A week into the Israel-Hamas war, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal under the headline "Don't Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students."
Backlash was swift. More than 200 alumni signed an open letter to the law school's dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, urging him to "publicly address the harm" done by the article and to uphold freedom of speech for all students.
In an email to the Berkeley Law community, Chemerinsky affirmed the school's commitment to freedom of speech, including language that "others find offensive, even deeply offensive." He also noted that the professor was expressing a personal opinion and did not speak for the law school.
Then last weekend, Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar who is Jewish, published an op-ed of his own in the Los Angeles Times. He described antisemitic remarks directed at him since the war started, as well as statements from students and academics around the country that he said "celebrated the Hamas terrorist attack."
"There has been enough silence and enough tolerance of antisemitism on college campuses," he wrote. "I call on my fellow university administrators to speak out and denounce the celebrations of Hamas and the blatant antisemitism that is being voiced."
Even before Hamas' brutal Oct. 7 incursion into Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian issue had been a painful source of conflict on college campuses. The escalating war, including relentless Israeli airstrikes and a ground invasion of Gaza, has turned U.S. universities into battlegrounds over speech and the potential consequences of airing opinions that some regard as hateful.
More than 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas' initial attack, and Palestinian militants are holding about 220 people hostage.
More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. More than 1.4 million have fled their homes.
At Berkeley Law, the inflammatory Wall Street Journal op-ed by Steven Davidoff Solomon, an expert on corporate law and an adviser to the Jewish law students association, has had a chilling effect, say some students who advocate for Palestinian rights.
"Many feel uncomfortable speaking out beyond their private social media accounts," said Matt Fernandes, a third-year law student and member of the Berkeley chapter of Law Students for Justice in Palestine. "Everyone's scared. Everyone's fearful. Everyone feels angry and betrayed by our own faculty."
In the op-ed, Solomon recommended against hiring his own students if they "advocate hate and practice discrimination."
He referenced a bylaw that the Berkeley chapter of Law Students for Justice in Palestine had adopted the previous academic year vowing not to "invite speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine." Eight other campus organizations signed on to variations of the bylaw, which critics slammed as silencing Jewish students.
"If you are a legal employer, when you interview students from Berkeley, Harvard, NYU or any other law school this year, ask them what organizations they belong to," Solomon wrote. "Ask if they support discriminatory bylaws or other acts and resolutions blaming Jews and Israelis for the Hamas massacre. If a student endorses hatred, it isn't only your right but your duty not to hire him."
Last month, a New York law firm rescinded a job offer to an NYU Law student who had written what the firm described as "inflammatory comments" about the Hamas attack. Another law firm initially rescinded offers to Harvard and Columbia students for similar reasons.
The New York Times reported that about two dozen Wall Street law firms signed a letter to law schools cautioning that students hoping to be hired should be prepared to work under "zero tolerance policies for any form of discrimination or harassment, much less the kind that has been taking place on some law school campuses."
Fernandes said he feels that Solomon directly targeted marginalized students because most of the organizations that adopted the bylaw, some of which were named in the op-ed, represent students of color and queer students. Many of Fernandes' peers are worried that by expressing support for the Palestinians, they could jeopardize their law careers or face online abuse.
During the bylaw controversy, students associated with Law Students for Justice in Palestine were doxxed and deluged with hate mail, Fernandes said.
At one point, a truck circled the campus displaying billboards that named several students, including Fernandes, and declared them part of "Berkeley Law's Antisemitic Class of 2023."
Solomon did not respond to requests seeking comment.
After Solomon's op-ed was published on Oct. 15, Liz Jackson's phone lit up with messages from fellow Berkeley Law alumni.
Jackson is Jewish and a founding attorney with Palestine Legal, which defends the rights of people who speak in support of Palestinian freedom.
"The content of his op-ed went around like wildfire," she recalled. "It was shocking and racist, and very offensive to myself as a Jewish alumni and … students of all backgrounds who identify with Palestinians."
To Jackson, the opinion piece read as a call to punish law students who advocate for Palestinian rights, many of them students of color who already face barriers to employment.
With other alumni, she began organizing the open letter to Chemerinsky, which, in addition to urging the dean to speak out, accused Solomon of violating the university's free-speech values by threatening the safety and livelihoods of students based on their political opinions. And, the letter said, Solomon conflated "support for the Palestinian people or criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism."
Asked in an interview on Monday if he thought Solomon's op-ed was harmful to students, Chemerinsky said, "What else can I say other than — that isn't the law school's position, and we'll help every student find a job?"
Some law students said they largely agreed with Solomon.
Jacob Shofet, a first-year student who is Jewish, said law firms have the right to choose their employees.
"Everyone has a right to free speech. And law firms are free to hire who they want to hire," he said. "At the same time, I think organizations on campus, both in the law school and UC Berkeley itself, have blurred the line between legitimate Palestinian issues and rights and a support for terrorism that wants to see me dead."
Charlotte Aaron said that as a Jewish student she has felt increasingly unsafe on campus since the war started.
Last week, Aaron said she retreated to her home in Arizona for a few days after watching some of her law school peers join hundreds of other students in a pro-Palestinian protest on campus, chanting phrases such as "smash the Zionist settler state." The walkout was part of a national protest calling for Israel to end its siege of Gaza.
At Cornell University, violent threats against Jewish students prompted campus police to increase security at the Center for Jewish Living last week.
"Employers have an obligation to consider this moral failing," said Aaron, a third-year student. "I wouldn't want any person who justifies the murders of Oct. 7 and the holding of hostages to be my lawyer. I am deeply concerned about these individuals being in positions of power one day."
After initially taking no action, Chemerinsky emailed editors of campus law journals on Oct. 23, informing them that students can no longer receive academic credit for working on a journal that has adopted the bylaw.
In his Oct. 29 op-ed, Chemerinsky noted that he strongly opposes "the policies of the Netanyahu government," favors "full rights for Palestinians" and believes "that there must be a two-state solution."
But, he wrote, he can no longer stay silent when some people on college campuses are "calling for an end to Israel."
Aaron said she approves of Chemerinsky's willingness to condemn antisemitism and feels "lucky" to attend a school he leads.
But some alumni criticized Chemerinsky's op-ed for failing to also condemn anti-Palestinian racism that students are experiencing. Jackson said she was alarmed that Chemerinsky would use his platform to "center his own personal discomfort" when "we're watching a genocide committed in the name of Jewish safety."
She said Chemerinsky "smeared his own students" and ascribed a level of hate to them "that essentially is the same thing as the Solomon op-ed, but a little lighter."