Chemerinsky affair reflects UCI-Jewish conflicts
ZOA in the news
September 21, 2007

Chemerinsky affair reflects UCI-Jewish conflicts
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The on-off-on-again saga of Erwin Chemerinsky’s path to become dean of the UC Irvine law school has held a special resonance for the Southern California Jewish community, where he has been active for more than two decades.

Also affected are the already strained relations between parts of the Jewish community in Orange County and the leadership of the Irvine campus.

Unless there are further academic earthquakes, Chemerinsky, a constitutional authority long associated with liberal causes, will be confirmed as dean of the UCI law school, scheduled to open in 2009.

The rollercoaster developments in the case spawned a bitter public debate on academic freedom and continuing protests by faculty, students, lawyers and community groups.

Chemerinsky, 53, initially signed a contract on Sept. 4 with UCI Chancellor Dr. Michael V. Drake, to become the founding dean of the future law school. One week later, Drake reversed his field and announced that he was rescinding the contract.

After a late-night session Sunday, Sept. 16, in Durham, N.C., where Chemerinsky now serves as law and political science professor at Duke University, Drake signed a joint statement with Chemerinsky restoring the original agreement, after clearing up “several areas of miscommunication.”

Drake, 57, is a prominent African American medical scientist, who became UCI’s chancellor in 2005. His tenure has been marred by strained relations with parts of the Jewish community in Orange County that claim he has not responded effectively to the harassment of Jewish students by Muslim campus groups. These groups also have sponsored outside speakers, who, critics allege, virulently espouse anti-Israel and anti-Semitic viewpoints. Two years ago, the Zionist Organization of America filed a federal civil rights complaint against the university on behalf of Jewish students.

Recently, however, Drake, 57, spoke out publicly and forcefully against the British boycott of Israeli universities, terming it “misguided, outrageous and wrong.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed column on Sept. 15, Drake described the decision to drop Chemerinsky, who previously taught for 21 years at USC, as a “management decision” that was not politically driven. But there has been wide speculation that Drake caved in to pressure from donors and others in traditionally conservative Orange County who were against appointing an outspoken liberal as dean.

Chemerinsky was raised in a “fairly traditional” Jewish family on Chicago’s South Side, co-founded the Progressive Jewish Alliance and served as president of Beverly Hills’ Temple Emanuel day school. He is a prolific writer and among his numerous extracurricular activities he represented Valerie Plame in the suit by the exposed CIA agent against the government.

He also serves as counsel for the family of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old college student who was killed while confronting an Israeli bulldozer that had been ordered to wreck an Arab house in the Gaza Strip. Her family is suing the Caterpillar company, arguing that the bulldozer manufacturer should have known that its product would be used by the Israeli government for “human rights violations.”

At least one conservative Republican, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, pushed for dumping Chemerinsky. Antonovich sent a letter to two dozen people, including regents of the UC system, urging them to prevent the appointment.

Antonovich and Chemerinsky had clashed in previous public hearings over the removal of a cross in the Los Angeles County seal, with the law professor in favor and the supervisor bitterly opposed.

In a voicemail left for the Associated Press, Antonovich reportedly declared that choosing Chemerinsky as dean “would be like appointing al-Qaeda in charge of homeland security.”

The emotions of the controversy were strongly reflected in the Jewish community, where Chemerinsky counts many friends and admirers.

Two of them, the high-powered lawyer couple of Douglas Mirell and Laurie Levenson, circulated an open letter to the UC regents requesting a public meeting to reconsider Drake’s “reckless decision” and reinstate Chemerinsky’s appointment.

In addition to violating fundamental academic standards, Drake’s initial reversal violated the California constitution’s provision to keep the university “entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence,” the open letter declared.

Mirell, a well-known First Amendment lawyer and first vice president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, termed Drake’s action “a horribly tragic blunder from which UC Irvine may not be able to recover.”

He and his wife are longtime colleagues and friends of Chemerinsky, and they plan to attend his son’s bar mitzvah in North Carolina next month, Mirell said in a phone interview.

Mirell said he had no reason to believe “that Chemerinsky’s Jewishness played any role in the controversy,” but his wife wasn’t as sure.

“I don’t know if the Jewish aspect had anything to do with the case, but it is absolutely possible,” said Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, former federal prosecutor and frequent media commentator. “We may not find out until we know who were the conservatives who did Erwin in.”

Perhaps the harshest attack on Drake came from Susan Estrich, a USC law professor, veteran Democratic Party activist and commentator for Fox News.

In a blog on Creators Syndicate titled “The Most Corrupt Man in California,” Estrich lashed out at Drake, particularly his failure to stem anti-Semitic incidents on his campus.

“Dr. Drake has a twisted view of academic freedom, one that allows Muslim students to engage in open anti-Semitism, to hold rallies on campus attacking Zionist control of the media, and equating Jewish support for Israel with Hitler’s Nazi,” Estrich wrote, but there is “no room for a liberal, Jewish law professor who is routinely the object of bidding wars between top-rated law schools.”

A notable aspect of the controversy was that even conservatives, who strongly disagreed with Chemerinsky’s liberal philosophy, largely rallied to his side, which likely led to the final re-instatement of his appointment.

Among them was attorney Howard Friedman, chairman of the Skirball Cultural Center board of trustees, who described himself as a “Henry (Scoop) Jackson Democrat, which means I vote Republican. I know Erwin quite well, and while I don’t agree with most of his opinions, he is a solid scholar and absolutely straight forward. I hold him in high regard.”

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