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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky is taught a lesson about the sectarian power politics of his own progressivism

Anita Kinney
April 15, 2024
Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky (foreground) pleads with student protestors to leave his home. Behind him, Catherine Fisk (background, right) asks student Malak Afaneh (back, left) to leave.

YouTube Screengrab

Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky (foreground) pleads with student protestors to leave his home. Behind him, Catherine Fisk (background, right) asks student Malak Afaneh (back, left) to leave.

YouTube Screengrab

Anti-Israel activists at the University of California, Berkeley have been circulating a video they say shows Berkeley Law professor Catherine Fisk “assaulting” a student.

Malak Afaneh, co-president of Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, has claimed that Fisk assaulted her during a dinner Fisk hosted on April 9 at her private residence, which she shares with her husband, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. In a video apparently filmed by a fellow student during the dinner, which Fisk and Chemerinsky hosted for graduating students, Afaneh is standing on the steps of their home, wearing a “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” T-shirt, holding a microphone, and attempting to deliver a speech—which she began with the Muslim greeting in Arabic. Fisk is seen approaching Afaneh from behind and touching her shoulder while grabbing the microphone and asking her to leave. Fisk maintains contact with Afaneh while repositioning herself in front of the student, then releases the microphone and steps back. Meanwhile, Chemerinsky insists that the students are “guests in [his] house” and need to leave, while Afaneh retorts that her attorneys at the National Lawyers Guild have informed her that the professors’ private home is a public forum with attendant First Amendment protections. A longer version of the video shows Chemerinsky repeatedly asking Afaneh to leave his house to no avail before Fisk intervened.

In her retelling, Afaneh was victimized twice: First, Chemerinsky and Fisk trampled her First Amendment rights by preventing her from giving a speech on their property, which “movement lawyering” NLG assured Afaneh qualified as a public University of California event; second, Fisk “assaulted” her. Afaneh, in a text message to a campus “Free Food” group chat accusing Fisk of “battery and assault,” intimates that Fisk put her “in a chokehold” and kept “grabbing at [her] breasts” in the process of grabbing the microphone. Afaneh described herself in the message as a “survivor” of an “attack.” She would repeat these claims in a TikTok video where she purported to reenact Fisk’s “chokehold” by putting her arm in front of her neck—the opposite of what was documented on camera at the dinner. In the TikTok video, Afaneh charged that Fisk “embodied … the deep anti-Arab racism … that the Zionist administrations are built on.”

No reasonable person can take Afaneh’s account of the videotaped incident seriously. For many years, Chemerinsky and Fisk have welcomed new Berkeley students to their home for a series of backyard dinners. On March 27, Chemerinsky sent an email to third-year students announcing that he was also welcoming graduating students to dinner, since they were unable to participate in this tradition due to COVID restrictions during their first year of law school. His invitation drew immediate scorn and calls for boycotts from students in Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, who called the Jewish dean “ZIONIST CHEM” in an Instagram post depicting him eating from blood-soaked utensils.

Half an hour later, the group replaced the image with a lightly sanitized version—together with a post with a red triangle. For the uninitiated, the red triangle—which emblazoned the BDS T-shirt Afaneh wore to Fisk and Chemerinsky’s home—started trending online after Oct. 7, when Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigade, began posting videos to social media that show Hamas members using this symbol to mark their targets. On social media, the red triangle has become shorthand for a certain type of activist to signal their alignment with Hamas and other militant “resistance” groups. (Other activists show their support for Palestinians via the more mainstream watermelon emoji, which is a reference to resistance art in contested West Bank territories.)

Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine took the signaling one step further, by superimposing a quote from the late Dr. George Habash atop the red triangle. Habash founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist organization responsible for armed aircraft hijackings and other terrorist attacks.

In hindsight, it would appear that Chemerinsky’s decision to invite students like Afaneh and her comrades to his private residence was ill-advised. However, as Chemerinsky explained in a statement on April 10, his choice to proceed with the invitation after the antisemitic postings was not only driven by his commitment to freedom of speech, but also by his refusal to be intimidated into canceling the dinner. He proceeded on the assumption “that any protest would not be disruptive.” Perhaps predictably, that assumption was wrong—certainly when it comes to someone with Afaneh’s public record.

According to the website Canary Mission, Afaneh has made social media posts in support of the so-called Holy Land Foundation Five—in reference to Shukri Abu Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh, and Mohammad El-Mezain, who were convicted and sentenced in 2009 for providing material support to Hamas. She also posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing a red kaffiyeh, with the caption “red kuffiyeh for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine only.” Afaneh’s apparent enthusiasm for this organization makes Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine’s superimposition of Habash’s quote atop the red triangle seem especially sinister, particularly when paired with the antisemitic illustration of Chemerinsky ravenously consuming blood.

It is no wonder that, besides wanting to stop a student from making her home the stage for an antisemitic social media stunt, Fisk might have also wanted to protect her Jewish husband from this particular student. A student who has recently disseminated antisemitic propaganda wearing a pro-Hamas T-shirt beginning a filmed diatribe in Arabic and refusing repeated pleas to leave your property—was Fisk wrong to have something to fear?

The irony, of course, is that the jargon Afaneh used in her subsequent video is in line with the mainstream progressive dogma and rhetoric that liberals like Chemerinsky and Fisk have long championed: that she was “assaulted” because she was a “hijabi-wearing, kuffiyeh-repping, Palestinian Muslim student,” that her host “embodied the Islamophobia, the deep anti-Arab racism,” that Fisk “threatened to call the cops on a gathering of majority Black and brown students,” and that the “assault” was “the classic thing” that “Palestinian lives are constructed to be seen as allowed to be harmed, to be killed, and to be slaughtered, while white ones are allowed to live.” Students like Afaneh have learned to weaponize their identities to shut down criticism, but also to implicitly threaten reputational and professional ruin, as she can be heard doing in a longer version of the video. Afaneh and her associates are quick to emphasize that Fisk attacked a “brown hijabi woman during Ramadan.” Afaneh proceeded to tell Fisk that she’ll be hearing from legal counsel. It would appear based on these actions that if you expect adherence to any social norms whatsoever, you are a racist white supremacist. But Afaneh is simply playing by the rules that govern American academia.

For too long, university officials have enabled this kind of behavior. Chemerinsky himself was arguably one of them. As dean of the law school, he did not condemn Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine when they adopted a bylaw supporting BDS and stating that they would not invite speakers who support Zionism or Israel’s policies. The SJP group asked other student groups to include in their bylaws a statement condemning Israel. The SJP bylaw was subsequently adopted by nine other student groups. In 2022, Chemerinsky penned an article in defense of the BDS student activists’ freedom of speech, arguing that the media’s focus on the SJP’s anti-Israel activity was painting “a misleading picture,” and expressing his view that this group’s “criticism” of “Israeli policies” was not antisemitic. Chemerinsky appears to have thought that by defending their First Amendment rights, he was teaching his students a lesson about free speech in America. In reality, Chemerinsky’s students taught him a lesson about the sectarian power politics of his own progressivism.

Chemerinsky has since expressed his sadness that Berkeley has “students who are so rude” as to use a social occasion in his home for their political agenda. Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, University of California President Michael Drake, and Board of Regents Chair Rich Leib all made statements of support for Chemerinsky. Leib was blunt, condemning the student’s actions as “deplorable,” “antisemitic,” and “threatening,” and stating that the event was targeted “simply because it was hosted by a dean who is Jewish.”

Despite the apparent moral clarity of these statements, the antisemitic student mob can nonetheless claim a victory at UC Berkeley: Beyond the humiliating internal investigation that Chemerinsky and Fisk will likely endure, their cherished backyard dinners—like any event featuring an Israeli or Jewish speaker at Berkeley—will now require security. The fear of disruption—and the implicit threat of violence from students who wear their support for terrorists, literally, on their chests—may deter others from attending.

When reached for comment, UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof told Tablet: “The university will do everything it can to ensure that no student will ever be deterred from attending a university event, regardless of its location, purpose, or sponsor. The fact that Dean Chemerinsky was able to hold a well-attended second dinner for another large group of his students the following (Wednesday) night without disruption or incident is a clear sign that your underlying premise is not correct. If there has been any ‘victory’ in the wake of what happened, it was victory for those students who stayed on Tuesday night, and readily showed up on Wednesday night, undeterred and unafraid. If we need to have security present to enforce our commitments and values during these difficult times, we will not hesitate to do so.”

Of course, the fact that security is needed to enforce basic civic values at a faculty member’s private residence is precisely the point. Beyond Berkeley, other professors at state universities will likely think long and hard before they host students in their homes, lest they face a First Amendment lawsuit for trying to expel students who physically menace and verbally assault them.

Anita Kinney is a law student at Northwestern University.