UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ in 2017. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ in 2017. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)

Outgoing chancellor: Cal won’t divest from Israel, will invest in antisemitism education

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During her final week as UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ sought to set the record straight about the agreement she reached in May with the organizers of a pro-Palestinian tent encampment. 

In a 2½-page letter sent Monday to members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate, Christ stated that the deal, which led to the dismantling of the encampment on Sproul Plaza by mutual agreement, did not “in any way open the door to, or have anything to do with, divestment from entities based on the fact that they do business with or in Israel, or are situated in Israel.” 

She also noted that the campus will not undertake a program-level review of any relationship between UC Berkeley and institutions in Israel. 

“The understanding that the campus reached with the coalition reiterates and confirms existing campus policy concerning protected-class discrimination,” she wrote in the letter, which was shared with J.

The May agreement included Christ’s reference to the “horrific killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians” in the ongoing war in Gaza and a declaration of support for a cease-fire and the release of hostages held by Hamas. She also promised to create a “task force” of students, faculty and staff to create recommendations for an ethical investment strategy to submit to decision-makers. Divestment from Israel is “not permissible,” she added at the time, but recommendations could target weapons manufacturers, as well as companies that contribute to “mass incarceration” and the “surveillance” industries.

Christ, 80, who is retiring after seven years as chancellor and a lifetime career in academia, also agreed that the university would review all complaints about its international programs to make sure they are in line with anti-discrimination policies. Student protesters had demanded Cal cut all ties with Israel, but Christ had said the university would not do that.

By contrast, Christ used the new letter to announce that the university will require antisemitism education for all new students during orientation week, beginning in August. She also announced that in the longer term, Cal will fund an existing program, the Antisemitism Education Initiative, that to date has been self-funded and supported by donors.

“We will, for the first time, invest significant university funding in support of antisemitism education,” Christ wrote in her letter, noting that the funding will be available for at least five years.

The new funding will create more robust and widespread antisemitism education, said Ethan Katz, faculty director of the Center for Jewish Studies.

While Katz does not yet know the precise figures, he told J. that it’s “not a small amount in terms of what it represents for the initiative. And it’s very significant that the university has made the decision to put public dollars behind this.”

Katz will work together with Gregg Drinkwater, head of the Antisemitism Education Initiative, to help develop the antisemitism awareness training for orientation. Incoming student housing advisers and leaders of official student groups will receive a more in-depth version of the training. 

New student orientation, or “Golden Bear Orientation,” traditionally consists of several days of information-packed sessions, as well as pages of resources to give Berkeley students a broad view of university life. 

Katz said it’s always difficult to “squeeze” more programming into an already jam-packed orientation, which is why in recent years, the university has focused on a general training on equity, inclusion and belonging that has included brief examples of discrimination but does not focus on any single marginalized group.

The presence of antisemitism education in the orientation has been meager. Since 2022, students have been provided with a list of resources for further education on forms of group-based hatred or exclusion, including an 11-minute video about antisemitism, produced by the Antisemitism Education Initiative.

Political science professor Ron Hassner, Berkeley’s faculty director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, applauded Christ’s letter.

Hassner gained national attention this spring when he stayed in his office round the clock for two weeks to protest the administration’s tepid response to antisemitism after Oct. 7.

Hassner and Katz, who co-chair the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate, had requested that Christ issue a clarifying statement before her final day on Friday, addressing questions about the mid-May agreement.

“The committee asked the chancellor to please clarify those things in writing, because as far as the media was concerned, the anti-Israel protesters were claiming all sorts of outrageous success,” Hassner told J. “And the reality on the ground is quite different.”

Hassner said requiring antisemitism education for student group leaders and resident advisers was one of the three requests he made of administrators when he began his office sit-in. The new funding is a bonus, he said.

“It’s a big relief,” Hassner said.

Hassner said the university has now followed through with all his requests, which also included university oversight and support to ensure Jewish student safety, and the assurance that speakers who come to campus will not be interrupted or removed — something that happened at a February event with Ran Bar-Yoshafat when anti-Israel protesters violently stormed Zellerbach Playhouse ahead of his speech. 

“What this entire experience has taught me is that you can accomplish a lot more with protests that are reasonable and dignified and constructive than you can with protests that are obnoxious,” Hassner said. 

“Two weeks of quietly sitting in my office, welcoming people for conversations, engaging with people from both sides of the debate, making reasonable requests of the university, rather than trying to, you know, dictate Middle East foreign policy accomplished a good deal in terms of anti-racism and antisemitism education,” he added.

The letter did not satisfy all critics of Cal’s handling of antisemitism on campus this past school year.

Steven Davidoff Solomon, a Cal law professor who co-authored a petition in late May demanding that Christ reverse her agreement with the encampment, considers the letter meaningless. 

“It’s just words,” Solomon told J. “The university is not taking the hard steps to structurally reform itself.”

Solomon said he wished that the letter had been published publicly and had been addressed specifically to the encampment protesters.

“Saying nice things about Jewish students in a private letter does not walk back what she said” to the protesters, said Solomon, former head of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Student Life and Campus Climate and the co-founder of the Antisemitism Education Initiative.

Solomon added that the protests are likely to return to campus when classes resume in late August. He believes the climate for Jewish students won’t improve until the university makes more meaningful changes.

Katz acknowledged Solomon’s concerns, but said the letter is a good start to a much longer and deeper process that’s still needed to support Cal’s Jewish students.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m painting a rosy picture because there are challenges that are not addressed there,” Katz told J. “There’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot that remains to be done.”

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.