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Jewish UC Berkeley dean confronts pro-Palestinian activist at his home

A woman holds a microphone and speaks warmly to a woman in a hijab who looks away from her.

UC Berkeley Law School student Malak Afaneh, left, and law professor Catherine Fisk argue Tuesday at the home of Fisk and her husband, law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

(Maryam Alhakim)

What was supposed to be a celebratory dinner at a dean’s home for UC Berkeley law students turned Tuesday into a furious confrontation over Israel’s war with Hamas, free speech and accusations of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred.

Several dozen law school students were invited to the Oakland home of law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky and his wife, law professor Catherine Fisk, for the first of three dinners they were planning ‘organize. The event, which took place in the couple’s garden with tables covered in white cloth and students seated among lemon trees, aimed to recognize the work of law students and provide an opportunity to spend some casual time with the two eminent professors.

But the dinner quickly fizzled out after a visiting Palestinian American law student stood up in front of the guests and attempted to give a speech about Palestinians dying in Gaza and her desire for the university to divest from the companies involved in Israel’s war, occupation and blockade. Palestinian lands.

Chemerinsky approached the student with his arms crossed and shouted to her: “Please leave. No, please leave. Please leave. Fisk grabbed the student’s microphone, saying, “This is not your house.” It’s my house. And I want you to leave.

The student who spoke, Malak Afaneh, said Fisk attacked her and her right to free speech was violated.

Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, says the incident is the latest in anti-Semitic attacks against him and that free speech does not extend to his home. The university, embroiled in months of protests against the war between Israel and Hamas, supports the dean.

“I am dismayed and deeply troubled by what happened last night at the home of Dean Chemerinsky,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement. “I have been in contact with him to offer my support and sympathy. While our support for free speech is unwavering, we cannot tolerate the use of a social event in someone’s private residence as a platform for protest.”

In an interview, University of California President Michael Drake called the incident “very unfortunate.”

UC Board of Trustees Chairman Rich Leib said he condemned the student’s actions and called them “deplorable…The individuals who targeted this event did so done simply because it was organized by a Jewish dean. These actions were anti-Semitic, threatening and do not reflect the values ​​of this university.

The events were filmed on several videos made by pro-Palestinian activists present.

A video shows Afaneh, dressed in a denim skirt, a white “disinvested” shirt with a black and white keffiyeh around her neck and a red hijab, rising from her table and standing in front of seated guests. After saying the traditional Islamic greeting in Arabic and translating it into English as “peace and blessings be upon you all,” she said: “Tonight we are gathered here in the name of commemorating our final weeks as law students. Tonight is also the last night of the holy month of Ramadan when millions of Muslims around the world fast.

“Please leave!” Chemerinsky says after the words “gathered here”. The video shows him standing a few meters from Afaneh as he screams. “This is my house. You are my guest. You are my guest. Please leave my house,” he said.

The clip then cuts to Afaneh to show that Fisk approached her from behind and grabbed Afaneh’s phone, from which she is reading a script, the microphone and Afaneh’s shirt. Fisk’s arm is on Afaneh’s right shoulder and sometimes appears to touch her neck.

“This is not your house!” This is my house!” Fisk says. The video shows Fisk looking at another woman who was with the protester and saying, “Get her out of my house!”

An argument ensued between Afaneh, Chemerinsky, Fisk and the other woman, also a law student.

“You’re not welcome,” Fisk told Afaneh, suggesting she call the police. Afaneh replies: “You can call the police. » Fisk said, “I’d rather not.” She then tries to take the microphone from Afaneh, who does not release her grip and is pulled down a few steps into a small staircase.

“Forty thousand people are dying,” Afaneh tells Fisk in the video, which lasts just under three minutes.

“I can’t stop this,” Fisk said.

A Palestinian-American student claims she was attacked and deprived of her right to free speech when she tried to speak about the deaths of Palestinians at a law school dinner at the dean’s house. University of Berkeley, Erwin Chemerinsky, Tuesday. The dean, who expelled the demonstrators, claims that they do not have the right to freedom of expression on his private property. A Jew, he accused activists of being anti-Semitic. (Maryam Alhakim)

The video later shows Chemerinsky speaking to another student, imploring the activists to leave. “There’s a genocide happening,” one student told him. “Then don’t come here!” Chemerinsky said.

Nine activists organized the protest as part of the law school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. They left shortly after the argument, according to both parties.

“We agree with you on what is happening in Palestine,” Fisk says in another video as Afaneh and the students leave.

“So what have you done about divestment? Nothing. Nothing,” another student said as she walked away.

“We don’t control the investment,” Fisk responds.

In an interview Wednesday, Afaneh said she felt attacked by Fisk and was considering filing a lawsuit, but would first consult with lawyers.

“The aggression with which she rushed at me when I told her ‘as-salamu alaykoum.’ She saw my hijab and my keffiyeh, and it was a risk for her,” Afaneh said.

Fisk did not respond to an email seeking comment. Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert, issued a statement Wednesday and answered a reporter’s questions.

“The house belongs to my wife and me. The mortgage is our names. It’s on a street in Oakland. It is not owned by the university, is not owned by the university and is not funded by the university in any way,” Chemerinsky said in an interview with The Times. “This is private property and the 1st Amendment simply does not apply to it. No one has the right to come to my house, or yours, and disrupt a dinner party. From the point of view of constitutional law, this is absolutely clear.”

Chemerinsky has been a vocal critic of pro-Palestinian activists in Berkeley and a frequent target of their activities since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza. Chemerinsky said he was singled out because he was Jewish.

“Last week there was a horrible poster, on social media and law school bulletin boards, of a caricature of me holding a bloody knife and fork, with the words in large letters: “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves.” ” he said in the statement. “I never thought I would see such blatant anti-Semitism, with an image that invokes the horrible anti-Semitic trope of blood libel and attacks me for no apparent reason other than because I’m Jewish.”

Chemerinsky’s description largely matches that of an image posted on social media by Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine. As of Wednesday, the group’s social media pages did not show blood on the knife and fork. It is unclear whether the group’s page has ever shown such an image or whether the image seen by Chemerinsky was distributed on another social media account.

This is not the first conflict in recent months involving the law school. In the fall, a professor sparked controversy when he published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students.” Students and alumni have called on Chemerinsky to take action in response. Chemerinsky came to the professor’s defense, saying he defends free speech even if people find it “deeply offensive.”

The dean said dinners scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday would continue.

“I hope there will be no disruptions… But we will have security,” Chemerinsky said in the statement. “Any students who are disruptive will be reported to the Student Code of Conduct and any violations of the Student Code of Conduct will be reported to the Bar.”

Staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

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