Berkeley law student who interrupted social event at dean’s home in protest of Israel faces accusations of antisemitism

The University of California, Berkeley campus | Source: Wally Gobetz

Controversy followed after a viral video emerged of a Palestinian American law student interrupting a dinner at the home of the University of California, Berkeley, law school dean. The dean, who ordered the student and others to leave, maintained that it was his right to limit speech on his personal property. 

Key Players

Erwin Chemerinsky became the 13th dean of Berkeley Law in 2017. His areas of expertise include constitutional law and federal civil procedure. He has authored more than 200 law review articles and 19 books, including one on campus Free Speech. Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, said he “strongly oppose[s] the policies of the Netanyahu government [in Israel], favor[s] full rights for Palestinians, and believe[s] that there must be a two-state solution.”

Catherine Fisk is a professor of employment law, labor law, civil procedure, and the U.S. legal profession at Berkeley. She serves as the faculty director of Berkeley’s Center for Law and Work and its Center for Law & Technology, and she has authored several books and over 100 articles and essays. Fisk and Chemerinsky are married.

Malak Afaneh is a 2024 Berkeley J.D. candidate and co-president of the Berkeley Law chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP). In August 2022, she drafted a bylaw to the LSJP constitution in support of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement and banning Zionist speakers from its events, which placed Berkeley Law under federal investigation for violating the Civil Rights Act. 

Further Details

Chemerinsky has previously been the target of antisemitic incidents. In an October 2023 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, he wrote that he was accused several times of being “part of a Zionist conspiracy,” among other incidents. Initially, he said, he and other administrators hesitated to speak out against students who defended the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, because they did not want to be accused of being Islamophobic. 

“Students have the right to say very offensive and even hateful things,” Chemerinsky wrote, while asserting that university officials also had to take a stand against antisemitism, “even if it will offend some and subject them to criticism.”

“I call on my fellow university administrators to speak out and denounce the celebrations of Hamas (after their invasion of Israel and rapes and murders of Israelis on October 7, 2023) and the blatant antisemitism that is being voiced.”

On April 9, Chemerinsky and Fisk hosted Berkeley law students for dinner in their backyard for a community-building event to recognize student achievement. About 60 students attended. 

As the dinner began, Afaneh stood up with a microphone and amplifier and attempted to give a speech about the death of Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war. She also urged university divestment from Israeli corporations.

Chemerinsky approached Afaneh and said, “This is my house. The First Amendment doesn’t apply,” and, “You’re my guest. Please leave my house.” Fisk tried to grab the microphone from Afaneh’s hand, saying, “It is not your house. It is my house. And I want you to leave.”

Afaneh refused to leave. Fisk then threatened to call the police but said she would prefer not to. Eventually, Afaneh and the nine other LSJP students who organized the protest left the property.

The incident was just one of many controversies concerning how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has embroiled Berkeley. Tensions have especially heightened since the Oct. 7 attack. 

Outcome

Chemerinsky responds to antisemitic caricature

One week prior to the dinner, a caricature of Chemerinsky appeared on social media and bulletin boards around the law school, showing an image of him holding a bloody knife and fork with the caption, “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves.”

“I never thought I would see such blatant antisemitism with an image that invokes the horrible antisemitic trope of blood libel and that attacks me for no apparent reason other than I am Jewish,” Chemerinsky stated on April 10, a day after the dinner took place. 

Chemerinsky revealed that he did not initially respond to complaints about the posters caricaturing him because he thought they were protected by the First Amendment. But in the wake of the protest at his home, he decided to speak out.

Free Speech organizations defend Chemerinsky and Fisk

Chemerinsky told the Los Angeles Times that he and Fisk own the house. Therefore, as private property, the First Amendment did not apply. “No one has the right to come into my house, or yours, and disrupt a dinner,” he said. “As a matter of constitutional law, this is absolutely clear.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) concurred with Chemerinsky, explaining that inviting students for dinner does not grant them the right to disturb the event. Private speech may be limited at a private home. 

Chemerinsky further stated that any student who disrupted the dinners scheduled for his home on subsequent evenings would be “reported to student conduct and a violation of the student conduct code is reported to the Bar.”

University officials condemn LSJP protests as antisemitism 

On April 11, University of California (UC) system President Michael Drake and UC Board of Regents chair Rich Leib condemned the LSJP protest. 

“The individuals that targeted this event did so simply because it was hosted by a dean who is Jewish,” Drake and Leib stated. “These actions were antisemitic, threatening, and do not reflect the values of this university.”

This UC statement was one of the first calling an anti-Israel demonstration antisemitic. In February, after a heated protest at Berkeley forced Jewish students to evacuate an event with an Israeli Defense Force reservist, resulting in three Jewish students being injured and one allegedly called a “dirty Jew” and “a Nazi,” official UC statements had omitted the word “antisemitism.”

Afaneh claims Islamophobia

Afaneh took to social media to accuse Chemerinsky and Fisk of Islamophobia.

“I was attacked because I, as a visibly Muslim, hijab wearing, kuffiyeh repping, Arabic speaking, woman was deemed as a threat that deserved being traumatized and assaulted simply for carrying the identities I do,” she wrote on Instagram. “I was attacked because we live in a world where Zionist administration and the world as a whole views Palestinian bodies as constructed to die, while white ones are expected to live.”


The LSJP demands that Chemerinsky and Fisk resign from their positions and UC align with the BDS movement. As of April 25, 2024, there were no further developments.