What was supposed to be a celebratory dinner at a dean's home for graduating University of California, Berkeley law students Tuesday turned into an angry confrontation over the Israel-Hamas war, free speech and accusations of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred.

Several dozen law school students were invited to the Oakland, California, home of School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and his wife, law school professor Catherine Fisk, for the first of three dinners they planned to host. 

The event, which took place in the couple's backyard garden with white-cloth-covered tables and students seated among lemon trees, was to recognize the work of law students and provide an opportunity to enjoy casual time with the two prominent professors.

But the dinner quickly devolved after a Palestinian American law student who was invited stood up in front of guests and attempted to give a speech about Palestinians dying in Gaza and her desire for the university to divest from corporations involved in Israel's war and its occupation and blockade of Palestinian lands.

Chemerinsky approached the student with his arms folded and shouted at her: "Please leave. No. Please leave. Please leave." Fisk grabbed away the student's microphone, while saying, "It is not your house. It is my house. And I want you to leave."

The student who spoke, Malak Afaneh, said that Fisk assaulted her and that her free speech rights were denied.

Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, says that the incident is the latest in antisemitic attacks on him and that free speech does not extend to his home. The university, which has been embroiled in months of protests over the Israel-Hamas war, is standing behind the dean.

"I am appalled and deeply disturbed by what occurred at Dean Chemerinsky's home last night," UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement. "I have been in touch with him to offer my support and sympathy. While our support for free speech is unwavering, we cannot condone using a social occasion at a person'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 Regents Chair Rich Leib said he condemned the student's actions and called it "deplorable.... The individuals that targeted this event did so simply because it was hosted by a dean who is Jewish. These actions were antisemitic, threatening, and do not reflect the values of this university."

The events were caught on multiple videos by pro-Palestinian activists who were present.

A video shows Afaneh, who was dressed in a jean skirt, a white "divest" shirt with a black-and-white keffiyeh around her neck and a red hijab, getting up from her table and standing in front of the seated guests. After offering the traditional Islamic greeting in Arabic and translating it to English as "peace and blessings upon you all," she says, "Tonight we are gathered here in the name of commemorating our final few weeks as law students. Tonight is also the last night of the holy month of Ramadan where millions of Muslims around the world fast."

"Please leave!" Chemerinsky says after the words "gathered here." The video shows him standing several feet away from Afaneh as he shouts. "This is my house. You are my guest. You're my guest. Please leave my house," he says.

The clip then pans to Afaneh to show that Fisk has approached her from behind and grabbed the microphone and Afaneh's shirt. Fisk's arm is on Afaneh's right shoulder and at times appears to touch her neck.

"This is not your house! It is my house!" Fisk says. The video shows Fisk looking at another woman who is with the demonstrator and saying, "Get her to leave my house!"

An argument ensues among Afaneh, Chemerinsky, Fisk and the other woman, also a law student.

"You are not welcome," Fisk says to Afaneh, suggesting she may call the police. Afaneh replies, "You can call the police." Fisk says, "I don't prefer to." She then tries to take the microphone from Afaneh, who does not let go of her grip and is pulled a few steps up a small set of stairs.

"Forty thousand people are dying," Afaneh says at one point to Fisk in the video, which is just under three minutes long.

"I can't stop that," Fisk says.

The video later shows Chemerinsky speaking to a different student, pleading for activists to leave. "There is a genocide going on," a student tells him. "Then don't come here!" Chemerinsky says.

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

In an interview Wednesday, Afaneh said that she felt assaulted by Fisk and that she was considering filing charges, but would first consult with lawyers.

"The aggression with which she ran at me when I said 'as-salamu alaykum.' She saw my hijab and keffiyeh, and that was a risk for her," Afaneh said.

Fisk did not reply to an email seeking comment. Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert, released a statement Wednesday and responded to a reporter's questions.

"The house is privately owned by my wife and me. The mortgage is our names. It is on a street in Oakland. It is not owned by the university, on university property, or in any way paid for by the university," Chemerinsky said in an interview with The Times. "It is private property, and the 1st Amendment simply does not apply there. No one has the right to come into my house, or yours, and disrupt a dinner. As a matter of constitutional law, this is absolutely clear."

Chemerinsky has been a vocal critic of pro-Palestinian activists at Berkeley and a frequent target of their activity since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel'songoing war in Gaza. Chemerinsky said he is being singled out because he is Jewish.

"Last week, there was an awful poster, on social media and bulletin boards in the law school building, 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 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."

This is not the first conflict in recent months involving the law school. In the fall, a professor ignited controversy when he published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, "Don't Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students." Students and alumni petitioned Chemerinsky to take action in response. Chemerinsky stood up for the professor, saying he was defending free speech even if people find it "deeply offensive."

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

"I hope that there will be no disruptions.... But we will have security present," Chemerinsky said in the statement. "Any student who disrupts will be reported to student conduct and a violation of the student conduct code is reported to the bar."


(Staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.) 


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