah or Magen David.

Many have faced months of limited freedom of movement on campus, finding themselves subject to acts of harassment, hate, incitement to violence and actual violence in certain areas. Sather Gate and the area in front of Sproul Hall have been home to repeated protests and a tent encampment, the effects of which the university has repeatedly minimized.

We should not have to hold vigils or sleep in our faculty offices, as professor Ron Hassner did for two weeks, to demand equality, safety and freedom from abuse and harassment.

If the university cares about the welfare of Jews, it needs to demonstrate this credibly and consequentially.

As Lyons takes up his new position as chancellor at the start of July, I have some recommendations for him and for UC Berkeley at large.

First, Cal should survey Jewish and Israeli faculty, staff and students about their concerns and experiences and then craft policies and provide resources that respond to them respectfully and adequately.

Cal needs an antisemitism initiative that is sufficiently staffed, financially well-resourced and capable of reaching a university community of more than 45,000 individuals. Current staffing and funding levels are wholly inadequate. The lack of university funding contributes to the rise in unchallenged antisemitism.

Discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization of Jews became normalized at UC Berkeley over this academic year.

Jewish studies at Cal needs greater institutional support with support for increased courses and programming. The Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies receives significant outside funding but none from the university, which impedes its programming capacity and undermines the university’s claim that it supports Israel studies.

The creation of an Israel studies minor is a positive step, but it is not a substantive addition to Israel studies at Cal. There is no new funding, programming or expansion of courses. The new Israel studies minor should be more than an exercise in retitling existing course offerings.

Education and training about anti-Jewish racism should be mandatory for vice chancellors and other university leaders and be incorporated into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming with Jewish consultation and participation.

DEI does not adequately recognize and address anti-Jewish discrimination and has not provided sufficient resources or caring outreach to support our Jewish community. California bill AB 2925 would make teaching about anti-Jewish discrimination a mandatory part of DEI programs. The Board of Regents should adopt this commitment for the UC system.

Lyons must also recognize that anti-Jewish discrimination at Berkeley is intersectional. Some Mizrahi Jews on campus identify with and share Arab culture, ethnicity and heritage. Their identities need to be recognized and respected by the university, not excluded when addressing the Arab community.

Anti-Jewish actions on campus have also led to increased discrimination against other vulnerable groups including disabled individuals, who have had to traverse less accessible routes through certain parts of campus. Protesters’ repeated support for the Hamas massacres, which included extensive sexual violence against women, is an attack on the welfare and safety of all women at Cal.

Though little acknowledged by the university, some Jewish faculty members have chosen to leave Cal because of attacks on their Jewish identity, freedom, expression and welfare. Others  are considering leaving for the same reasons. Many current and potential incoming Jewish students share similar concerns.

The Cal Jewish community holds enormous good will and concern for the rights and welfare of all members of the Cal community, including its Palestinian, Arab and Muslim members.

Please reciprocate it.

Be proactive and preventive rather than reactive and passive when addressing anti-Jewish hate and exclusion. Show humility, empathy and a willingness to engage in institutional self-criticism without resorting to denial and defensiveness.  

Cal’s new leadership needs a break with the past and a transformational change in institutional values and culture that defends and respects Jewish inclusion and belonging.

Noam Schimmel

Noam Schimmel is a lecturer in global studies at UC Berkeley.