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Berkeley does not have ‘Jew-Free Zones.’ Saying it does causes real damage

A student resolution should provoke a real debate about free speech, not a Barbra Streisand retweet

In the world of Jewish journalism, it doesn’t get much better than a retweet from Barbra Streisand.

That’s what happened to a Sept. 28 op-ed by Kenneth Marcus that appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles entitled, “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones.”

The opinion piece, by the former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, accused the University of California’s prestigious law school of going, “as the Nazis’ infamous call, judenfrei. Jewish-free,” because nine student groups signed a resolution banning pro-Israel speakers from their events.

Two days later, the world’s most famous Jewish woman forwarded her outrage.

When does anti-Zionism bleed into broad anti-Semitism?” Streisand wrote, retweeting the op-ed.

Her post had over 8,000 likes, 1,800 comments and 1,700 retweets. In the relatively small Jewish journalism universe, numbers like these are a social media jackpot.

But the op-ed’s headline, and many of its facts, were incorrect. The column might have been social media gold, but it was factual dross. 

There are no “Jewish-free zones” at Berkeley. The letter drew instant condemnation from university leadership, which also engaged in thoughtful outreach with the nine (out of over 100) student clubs that signed the resolution. 

But as the situation at the law school quickly quieted down, the Jewish internet was just getting started. With a headline that darted past logic, bypassed common sense and struck deep into the collective fears of American Jewry, the story careened across the Jewish web, providing yet another cautionary tale about the dangers of misinformation in the internet age.

Streisand was the only superstar to pass the misleading headline on, but she had lots of company that should have known better.

Though on the Jewish Journal’s own Twitter account the column only got six retweets,  Christians United for Israel, the pro-Israel evangelical group with some 10 million members, reposted the headline and the first paragraphs of the column. The Jerusalem Post, JTA and Times of Israel soon featured a story and op-eds about the issue, prominently featuring Marcus’ op-ed.

Ann Colburn, a Beverly Hills resident and former director of Crossroads, an esteemed private high school, read the op-ed after her husband forwarded it to her.

“I read it and my hair caught fire,” Colburn, who graduated from Berkeley in 1961, told me.

She immediately emailed Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school, expressing her outrage and threatening to withhold her planned giving.

“I am appalled and angry,” she wrote. “Berkeley Law, really?”

Colburn, who is 82, explained to the dean that she grew up in the East Bay suburbs where other children tore up her report cards and broke her glasses because she was Jewish. She herself was often critical of Israel’s policies, but she couldn’t bear the idea that Berkeley, where she found acceptance and a respite from antisemitism, could have “Jew-free zones.”

Two hours after she emailed the dean, he replied, outlining why he found the article misleading. The Jewish, pro-Israel Chemerinsky explained that there are no “Jew-free zones” at Berkeley, and that, in fact, the university sponsors a Berkeley Antisemitism Education Initiative that has become a model of its kind for campuses nationwide.

“It was interesting and sobering,” she said of the dean’s email. “It’s like, OK, you’re supposed to check facts before you go off on your high horse.”

I understand why the Jewish Journal, which I edited for 17 years before leaving in 2017, ran the piece and the headline. That nine student groups at a prestigious law school now bar Zionist speakers is newsworthy, and media sites live and die by headlines that push through the internet noise, even if sometimes they push too far.

To its credit, the Jewish Journal posted Chemerinsky’s response under Marcus’ op-ed, along with a counterpoint from the original author.

A more considered headline and balanced op-ed might have set the stage for a more constructive debate, but what are the odds Streisand would have retweeted that?

That real debate isn’t over some imaginary “Jew-free zones,” but free speech itself.

Pro-Israel advocates like Marcus, who is himself a Berkeley Law graduate, have waged a decades-long campaign to equate anti-Israel opinion and measures with antisemitism. Refusal to engage with pro-Israel Jews is tantamount then, to discrimination.

 

On the other side are people who see opposition to Israel as political speech, pure and simple. The issue isn’t Israel and Jews, it’s America and the Constitution.

“No ‘action’ is being taken against groups that adopted the bylaw,” Chemerinsky explained in an email to me. “Indeed, I believe that any action would violate the First Amendment. They have just engaged in speech, which is their right to do.”

College campuses have become a battleground for Jews on both sides of this issue, which is why that Jewish Journal headline worked like a cup of vinegar tossed into a baking soda volcano.

But the victims of jumping into every campus controversy may be — irony of ironies — Jewish students themselves.

In her 2022 doctoral study of Jewish students at three different universities, Sara Fredman Aeder found that the students’ fear of antisemitism was far greater than their actual experience of it.

“Their fear of antisemitism was informed not by their own experiences, but by what they read online and on social media,” Aeder concluded. “Online messaging is causing students to hide even in environments where their identity is accepted and celebrated.”

In other words, equating a deeply misguided and roundly condemned resolution against pro-Israel speech with Nazi Germany might win the internet, but at what cost?

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