Brandeis Center Sues UC Berkeley for Antisemitic Discrimination

Yesterday, while on business on the UC Berkeley/GTU side of the bridge, I ran into a colleague who offhandedly mentioned that the Brandeis Center was suing the university for its antisemitism. I swiftly got hold of a copy of the complaint, which you can find here in its entirety:

Brandeis Center Complaint 1… by hadaraviram

Let’s parse out what is going on here.

Much of the complaint walks well-trodden paths I know merely from being a Jewish-Israeli-American academic on both sides of the bridge. Yes, yes, yes, yes, being Jewish, and especially Israeli, on American campuses these days is like swimming through a river of shit. But experiencing distress, ugliness, and hostility in itself is not ground for legal relief. Moreover, expressed opinions, odious as they may be to the listener (and even when expressed in an odious manner), are protected under the First Amendment. So, what is the legal argument being made?

Brandeis’ argument is more or less the following: Beyond the hostile work environment experienced by Jewish students, various law school student clubs (whose activities, notably, are unrelated to Israel/Palestine) have required that their members, if Jewish, (1) disavow Zionism or (2) attend a “Palestine 101” class in which they are told Israel has no right to exist. It looks like the law school clubs are trying to skirt around limitations pertaining to religious discrimination by allowing Jews to join, but only what they consider to be the right kind of Jews: anti-Zionist ones. These limitations extend not only to the students, but also to speakers and to people hoping to publish articles in some of Berkeleys’ law journals. These loyalty oath requirements and reeducation camps preceded the current crisis by at least a couple of years. I vividly remember giving a talk about FESTER at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society a couple of years ago. The talk, which had nothing to do with Israel or Judaism, was advertised on Twitter by Berkeley’s media team, and some of the commenters replied by tweeting, “but will the students let them speak?” I didn’t encounter any problem that day, but to be fair, I was there by invitation of my colleagues to speak to colleagues, and student clubs were not involved. Because I would never agree to loyalty oaths or gulags, I imagine that some student clubs (including those concerned with prisons or healthcare) would not invite me to speak there, and I also imagine that it’s not worth my time and effort to send papers to any UC Berkeley journals, because they will not be judged on the merits (for those of you scratching your heads, the law review publication market is insane; not only is the article selection not anonymous, but people actually submit their CVs alongside their articles. This explains the bizarre incident a few years ago, in which some student in a law school that shall remain anonymous asked me to omit my military service from my CV so that he’d be able to persuade his fellow student editors to publish the piece. So none of this surprises me in the least.)

[As an aside: Even though most of the stench wafting from this lawsuit emanates specifically from Berkeley Law, Erwin Chemerinsky or the law school are not being sued, and neither are the particular student orgs, which I find curious. I would love to know why, though I suspect it has to do with Chemerinsky’s recent op-ed expressing his dismay about virulent antisemitism and/or with the expectation of having responsible adults as adversaries.]

Berkeley’s counterargument, I imagine, will go something like this: none of the student club behavior, and none of the university’s tacit or explicit endorsement of these rules and exclusions, is antisemitic, because none of it bars Jews from participation. It only bars people who are openly Zionist. And here’s where things might get interesting.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The respondent is my colleague Leo Martinez, who was Acting Dean at UC Law SF (formerly Hastings) at the time. The plaintiff was an off-shoot of CLS-National, an association of Christian lawyers and law students, which charters student chapters at law schools throughout the country. Like Berkeley, UC Law SF is a public school with nondiscrimination rules in its charter, and subject to the Bill of Rights. Under this nondiscrimination regime, UC Law SF had an “all-comers” policy for its student orgs: they must be open to participation of all students. CLS, however, required that all its charters adopt bylaws requiring members and officers to sign a “Statement of Faith” and to conduct their lives in accord with prescribed principles. Among the tenets that prospective members had to commit to was the belief that sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman; CLS interpreted its bylaws to exclude from affiliation anyone who engages in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.” CLS also excluded students who hold religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith. In light of these requirements, UC Law SF refused to approve CLS as a registered student organization (RSO), which denied CLS access to university funding.

The Supreme Court ruled against CLS (which led to much rejoicing at the next faculty meeting, as you can imagine.) Justice Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, found the “all-comers” policy reasonable, and the balance struck with CLS (they can host events as an outside entity–just not allowed to receive money from the school) constitutionally proper.

The situation with the Brandeis lawsuit is a bit different, because it comes from the opposite side: a complaint from students who cannot access these organizations and opportunities. Since Berkeley, like UC Law SF, has an “all-comers” policy, it looks like whether or not these clubs have run afoul of it depends on whether you accept Brandeis’ premise that “Zionism is an Integral Component of Jewish Identity.” At least for some Jewish UC Berkeley students (as recent events have obviously proven), this is not true–one might even say that anti-Zionism is an integral component of whatever identity they have, Jewish or otherwise. In an interview to the Jewish News of Northern California, Dean Chemerinsky estimated that “to say anyone who supports the existence of the State of Israel–that’s what you define as Zionism–shouldn’t speak would exclude about, I don’t know, at least 90 percent of our Jewish students,” though more recent events might suggest otherwise. I don’t know, and neither does anyone at Berkeley, because no one has done a survey, and moreover, in all the disputes about who is and is not a Zionist, one is often hard-pressed to find a solid definition of Zionism (or even any rudimentary education on the subject.) The question remains: Is Zionism “an integral component of Jewish identity?” And it it is to some but not to others, is it to be regarded as religious discrimination if, for Jewish Zionists, it is?

Let’s take a look again at the CLS policy from CLS v. Martinez. Notice that, at no point, did CLS deny membership to gay or lesbian members. Presumably, if you are homosexual and keep your homosexuality to yourself, CLS would welcome you. Or, if you’re riddled with shame about your desires and attractions and your homosexual conduct is “repentant,” you should be fine. I think the point of the analysis is that CLS cannot claim to be inclusive of gay people if it is only inclusive of those of them who remain in the closet and are guilty and conflicted about who they are and who they are attracted to (do some people love sad queers in the same way that others love dead Jews?). But is being Zionist, for Jews, the same as being “out and proud” for gay people? This requires a lot of intricate, hairsplitting attention to the components of each identity.

Assume, for example, that CLS had allowed any and all openly gay people to join its ranks, but only if they (1) disavowed support for same-sex marriage (not every gay person supports gay marriage, some for assorted anti-heteronormative reasons) or (2) attended “family values 101” that would teach them that children with same-sex parents are miserable and deprived. Would that pass muster with the Supreme Court? I don’t think so, but if it would, then we need to ask ourselves whether supporting the State of Israel’s right to exist is more of an “integral part” of being Jewish than supporting same-sex marriage is an “integral part” of being gay.

This brings up lots of complicated questions about the relationship of different Jewish denominations, throughout history, with the aspiration to return to Israel. One documented issue that was repeatedly brought up in debates about Jewish emancipation in Europe had to do with the Jews’ “dual loyalty,” to the emancipating country and to their ancestral land. For this reason, when the newly established Reform strain formed their credo and ethos upon inaugurating the Hamburg Temple, they excised from the liturgy not only the Hebrew language, but aspirations to return to Israel and any messianic content. To their Orthodox detractors, that was tantamount to rejecting an “integral component of Jewish identity.” But to the assimilation-hungry Reform congregants, it was nothing of the sort: it was the fashioning of a new, modern Jewish identity that they could live with and feel well integrated with their surroundings. In other words, what is and is not an “integral component of Jewish identity” means different things to different people in different times and places. There are even diasporist critiques of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life, though as Julie Copper points out in this interesting article, they tend to “prove wanting because they contest Zionism on the terrain of Jewish identity” as opposed to “envision[ing] Jewish political solidarity beyond the confines of the nation-state.”

But if we were to envision such solidarity, what exactly would it consist of, except agreeing that living on American campuses right now downright sucks? If, as various organizations like Bend the Arc or Tru’ah argue, our consensus should form around issues of progressivism and tikkun olam and all that jazz, why does it feel like engaging in these advocacies proves a hollow hope from Jews as it produces exactly the opposite of political solidarity? If you take Israel out of the equation, in other words, what is left (pun intended)?

Finally, in the last couple of months I’ve noticed that American Jews and American Israelis experience the issue of Zionism and anti-Zionism in very different ways. Obviously, when people express academic fascination (theoretically or not) with the scintillating question whether or not you and your loved ones have a right to exist, they shouldn’t be all that surprised to find you an unenthusiastic intellectual partner for that exercise, and you’re not likely to enjoy the debate. In 2018, Bret Stephens wrote precisely that:

All this is to say that Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way than, say, readers of The New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. It’s somewhat like the difference between discussing the effects of Marxism-Leninism in an undergraduate seminar at Reed College, circa 2018 — and experiencing them at closer range in West Berlin, circa 1961.

Which raises another cluster of questions: If, as Berkeley will likely claim, Zionism is not an integral part of one’s Jewish identity, is it an integral part of one’s Israeli identity? If the student club policy cannot be classified as religious discrimination, is it discrimination on the basis of nationality? Is it possible to surgically separate one’s belief that one’s country has a right to exist from being a citizen of that country? And, given that, under the Law of Return, every Jew has a right to return to Israel, the Jewish nation state, is every Jew being discriminated against (on the basis of putative nationality)?

I look forward to seeing how this lawsuit evolves and will post more as developments unfold.

Welcome Home: The Value of a Human Life

The wonderful videos are up and tears are rolling down my cheeks: children hugging their parents, families hugging grandparents. The first hostages are being returned. I wished for nothing more than to live to see these videos and my heart flows with gratitude. I have been watching Ohad Munder’s first hug with his dad again and again, sobbing with joy. But I feel so much inquietude around all this, mostly paralyzing fear for the fate of the remaining hostages. And I fear that some of this dark teatime of the soul has to do with confronting the transactional value of human life.

Recently, I got to read a classic anthropological text from 1923 by Marcel Mauss called The Gift. Mauss marshals evidence from various societies in which gift-giving is common to show that gifts are not spontaneous or selfless; rather, they are surrounded by elaborate social norms that dictate how to give, how to receive, and how to reciprocate. Gifts are an important and thoroughly ritualized social adhesive. At no time is the issue of reciprocity and value-setting clearer than when witnessing a hostage exchange, which makes a transaction out of the gift of human life between parties whose animosity is at its peak. As I read coverage about the Israeli hostages and the released Palestinian prisoners I think, who is being valued more? Whose children are coded as “children” and who are coded as “prisoners,” “Palestinian terrorists,” or “Zionist occupiers”?

The transactional nature of the releases brings into stark relief the range of values that the many stakeholders and parties to this conflict affix to different human lives. A few years ago, I read Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, where he makes an impassioned argument against parochialism. By contrast to Rashi’s adage that “the poor people of your own town come first,” Singer argues that all lives have the same value and that altruistic giving should therefore eschew parochial considerations and, instead, maximize the good for as many people as possible. I understand, cognitively, what Singer is trying to say, and of course I cognitively comprehend that every life is precious. But I think that, in his admonitions, Singer is being less than responsive to the basic workings of human psychology, which I am observing in my own soul as well as in the souls around me. A Gazan family will be welcoming a released teenager soon with their own joy, adjacent to the Israeli joy but not touching it. The folks online reminding and admonishing and lecturing about how you can feel for both sides are able to host a modicum of generalized warmth because they are not psychologically invested and wound up in one side of this conflict or in another. This is not about who has a heart and who is heartless, but about where people are positioned. And I’m beginning to think that Rashi did not issue an edict so much as offered a description of where people’s natural sympathies flow.

(As an aside, it is such a psychologically bizarre experience to scroll through Facebook posts, finding Israeli and, to a lesser degree, Jewish posters concerned with the fate of the hostages and posting incessantly about them and about the war, while other people post silly memes and their Thanksgiving tables. The folks who post thus are not bad or evil or lacking in empathy. It’s just… not their thing. How many horrific human disasters in faraway lands have I heard about and, while feeling keen sorrow for those involved, moved on with my life, largely unaffected?)

Along these lines: twenty-four people were released yesterday, 11 of which were Thai and Nepalese workers. What a heartache, to be thrusted into the heart of hell in a conflict unrelated to you, because you had to move away to a far away land to make a living; to find yourself caged and tortured, caught between parties in a war zone. Initially, their names and pictures were unavailable, anonymous in captivity and in liberty as they were when trying to make a living in a cruel global economy. This morning I finally saw their picture. I was so moved to see Jimmy Pacheco’s release and how he was embraced by kibbutz members. The man for whom Jimmy worked as a caregiver, Amitai Ben-Zvi, was murdered by Hamas, and Jimmy was kidnapped and manhandled with horrific violence. The world devalues the lives of foreign workers so systematically and deeply. The hug between Jimmy and members of the Ben-Zvi family was a balm to my heart.

And then there are the lists. A huge, painful, never-healing wound in Jewish history involves the Judenrat’s listmaking in ghettos, making horrifying decisions on who must be saved and who must be shipped to the east to be murdered in concentration camps. It is really hard to reckon with the fact that people’s demographics play a horrifying role in setting their price in hostage exchanges. I wake up nightly from horrible nightmares involving the toddlers in captivity, especially baby Kfir Bibas, and shudder when I consider that the monsters who hold them captive understand the psychological value we affix to children. As my beloved late colleague Sherry Colb and her husband, Michael Dorf, wrote in Beating Hearts, there is a special premium on the lives of children. And at the same time, there is a frailty to aging people (which I addressed in several of my works). And I’m so moved by the return of the brave, stoic grandmothers, many of whom lost husbands to sadistic murderers. But this also means that the precious lives of young men are going to be devalued by comparison, and that they will have to withstand captivity longer, and I worry that the calculus of the worth of human lives versus military objectives will change as the war rages on.

Speaking of Colb and Dorf’s book, I also think a lot about the lives of animals brought into this homo sapiens conflict. One brief clip from the horror footage of October 7 keeps sawing through my mind: the murderers and kidnappers drive a truck away with hostages on it, weeping. The family dog chases the truck, barking, running, trying to save his family members. And these evil monsters shoot the dog dead. Why? WHY?! Why the dog? What does the dog have to do with any of this? Is the dog a Zionist occupier? I think about all the families who had to make the tough decisions to leave their dogs and cats outside their safe rooms and shelters. Family members whom they loved and cherished, like we love and cherish Inti and Gulu. What a thing to confront and to reckon with. They were trying to save their children’s lives, their parents’ lives. What choices people have had to make. And what complicated feelings to process amidst the layers of horror and grief.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who is confronting complicated and uneasy feelings about all this. What makes me feel a bit better, a bit more inspired, is an amazing statement made by Yoni Asher, whose wife and two daughters were returned from captivity yesterday. Asher says: “It is okay to rejoice and it is okay to shed a tear, but I am not celebrating and will not celebrate until the last of the hostages returns.”

May we live to welcome them all home.

Adelson Family’s House of Cards Falls Apart

Today marks a new episode in the quest to hold the Adelson family accountable for my colleague and friend Dan Markel’s murder. On November 6, Charlie Adelson, Dan’s brother-in-law, was convicted of murder; he was the one who enlisted his girlfriend, Katie Magbanua, who in turn enlisted the father of her children, Sigfredo Garcia, to commit the murder. Garcia and his accomplice, Luis Rivera, were caught after surveillance tied them to a silver Prius that followed Dan on the morning of his murder. Rivera accepted a plea deal and testified against Sigfredo and Magbanua.

One of the arguments death penalty supporters sometimes make is that, even if no one is sentenced to death, it is important to keep it on the books in order to use it as a bargaining chip for a confession. Ilyana Kuziemko’s 2006 study of this phenomenon in New York (exploiting the natural experiment of its reinstatement in 1995) found that the threat of death penalty leads defendants to accept plea bargains with harsher terms, but does not increase defendants’ overall propensity to plead guilty. The risk of innocent people pleading guilty is exemplified in this short piece by Claudia Salinas. And indeed, Magbanua did not break down when offered this deal, and refused to flip against Charlie. Eventually, when Charlie was indicted and tried for the murder, Magbanua did testify. In this recap she explains why she did it: “Because to give up Charlie, I had to give up the father of my children, and I couldn’t do that[.]”

Charlie’s version of the events was that Garcia and Rivera, through Magbanua, committed the murder on their own accord, in order to blackmail him. Not only was this theory implausible–why go through the trouble of killing someone they didn’t know? Why not threaten to kill Charlie himself?–but it was also contradicted by Charlie’s affectionate relationship with Magbanua and a conversation they had at a restaurant in 2016, in which they colluded about what to do regarding an extortionist (who did not exist; it was a police sting designed to make them talk.)

The latest threat to the Adelsons’ house of cards came on Monday, when Donna (Charlie and Wendi’s mother) was arrested at the airport as she and her husband, Harvey, were trying to flee to Vietnam (which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States). Here is Donna’s arrest affidavit:

I’m trying to read the affidavit with a defense attorney’s eye. Donna’s movements and phone contacts on the day of the murder are far from conclusive proof of her involvement. It would make sense for her to repeatedly contact family members on the day of a shocking event (the murder of a much hated son-in-law). But I think it’s notable that she talks to Charlie more than she talks to Wendi who, presumably, would be more affected by the death of her ex-husband.

The strongest evidence against Donna, it seems, are the conversations she had with Charlie after receiving the fictitious extortion letter. While the transcripts show she was afraid and stressed, and willing to pay the extortionist to go away, a defense attorney will probably argue that these actions were in defense of her son, as she might have learned about the murder after the fact and wanted to protect her family (the words “it concerns both of us” are quite damning, but I suspect a defense attorney would argue that they stem from identification with her son.) But you be the judge: Episode 5 of the podcast Over My Dead Body contains detailed footage of the conversations between Charlie and Donna (fair warning: even though the podcast is extremely well done, and very respectful toward the Markel family and Dan’s friends, it is jarring and upsetting to listen to a popular culture repackaging of a tragedy that took the life of someone you know.)

On a personal note, just as with the previous waves of arrests for Dan’s murder, I find that Donna’s arrest brought me peace of mind, and don’t feel invested in the sentencing phase. However, I continue to follow this up and will post more on this as things develop.

Carrying and Using Narcan

There’s very little I can do about the horrors happening in the Old Country. But there are other, more mundane, horrors happening every day in the Tenderloin, where I work and my students study, that we can do something about: Fentanyl overdose deaths. Today, I was very happy and grateful to host Rob Hoffman from the San Francisco Department of Public Health and distribute Naloxone, commercially known as Narcan, to all my students, along with training on how to use it.

Here’s what Rob told us: Fentanyl accounts for 70% of the overdose deaths in the city. About half of these deaths happen in the few blocks surrounding UC Law San Francisco. The overdose death among African Americans is five times the city average. And, 70% of the people who die are housed. The risk of overdosing is higher for people who use alone, mix opioids with Benzos or alcohol, start using again after losing tolerance for the drugs (for example, after a period of incarceration) or use a dose of especially high potency.

Here are photos I snapped of the slides Rob showed us. Remember, you can obtain a free Narcan kit at the Community Behavioral Health Services Pharmacy on Howard and 10th. If you live or work in the Tenderloin, please carry a kit with you. You can save a life.

Digging Wells and Finding Fresh Water

This week’s parashah has some famous stories: the sale of Esau’s birthright for a stew; Jacob’s deceitful procurement of his father’s blessing. But I found something that spoke to me in a less-known wrinkle in the plot: the story of Isaac and the wells. Isaac lives near Gerar, in proximity to Avimelekh’s people, and to avoid being killed by people who might lust for Rebecca he does the same trick his father pulled twice: he pretends Rebecca is his sister. The jig is up, eventually, and Avimelekh orders his people not to touch Isaac. But people living in proximity and fighting over scarce resources during a famine is not a recipe for peace and harmony. Here’s what happened next (Genesis 26: 12-22):

Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. יהוה blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him.

And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.

And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled.

Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,

the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.

And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.

He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last יהוה has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

Genesis 26: 12-22

Shortly after Trump was elected, I remember talking to two of my neighbors. They’ve been together forever, through the fight for gay rights and AIDS widowhood and the horrid deaths around the Castro and the murders of Milk and Moscone and the fight for equality. Tough guys, and at the same time full of joy. And what they said was, “we’ll just have to do all that…. AGAIN.”

I found their courage and perseverance inspiring–just as I find Isaac’s tenacity in digging wells, again and again. He didn’t sit by the well and bemoan his victimization. He didn’t deconstruct Philistine supremacy. He got to work. And I think those of us in the diaspora, encountering noxious views, hatred, ignorance, and violence, have to resign ourselves to the same task: unclogging old wells, digging new ones, and finding fresh water.

Apparently, my essay about antisemitism in academia has been making the rounds, and I’m getting lots of supportive reactions, but to my dismay many of them are compassion for my supposed victimization. This was not at all my intent when writing it. It’s natural for my Israeli and Jewish students to complain that the endless compassion for, and alliances with, any oppressed group have passed them by. But I would be very upset if the upshot of all this, the measure of success, were to be an inclusion of this additional voice in the petulant choir of victims.

Isaac didn’t sit and cry to God about how he was a victim of oppressive well-clogging. He didn’t petition the Philistines to recognize his disenfranchisement. What he did do was fight like hell. Some of those fights he lost, and he called those wells what they were: monuments of hatred. But he got straight to work and unclogged other wells, or dug up fresh ones. He and his servants took the trouble to dig deep, until they were sure they were provided for.

I’m already dreaming up ways to dig wells and keep their waters from getting rancid. I want to invite you, readers, to do the same. Here are some things I have found inspiring this week along these veins.

First thing, rather than sit and weep as people clog your wells, is to stand up to them and refute their claims to the water. Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s excellent essay The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False is an excellent, historically informed rebuttal to the usual claptrap one hears on campuses these days. Only last week, a grown, educated man stood up in an auditorium at my workplace and, in front of 200 people and apparently completely unashamed, chalked up the horrid, irrefutable facts of the horrid massacre to “Israeli disinformation.” He also regurgitated the usual ideological package, which Sebag-Montefiore’s summarily dismisses as follows:

This ideology, powerful in the academy but long overdue for serious challenge, is a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century. But its current engine is the new identity analysis, which sees history through a concept of race that derives from the American experience. The argument is that it is almost impossible for the “oppressed” to be themselves racist, just as it is impossible for an “oppressor” to be the subject of racism. Jews therefore cannot suffer racism, because they are regarded as “white” and “privileged”; although they cannot be victims, they can and do exploit other, less privileged people, in the West through the sins of “exploitative capitalism” and in the Middle East through “colonialism.”

This leftist analysis, with its hierarchy of oppressed identities—and intimidating jargon, a clue to its lack of factual rigor—has in many parts of the academy and media replaced traditional universalist leftist values, including internationalist standards of decency and respect for human life and the safety of innocent civilians. When this clumsy analysis collides with the realities of the Middle East, it loses all touch with historical facts.

Simon Sebag-Montefiore, “The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False”, The Atlantic, October 27, 2023

Montefiore proceeds to unpack the roots of the crisis. He does not shy away from strident critique of Israel’s policy, of the occupation, and especially of the disastrous Netanyahu government. And he also does not shy away from taking apart, and disproving, both the “settler colonial” idea and the “genocide” tag.

The concept of “partition” is, in the decolonization narrative, regarded as a wicked imperial trick. But it was entirely normal in the creation of 20th-century nation-states, which were typically fashioned out of fallen empires. And sadly, the creation of nation-states was frequently marked by population swaps, huge refugee migrations, ethnic violence, and full-scale wars. Think of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921–22 or the partition of India in 1947. In this sense, Israel-Palestine was typical.

At the heart of decolonization ideology is the categorization of all Israelis, historic and present, as “colonists.” This is simply wrong. Most Israelis are descended from people who migrated to the Holy Land from 1881 to 1949. They were not completely new to the region. The Jewish people ruled Judean kingdoms and prayed in the Jerusalem Temple for a thousand years, then were ever present there in smaller numbers for the next 2,000 years. In other words, Jews are indigenous in the Holy Land, and if one believes in the return of exiled people to their homeland, then the return of the Jews is exactly that. Even those who deny this history or regard it as irrelevant to modern times must acknowledge that Israel is now the home and only home of 9 million Israelis who have lived there for four, five, six generations.

Most migrants to, say, the United Kingdom or the United States are regarded as British or American within a lifetime. Politics in both countries is filled with prominent leaders—Suella Braverman and David Lammy, Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley—whose parents or grandparents migrated from India, West Africa, or South America. No one would describe them as “settlers.” Yet Israeli families resident in Israel for a century are designated as “settler-colonists” ripe for murder and mutilation. And contrary to Hamas apologists, the ethnicity of perpetrators or victims never justifies atrocities. They would be atrocious anywhere, committed by anyone with any history. It is dismaying that it is often self-declared “anti-racists” who are now advocating exactly this murder by ethnicity.

Those on the left believe migrants who escape from persecution should be welcomed and allowed to build their lives elsewhere. Almost all of the ancestors of today’s Israelis escaped persecution.

If the “settler-colonist” narrative is not true, it is true that the conflict is the result of the brutal rivalry and battle for land between two ethnic groups, both with rightful claims to live there. As more Jews moved to the region, the Palestinian Arabs, who had lived there for centuries and were the clear majority, felt threatened by these immigrants. The Palestinian claim to the land is not in doubt, nor is the authenticity of their history, nor their legitimate claim to their own state. But initially the Jewish migrants did not aspire to a state, merely to live and farm in the vague “homeland.” In 1918, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met the Hashemite Prince Faisal Bin Hussein to discuss the Jews living under his rule as king of greater Syria. The conflict today was not inevitable. It became so as the communities refused to share and coexist, and then resorted to arms.

Sebag-Montefiore also persuasively argues that this “decolonization” narrative is the worst thing that can happen to this conflict now:

Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has used the murder of civilians to spoil any chance of a two-state solution. In 1993, its suicide bombings of Israeli civilians were designed to destroy the two-state Oslo Accords that recognized Israel and Palestine. This month, the Hamas terrorists unleashed their slaughter in part to undermine a peace with Saudi Arabia that would have improved Palestinian politics and standard of life, and reinvigorated Hamas’s sclerotic rival, the Palestinian Authority. In part, they served Iran to prevent the empowering of Saudi Arabia, and their atrocities were of course a spectacular trap to provoke Israeli overreaction. They are most probably getting their wish, but to do this they are cynically exploiting innocent Palestinian people as a sacrifice to political means, a second crime against civilians. In the same way, the decolonization ideology, with its denial of Israel’s right to exist and its people’s right to live safely, makes a Palestinian state less likely if not impossible.

Some sources tie these narratives to the flow of Qatari money into U.S. universities. A new NCRI report follows the money and correlates its sources with (1) the erosion of free speech and (2) the increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses.

Second order of business is to see who is actually unclogging wells, as opposed to shifting blame and whining, and support them. Unsurprisingly, these are the folks who stood day after day, shoulder to shoulder with my parents to protest the decay of the country. Since I mentioned the Netanyahu government, it is worth shining a light on the fact that, in the same way that Hamas is not Gaza, Netanyahu is not the Israeli people, and support for his government, which was already tenuous, has plummeted. Yair Rosenberg has a superb article in The Atlantic in which he unpacks what happened, and how the scorned, maligned lefties who led the anti-government protests in the last few months and proving to be more capable, dependable, and courageous than the government, to the point of supplanting it:

As Israel’s crony-filled Netanyahu government flailed and its security services faltered, ordinary citizens—many of them dissenters against the current ruling coalition—took charge. Crisis tends to separate the poseurs from the professionals, and the deadliest day in Israel’s history did just that.

Rosenberg gives some examples: the heroism of Yair Golan and Noam Tibon, who, as the army dawdled, were already on the ground rescuing people; Eylon Levy, who stepped up to do international outreach after the official minister of outreach, who is a nincompoop, quit her job just when she was actually needed. In general, he says,

Within Israel, relief efforts have been dominated not by government officials but by volunteers, many of whom come from the organized anti-government protest movement. Hamas’s massacre left thousands of southern Israelis traumatized, orphaned, and homeless, in need of food, shelter, and mental-health care. The subsequent Hezbollah attacks in the north have forced entire towns to evacuate. In total, about a quarter million Israelis have been displaced. Many others are struggling to cope after family members were called up to join the fighting.

Faced with these gaping social needs largely unaddressed by the government, the largest civil-demonstration movement in Israeli history repurposed itself overnight. Working out of the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, 15,000 volunteers began distributing food and supplies to refugees, finding accommodations for thousands of families, and matching psychologists with patients. Some, led by the information scientist Karine Nahon of Reichman University, used AI tools to identify victims and hostages, sorting through hours of video footage from the assault. Others helped rescue 120 pets. In Jerusalem, another group of 4,000 protesters, overseen by Michal Muszkat-Barkan, a movement leader and professor at Hebrew Union College, has provided 30,000 hot meals, run daily blood drives, and recruited 200 mental-health professionals. Across Israel, the activists derided by Netanyahu and his hard-right ministers as leftist traitors have become the country’s rapid-response team.

Yair Rosenberg, “The Day After Netanyahu”, The Atlantic, November 10, 2023.

Finally, here’s a dose of tough love as we pick up the shovels. I know my students are grieving and shocked–not only about the horrid massacre and the unfolding outcome, which is disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians, but also about the loss of their friendships and footing in the world. It feels like gaslighting–one loses grasp of reality and of one’s own convictions. But as I said to a couple of people this week, “people your age have left families at home and gone to serve in the reserves. You found out you have shit friends? Make better friends.” I was comforted to read similar words from Batya Ungar-Saron:

So do not cast your lot as a competitor in the oppression Olympics. Instead, reject that entire way of looking at the world.

Here’s the thing: it’s good to be unpopular with a mob whose worldview has done away with the concept of right and wrong and decided, with a Nazi-like commitment to racial ideology, that you are Jewish and therefore you are white and therefore you are bad. It is good to be unpopular with people who spent the weeks after October 7 on the hunt for Jewish exaggeration, Jewish lies, Jewish crimes. It is good to be unpopular with people who cannot separate evil from power and virtue from skin color. (Unpopularity, for now, is your fate, unless you are willing to cosign your own humiliation and join the left’s token “good Jews” who advocate against Zionism from the comfort of the diaspora for plaudits from the Squad.) We don’t answer to them; we answer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.

The good news is: it may not feel like it, but this country is on your side. College students are in one of vanishingly few spaces in America that sides with Hamas. Your professors will live and die in irrelevance, signing their names to their silly little letters and coming up with new jargon with which to defend terrorism while nurturing their grandiose hero complexes. Most of your peers will grow up and abandon their radical chic commitments. The progressive movement has taken a big hit, having shown its true colors to a nation that knows what is good and what is right, that can separate barbarism from civilization. 

But for now, remember this: to be a Jew is to refuse to kneel and refuse to bow. The stakes of standing upright have never been clearer than they are today, in this post–October 7 world. It’s good to have these people as your enemies, because the world will always have people who oppose what’s right and what’s good, and it is our destiny to fight them. Do it with pride.

Batya Ungar-Saron, “The Antisemites Scream. And I Stiffen My Spine.” The Free Press, November 7, 2023.

Dig up the clogged wells and name them what your ancestors named them. Dig fresh wells. Fight for them. If you win, drink deep. If you lose, dig new wells.

Shavua Tov.

Shloshim to the Massacre

Today is the Shloshim (“thirty”) of the horrific massacre. More horrors and grief unfold every day. The Hartman Institute has created a beautiful and moving ritual to commemorate those gone and to pray for the safe return of the hostages, which you can adapt for home prayer or for your local community. The special prayer for the hostages, following the traditional Mi sheberach, is in the picture above.

It is also my 49th birthday, which I have chosen not to observe with a celebration. We will all celebrate when the war ends and when the hostages are returned home.

Offensive Speech in Terrible Times

Like many other campuses around the United States, mine is papered with despicable flyers espousing an ignorant perspective on the Israel-Hamas war. My Jewish students are understandably upset and infuriated, and so am I. Every day brings fresh, unbearable details about the massacre. The contrast between that and my outside surroundings is a dissonance that fractures me to the core. In the coming days, many campuses, including ours, will see abominable displays of hatred, antisemitism, and a breathtaking level of illiteracy regarding international affairs. We’ll see laughable, imaginary coalitions between, say, Hamas and the fight for trans rights. This will be ugly and it will be emotionally difficult to stomach. It already has been a difficult struggle to function at work and it’s likely to endure for some time.

At such times, supporting a legal regime that has absolute free speech is deeply distressing and challenging. I finally found out who first wrote, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”–it was Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in 1906. For First Amendment enthusiasts, this era epitomizes that sentiment–the price of freedom is walking around with a broken heart, even if the open goal of the speakers is to break it.

The image above depicts the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, IL; in the 1970s, Skokie was the setting for a free speech debate culminating in a Supreme Court decision that in many ways reminds me of the situation on the ground today. David Goldberger, at the time the legal director of the ACLU of Illinois (and later an Ohio State law professor specializing in free speech) has written a fascinating account, complete with images, of his representation of the Nazis in this case–not only what it was like to have them for clients, but also the public response. I really recommend that you read it verbatim. Among many things I didn’t know was the fact that Meir Kahane, in many ways the ideological granddaddy of murderous Jewish nationalists like Ben Gvir et al., started his activity in the US with the Jewish Defense League, who appeared at the ACLU offices with baseball bats! Another thing I didn’t know was that the ACLU’s choice to represent the Nazis in the Skokie trial led to tens of thousands of resignations, but also to some support letters from holocaust survivors who said that “they wanted to be able to see their enemies in plain sight so they would know who they were.” The ACLU is taking the same approach regarding the protests we are experiencing now.

I really recommend reading Goldberger’s entire account, and it’s even more interesting to ponder it through a comparative lens. Not all countries have absolute free speech; many place limitations on hate speech and incitement to racism or violence. That approach ushers its own host of problems: what is and is not “hate speech” or “incitement” is a subjective determination, and judicially delving into these questions inevitably brings in ideological perspectives and heuristics. I’m already seeing some troubling incidents in Israel in which universities and schools waste precious time and energy on McCarthyist investigations of their students, faculty, and staff.

It’s important to distinguish the general question of what should and should not be legally allowed from the more particular question, what these opinions tell us about the quality of the education we provide and about the quality of the people who espouse them. For some idea on how these ideas fester and infect people to this degree, read Julia Steinberg’s account of her own education. It exposes many of the flaws of what passes nowadays for progressive education, and dovetails with my unwillingness to responsibly participate in similar indoctrination efforts at my workplace and elsewhere. Steinberg’s piece was an important reminder that hateful idiots don’t spring into being, fully formed, in college or law school; they are raised to be the way they are in their K-12 years. I, for one, plan to keep a very watchful eye on my child’s education, to ensure that essentialist, separatist identitarian rubbish isn’t inflicted on the kids in this mindless manner.

It is also important to distinguish the right to free speech from the consequences of putting oneself out in public espousing horrendous views. Several law students in fancy schools are finding out, to their shock and surprise, that law firms are not all that keen to hire people who publicly extol the virtues of slaughtering, raping, maiming, burning alive, beheading, and kidnapping people. That being an antisemitic idiot with repugnant views is not a professional asset and has consequences in the job market shouldn’t be particularly surprising, unless you spent your undergraduate years under the tutelage of morally bankrupt people for whom espousing these “edgy” and “interesting” views was a calculated career strategy that catapulted them to prominence in fields like ethnic studies (read here a courageous letter by a UC Regent calling out the Ethnic Studies faculty council letter for what it is.) No wonder these students think they can spew horrid opinions in public and face no consequences whatsoever. What I find most amazing about the whole thing is that some of my colleagues are surprised by what they see on the campus quad. How is any of this surprising? Academic institutions, including the ones I work for, have breathed life into this Golem for years, and the last thing they should find astonishing is when it comes for them. They taught these people, but they didn’t educate them, and the proof’s in the rancid pudding.