In Internal Memo, American Jewish Committee Blasts Op-Ed on “Jewish-Free Zones” at Berkeley Law

The group’s disavowal of an article written by Israel advocate Kenneth Marcus revealed tension over the best strategy to combat campus Palestine activism.

Mari Cohen and Alex Kane
October 14, 2022

Students on UC Berkeley’s campus in March 2022.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

On September 28th, prominent Israel advocate Kenneth Marcus published an op-ed in the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal that quickly grabbed national attention. The op-ed accused the University of California Berkeley School of Law of maintaining what Marcus—the former assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education and founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, an Israel-advocacy legal group—called “Jewish-free zones.” In fact, no such zones existed; Marcus was referring to the fact that nine student groups at the law school, responding to a campaign by the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, had adopted a new bylaw pledging not to invite speakers who support Zionism. In the widely circulated piece, Marcus argued that this policy amounts to “target[ing] Jewish Americans directly” and that “using ‘Zionist’ as a euphemism for Jew is nothing more than a confidence trick.”

Other Israel-advocacy groups, like the American Jewish Committee (AJC), appeared to share Marcus’s desire to condemn Berkeley. In an October 3rd open letter published in the Jewish Journal, the AJC joined 39 “pro-Israel” groups, including Marcus’s Brandeis Center, in demanding that Berkeley sanction the student groups if they did not rescind the bylaw. At least one AJC chapter, in Seattle, shared Marcus’s piece on its Facebook page.

But behind the scenes, the AJC was critical of Marcus’s tactics. In a confidential internal memo obtained by Jewish Currents, Sara Coodin, the AJC’s director of academic affairs, wrote that Marcus’s op-ed’s “central claim was inflammatory, resulting in a distorted picture of both this incident and the overall climate for Jewish students on campus.” Through its own meetings with Berkeley students and professors, Coodin wrote, the AJC had learned that “conversations on campus have had a less contentious tone than those taking place in the wider American Jewish community”; she highlighted a Jewish News of Northern California op-ed by Berkeley Israel studies professor Ron Hassner and history professor Ethan Katz arguing that Jewish student life and Israel studies programming at Berkeley is “thriving.” Still, Coodin said that if other university chapters introduce similar campaigns encouraging clubs to bar Zioinst speakers, the AJC plans to combat them. (Coodin and the AJC did not respond to requests for comment on the memo by press time, nor did Marcus.)

The AJC’s internal disavowal of the Marcus op-ed illustrates a strategic tension that exists even among Israel-advocacy groups that broadly share the goals of combatting Palestine activism on US campuses. While hardline groups like Marcus’s Brandeis Center condemn US colleges as bastions of Jew-hatred and seek to punish them with civil rights claims on behalf of Jewish students, organizations like the AJC tend to employ a softer touch, and are more willing to work with universities. “There’s a long-running debate” among Jewish organizations over “what strategy is best: whether you should work more quietly and work with those on campus, or whether you should use a more confrontational approach with the potential threat of lawsuits,” said Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and author of Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel. “The AJC’s advocacy model has always been quiet diplomacy.”

In August, nine Berkeley Law student groups—including the Muslim Student Association, the Queer Caucus, and Women of Berkeley Law—voted to adopt a bylaw that endorsed boycotts and sanctions of entities complicit in Israel’s apartheid system and also promised not to invite speakers who support “Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” The bylaw language was written and advocated for by the law school’s SJP chapter, which, on its Instagram page, applauded the groups for “refusing to be complicit in Israeli apartheid.” In a follow-up post addressing the backlash, the group said it will “continue to invite student organizations to democratically adopt the bylaw.”

“It’s a solidarity-building tool. That’s part of why this agitated so many people on campus and beyond,” said Liz Jackson, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that defends the free speech rights of Palestine activists in the US. “It takes the issue of Palestine from a niche or isolated issue, and makes it a cross-movement cause.” Jackson defended the rights of student groups to adopt such bylaws. “A political organization can lay out its political commitment,” she said. In fact, Jackson noted, it’s a similar move to one made by Hillel International, which has specific policies that prevent the organization’s campus chapters from hosting anti-Zionist speakers. “Students have a right, if they are part of an organization, to not invite speakers that are complicit in any way with oppression of Palestinian people,” said a Berkeley Law SJP member who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about facing harassment. “It’s similar to student groups that have a clear policy that they will not invite white supremacists.” The SJP member also noted that the bylaw places no restrictions on the views of students who join the clubs or attend their events—only invited speakers.

Indeed, even some commenters who say they disagree with barring Zionist speakers have defended the groups’ right to do so. “Ultimately, it is their right to make these decisions that I think are wrongheaded,” said Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who served as director of the AJC’s division on antisemitism and extremism until 2014. “There are some Jewish students who are supporting the pro-Palestinian positon and say their Judaism leads them to an anti-Zionist position. Who am I to say that that’s not legitimate?”

While the action of the nine student groups received some coverage in the Jewish press, and Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky emailed students to say the group’s adoption of the bylaw was “troubling,” it otherwise received little attention until Marcus published his op-ed. The singer Barbra Streisand and comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted the piece, Senator Ted Cruz called the actions of the student groups “disgraceful,” New York Congressman Ritchie Torres denounced the bylaw as “an example of how anti-Zionism in policy translates into antisemitism in practice,” and Fox News ran a segment interviewing Marcus. Dean Chemerinsky responded to Marcus’s piece in The Daily Beast, disputing Marcus’s characterization of “Jewish-free zones” but also saying that groups that excluded speakers because of their Israel views would be “subject to sanction.”

The increased scrutiny has heightened tensions on campus. The AJC memo noted that a Jewish Berkeley student who had previously served as an AJC fellow told an AJC staffer that Marcus’s op-ed had made the controversy “less of a local issue and more of a national one.” The student also told the AJC that the groups’ new bylaw had not extensively changed students’ experiences on campus, and that the groups in question already had little involvement with pro-Israel students or speakers. Meanwhile, the SJP member who spoke with Jewish Currents noted that, while bylaw-supporting student organizations have faced harassment and are concerned by the dean’s threat to sanction them, the visibility has also bolstered their campaign: In the past month, five more clubs have adopted the bylaw, bringing the total to 14.

The AJC memo highlighted concerns that emphasizing alleged antisemitic threats on campuses might inadvertently threaten recent successes for campus Israel advocates. Coodin reported that staff had spoken with “two Berkeley faculty members, founders of Berkeley’s Israel Studies program” who were concerned that media coverage of Berkeley could lead to a “divestment” response from the Jewish community. Instead, the AJC said, the professors hoped the AJC would support Berkeley’s Jewish and Israel education programs. (Jewish Currents has reported that over the past two decades, some donors and advocates have seen funding Israel studies academic programs as a key tool for countering Palestine solidarity activism on campuses; today, such advocates view Berkeley’s Israel studies institute, which hosts visiting Israeli scholars and offers students fellowships to create courses and events, as a gold-standard program.) Coodin wrote in the memo that the AJC plans to move forward in ways that “resist damaging productive existing initiatives at Berkeley.”

Marcus, for his part, has taken a far more pugnacious approach, hinting that he may file a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education if UC Berkeley doesn’t take stronger action against the student groups that passed the bylaw. The filing of civil rights complaints using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is a strategy that Marcus himself pioneered. Such complaints—which typically claim that certain forms of Palestine solidarity activism create a hostile environment for Jewish students, and that university administrators have not taken effective action against such activism—seek to trigger federal investigations into schools’ compliance with Title VI, which prohibits federal funding of universities that discriminate against protected minority groups. Marcus and his allies have filed scores of complaints since 2004, when Marcus—at the time an assistant secretary with the DOE—announced new guidance proclaiming that the department’s Office of Civil Rights would “aggressively prosecute” Title VI cases involving Jewish students, as well as those involving Arabs and Muslims, among others. Marcus’s strategy was bolstered in 2019, when, while he once again worked in the DOE as an assistant secretary for civil rights, President Donald Trump issued an executive order encouraging federal agencies to use the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition—which classifies some types of anti-Zionist speech as antisemitic—as a guide for adjudicating Title VI complaints. (The order remains in place.)

The strategy has a mixed record: While it has not triggered any federal funding cutoffs, the civil rights lawsuits attract widespread media attention regardless of their merit, and have also resulted in settlements with universities that have agreed to clarify anti-discrimination policies and conduct outreach and training on antisemitism to students and faculty. But the strategy has been controversial among mainstream Jewish groups. In 2010, the AJC joined a wide swath of Jewish organizations in writing to then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan, requesting that he issue new guidelines to again affirm Title VI protections for Jewish college students. But in April 2011, Stern, who was then the AJC’s director on antisemitism and extremism, issued a joint statement with the president of the American Association of University Professors saying that some Jewish groups were abusing Title VI “to silence anti-Israel discourse and speakers,” an approach that is both “unwarranted” and “dangerous.” The AJC statement drew criticism from hardline groups like the Zionist Organization of America, which said the AJC was “minimizing the problems” faced by Jewish students. Four months later, The Forward reported that AJC Executive Director David Harris had written an email apologizing to a Stern critic for releasing the statement, saying it was “ill-advised.” Marcus wrote a Forward op-ed applauding Harris for repudiating the statement. Today, the AJC no longer publicly criticizes Title VI civil rights complaints: A 2018 AJC statement urging the Senate to confirm Marcus to his Trump administration DOE post says the group has long “maintained that expressions and actions related to criticism of Israel can create a hostile environment actionable under Title VI.” But Title VI advocacy is not a central plank of the group’s strategy.

Even if Marcus and the AJC differ on the correct strategy to combat Palestinian rights activism on campus, they agree on the goal of countering SJP efforts. The AJC’s memo said the group planned on devising “ways to strategically combat ‘copycat’ SJP initiatives elsewhere” and that it hoped to employ “intelligent strategy *and* strategic partnerships with existing faculty, administrators, and students on campus” to oppose such bylaw campaigns. “What is at the core of this is that Palestinians advocating for their rights—the right to liberation—and Palestinians being actively and publicly Palestinian is taken as a direct threat to Jewish identity,” said Sarah Anne Minkin, director of programs & partnerships at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “The AJC and the Brandeis Center are falling on the same side of that.”

Liz Jackson of Palestine Legal said that each strategy poses a distinct challenge to Palestinian rights advocates. “The public strategy spreads disinformation through headlines, and retweets from Barbra Streisand,” she said. “The backchannel maneuvering gets through to university administrators to twist the facts and to erase the context, which is Palestinian students’ concern about their families’ basic freedoms.”

Mari Cohen is an assistant editor at Jewish Currents.

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.