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Semester of Discontent

As campuses across the country made headlines, Berkeley managed to stay out of them. Mostly.

May 31, 2024
by Pat Joseph
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCUS HANSCHEN

Like campuses across the country, from Columbia to UCLA, the University of Chicago to UT Austin, Berkeley also had a sizable tent encampment this spring, as shown here on the lawns around Sproul Hall. What it did not have was any major police presence, mass arrests, or significant confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters, as were experienced elsewhere. The Sproul encampment peacefully disbanded on May 14, after Chancellor Christ agreed to initiate a “comprehensive and rigorous” review of campus investments to “examine whether UC Berkeley’s investments continue to align with our values or should be modified in order to do so.”

That is not to say that no significant clashes occurred during the semester. They did.

Most notably, on February 26, some 200 pro-Palestinian protesters forced entry into an event at Zellerbach Playhouse where policy expert and Israel Defense Forces reservist Ran Bar-Yoshafat was to speak at the invitation of Jewish student groups. Overwhelmed by the protesters, who would break through a door and smash a window before dispersing, UCPD evacuated the speaker and audience members before allowing the mob to enter.

Another widely publicized incident took place on April 9 at the home of Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and his wife, Berkeley Law Professor Catherine Fisk, J.D. ’86, who hosted a dinner in their backyard to celebrate third-year law students. The event was disrupted when Malak Afaneh, J.D. ’24, an invited guest and co-president of the Berkeley chapter of Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), stood and began to deliver a speech on a wireless microphone she carried with her. Fisk laid hold of Afaneh and tried to wrench the microphone away after she ignored repeated requests to leave.

Afaneh, who later wrote she was “deemed as a threat that deserved being traumatized and assaulted simply for carrying the identities I do,” subsequently filed a Title IX complaint against Fisk, which is being investigated by the university.

In the lead-up to the backyard event, Afaneh’s group had posted flyers on bulletin boards in the law school building and on social media showing a caricature of Dean Chemerinsky grinning while holding a bloody knife and fork. “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves!” it read.

Chemerinsky, who defended the First Amendment right of LSJP to distribute the flyers, nevertheless denounced the image, which he wrote “invokes the horrible antisemitic trope of blood libel,” adding that it attacked him “for no apparent reason other than I am Jewish.”

Many Jewish students reported feel-ing threatened and intimidated by pro-testers who, for weeks, blocked the main entrance at Sather Gate. In response, Jewish students and faculty staged a march on campus, and political science Professor Ron Hassner, codirector of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, initiated a sleep-in in his office. His goal, he wrote, was “to provide a quiet home on campus for students who want to hold their heads high. And perhaps gently persuade our campus leaders that it’s time for decisive action against anti-Semitism.”

Of course, Berkeley is used to protest, which may help explain how it (mostly) escaped national headlines. Nevertheless, Chancellor Christ has insisted that this conflict is unlike any others that have preceded it. “This is very different because this is student against student,” she told an interviewer in February. “It’s faculty against faculty. It’s internally the most divisive protest issue that I’ve seen.”

The answer, she said in her final “Campus Conversations” event, is more speech, more debate, and more difficult conversations on controversial topics with those with whom we may disagree. “If we cannot do that, I think we are lost as an academic institution.”

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