In a crisis manufactured by Israel lobby groups and right-wing media, law students at the University of California at Berkeley are being accused of anti-Jewish bigotry because of their public pledge not to host speakers who support Israeli apartheid.
The attacks on the students are being fueled by one of Israel’s top career lobbyists who is also a former Trump administration official.
But in a leaked confidential memo, a major Israel advocacy group has admitted that these anti-Semitism allegations are bogus, as Jewish law students are not facing any bigotry from supporters of Palestinian rights.
And instead of defending students’ free speech rights, the law school’s leadership has been pandering to the campaign of lies.
In August, UC Berkeley’s Law Students for Justice in Palestine drafted a bylaw “in support of Palestinian liberation,” the group stated.
“We sent the bylaw out to dozens of student organizations, among which nine student organizations decided through a democratic voting process to adopt the bylaw,” the group wrote.
“Apartheid is a crime against humanity and as student leaders at Berkeley Law we believe that we have an obligation to act,” the students affirmed.
In addition to not inviting speakers who support Zionism and Israeli apartheid, the bylaw calls for engagement with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.
It also urges that organizations publicly state their positions on anti-racism and anti-colonialism during their events.Since the bylaw went public, Berkeley Law SJP has faced countless threats and attacks from local, national and international Zionist advocacy groups which have attempted to portray the students as calling for a ban on Jews.
The furor picked up steam when Kenneth Marcus, a former Trump administration official and longtime pro-Israel activist, alleged in an article in Jewish Journal that the students were bringing back “Jewish-free zones.”
“Anti-Zionism is flatly anti-Semitic,” Marcus asserted.
Marcus resigned in 2020 as Trump’s top civil rights enforcer at the Department of Education after it was revealed that he gave the Zionist Organization of America special treatment in reopening a complaint against Rutgers University.
Previously, as head of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, an Israel lobby group, Marcus had pioneered the tactic where pro-Israel advocates file complaints to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The complaints typically claim that universities have failed to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.
In 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Marcus to lead the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, putting him in a position to adjudicate the very complaints he had helped pro-Israel advocates craft.
After his resignation from the Department of Education, Marcus returned to the Brandeis Center.
The incendiary, bad-faith assertions against UC Berkeley law students are deliberately misleading, Dylan Saba, staff attorney at Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.
“This is the strategy of Kenneth Marcus,” he said.
“His main political objective is to get anti-Zionism codified as anti-Semitism, and he is looking to do that by stirring outrage around a false narrative that Jewish students are under attack on campuses by nefarious Palestine activists,” Saba added.
Leaked memo refutes claims
However, a leaked internal memo from the American Jewish Committee shows that the lobby group may be growing weary of Marcus’ reckless tactics.
AJC, one of dozens of pro-Israel groups that had initially supported Marcus’ claim of “Jewish-free zones,” has now acknowledged that it is bogus.
In a private memo leaked to Jewish Currents and published on Friday, Sara Coodin, AJC’s director of academic affairs, conceded that Marcus’ “central claim was inflammatory, resulting in a distorted picture of both this incident and the overall climate for Jewish students on campus.”
The memo is marked “confidential,” an indication that AJC has been happy to allow false allegations to continue circulating even when it knew them to be unfounded.
The lobby group also admits that it was “a strategic move” by Students for Justice in Palestine “to alter the existing charter of student groups’ bylaws,” and acknowledges that it was a “compelling and effective strategy, one that may well represent a blueprint for SJP’s future interventions on other campuses.”
A Jewish student at Berkeley, who was previously an AJC fellow, had “shared his informed opinion about this situation,” Coodin’s memo states.
According to the memo, the student had reported “that the passage of these bylaws caused a good amount of healthy debate amongst students when the news first broke a month ago but has since dissipated.”
“He stated that Jewish students’ experience on campus ‘hasn’t really changed’ because of this situation,” Coodin adds.
But the attacks have only escalated.
One of the many Israel lobby groups maligning Berkeley Law SJP and other student groups is Accuracy in Media.
Adam Guillette, CEO of Accuracy in Media, was previously a vice-president of Project Veritas, a right-wing organization that has been a major player in undermining progressive organizations, Planned Parenthood clinics and teachers unions.
Last month a federal jury in a civil case found Project Veritas had violated wiretapping laws and committed fraud, although they portray themselves as citizen journalists.
This week, Guillette’s Accuracy in Media funded a mobile billboard to drive around downtown Berkeley, depicting a photo of a sieg-heiling Adolf Hitler with the words “All in favor of banning Jews, raise your right hand.”One Twitter user suggested that Accuracy in Media put the photos of student leaders on the billboard “and wander around the city. Let them feel uncomfortable a bit.”
The Twitter user added that exposing their names might deter “prestigious firms” from hiring the students – an intimidation and revenge tactic used by blacklist sites such as Canary Mission.
“We’re considering that, in fact,” Guillette responded to the suggestions.
Israeli government propagandists
JewBelong, another group masquerading as a civil rights organization, also spent money on a billboard truck to drive around the Berkeley campus area.
It also suggested that student activism for Palestinian rights was somehow comparable to Hitler’s murder of millions of Jews – a breathtaking trivialization of the Nazi genocide.JewBelong has a history of targeting Palestinian social media users, occasionally offering cash prizes to those who participate in such harassment.
The Israel on Campus Coalition has worked secretly with the Israeli government to spy on and smear campus supporters of Palestinian rights.
Gottesman is a strange choice for an organization that purports to be concerned about genocide. “Gaza is full of monsters,” she tweeted in 2018. “Time to burn the whole place.”
She is currently on the board of Democratic Majority for Israel, a group that lobbies within the Democratic Party.
Yuval David, a JewBelong advisory board member, is affiliated with the Jewish National Fund and the far-right Israel lobby group StandWithUs, both groups that work against Palestinian rights.
David is joined on the advisory board by Hen Mazzig, a former Israeli soldier who according to an investigation by The Forward secretly worked with the Israeli government to promote its propaganda efforts on American campuses.
Israeli actor Noa Tishby, another advisory board member, is also a government propagandist, having earlier this year been named as the Israeli foreign ministry’s “special envoy to combat anti-Semitism and delegitimization” of Israel.
She appears to have been deployed to the Berkeley campus in that capacity to boost the Israel lobby smear campaign.She was seen on Thursday mingling with members of campus pro-Israel group Tikvah: The Zionist Voice.
Members of Tikvah sued the university’s governing body in 2011, and even filed a Kenneth Marcus-style complaint with the US Department of Education.
The plaintiffs failed to produce any evidence to support their claims of anti-Semitism and the lawsuit and federal complaint were tossed out.
Celebrities promote lies
Meanwhile, celebrities and lawmakers outside Berkeley are also fueling the manufactured anti-Semitism claims against Berkeley students.
First-term member of Congress Ritchie Torres, a New York Democrat who has received huge donations from pro-Israel donors, falsely asserted that “most of the Jewish community” would be “banned” under the bylaw.
Torres was using an anti-Semitic talking point promoted by Israel lobby groups that Jews are monolithically supporters of Israel.And a New York state lawmaker said he wants to strip UC Berkeley of its federal funding if elected to congress.
Actor and comedian Sarah Silverman also promoted the false “Jew-banning” claim, but was quickly corrected by Twitter users.Last but not least, entertainment icon Barbra Streisand asserted that anti-Zionism can “bleed” into anti-Semitism.
Jewish students hit back
As in the past, UC Berkeley officials have sided with Israel lobby groups instead of protecting their students.
Law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky admonished the students for taking anti-racist positions in support of Palestinian rights.
In an email to student leaders, he asserted that the bylaw could be considered by some in the Jewish community to be anti-Semitic.
Berkeley Law SJP said that in response to the dean, anti-Zionist law students wrote a statement in support of the bylaw, rejecting the implication that Jewish safety is threatened by calls for Palestinian liberation.
Law school dean Chemerinsky, who said he supports Israel and opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights, wrote in the The Daily Beast that there was no “Jew-free zone” on campus and that Israel supporters and Israeli officials are still welcome.
“Most importantly, no group has violated the Law School’s policy and excluded a speaker on account of being Jewish or holding particular views about Israel,” Chemerinsky wrote. “Such conduct, of course, would be subject to sanctions.”
Excluding a speaker because of their religion – something no campus group has proposed or supported as Chemerinsky affirms – would clearly be discriminatory. But the idea that students could be punished for refusing to host someone “holding particular views about Israel” is alarming.
Berkeley, as a public university, is bound by the US Constitution’s First Amendment: The government can neither forbid nor compel political speech.
That means precisely that student groups are free to invite or not invite speakers based on their views. A pro-Israel campus group cannot be compelled to invite a speaker critical of Israeli apartheid, and advocates of Palestinian rights cannot be required to host an apologist for the Israeli government’s crimes against Palestinians.
Chemerinsky’s blurring of the meaning of discrimination suggests further infringements of free speech rights to come.
Failure to protect students
Palestine Legal’s Dylan Saba told The Electronic Intifada that he was disappointed in the dean’s response.
“It reflects his own personal political commitments,” Saba said. “It’s very clearly getting in the way of his responsibility to protect his students, especially those who take political positions that may run contrary to established positions in the US and at the law school.”
University administrators, Saba said, should be working “to the extent they can to protect their students who are being targeted and doxxed by very powerful people who disagree with their politics.”
Saba said that if university officials do take punitive measures against Berkeley law students, “which I don’t think they will, someone should sue them.”
Saba added that it is telling that no one in power seems to be that concerned that Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization, has adopted its own bylaws around support for Israel.
Hillel’s rules prevent its members from hosting or even co-hosting events with anti-Zionist speakers, or speakers – including presumably Jewish speakers – who support the BDS movement.
“Hillel pretends to be the center for Jewish life on campus and not a political organization,” Saba said.
Its rules clearly restrict the participation of the many Jewish students who support BDS or identify as anti-Zionist.
Hillel is “a Zionist organization that holds these commitments in their charter without backlash and furor from university administrators,” Saba noted.
And of course no Israel lobby groups have accused Hillel of setting up “Jewish-free zones.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.