Opinion: ‘This being human is a guest house’

UC Berkeley law student Malak Afaneh speaks to a crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters during a protest on the campus of UC Berkeley in Calif., on Monday.

UC Berkeley law student Malak Afaneh speaks to a crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters during a protest on the campus of UC Berkeley in Calif., on Monday. Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group via AP


Published: 04-27-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com

‘May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice,” the 72nd Psalm begins. It continues “... May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor ... In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more ... May he have dominion from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Today, from the River to the Sea, where seven million Israelis are more free than the seven million Palestinians who co-inhabit the same lands — both in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories — righteousness flourishes not, peace is more distant than the moon.

Vengeance reigns across lands once nourished by intertwined histories and cultures; lands where songs of praise for God’s creations were once amplified are today ravaged by terror, famine, genocide and ethnic cleansing, leaving scarred bodies and devastation across once holy lands.

Amidst all that horror and devastation one recent story has captured my imagination beyond the rest, captured my imagination perhaps because it happened on the campus of one of the most storied law schools in America; a story pitting a young Palestinian-American law student living in a tormented diaspora against a beloved and entrenched power couple, advocates of free speech, at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

Amidst all that turbulence and tumult, a twenty-four-year-old Palestinian-American third-year student and co-president of the Berkeley chapter of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, Malak Afaneh, was invited to dinner, along with some other third-year students, at the home of the head of the law school, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, and his wife, Catherine Fisk, who also teaches at the law school.

Captured my imagination because the confrontation brought to mind Sufi poet Rumi’s 13th-century poem, The Guest House:

“This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.

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Welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, / who violently sweep your house / empty of its furniture / still, treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing you out / for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, / meet them at the door laughing, / and invite them in. “Be grateful for whoever comes / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”

There was no honor at the Chemerinsky’s house that night.

Videosof the encounter have gone viral, videos of a modestly dressed young woman in a red hijab, holding a microphone, attempting to address a gathering of people on the last night of Ramadan in her dean’s garden.

As-Salaam-Alaikum, Peace be upon you,” she addressed the gathering and continued, “Tonight we are gathered here in the name of commemorating our final few weeks as law students.”

Erwin Chemerinsky is heard responding, “Please leave. No. Please leave. Please leave. This is my house.”

“Tonight is also the last night of the holy month of Ramadan where millions of Muslims around the world fast,” Afaneh continued.

We also witness Catherine Fisk as she tries to take the microphone from the speaker while grabbing Afaneh’s shoulder.

“Please do not touch me,” Afaneh says.

The women struggle over the microphone, moving up the stairs. Afaneh agrees to leave the dinner if Fisk returns the microphone, an ugly confrontation that revealed much about power and privilege, about oppression and dispossession, about being ripped from one’s roots once again.

A confrontation that told me much about the lengths people will go to, when they feel silenced, to confront institutions they perceive have turned against them, even when they know those very same institutions can destroy their lives, their job prospects, their futures.

People protest when they feel wronged and silenced, and I believe Afaneh was confronting her dean because she knew that Chemerinsky had published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times stating that anyone who did not support Israel’s existence was antisemitic, a false argument, I believe, which includes many Jewish activists and organizations — including many friends of mine — who are anti-Zionist and opposed to Israel’s ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

I too would have protested.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe Afaneh had a First Amendment right to speak at a private dinner in someone’s home. I also believe that Catherine Fisk should not have put her hands on Afaneh who, at that point, had simply offered a greeting and noted that it was the last night of the holy month of Ramadan.

I believe Afaneh was compelled to speak. I believe that the voice of a young woman in a red hijab matters. Estranged from the roots of her homeland, unmoored from loved ones by settler-colonial interests, Afaneh, who believes that Zionism is a form of racism and settler colonialism, was compelled to respond.

I believe Chemerinsky and Fisk felt compelled to protect their power and privilege.

Chemerinsky, who has argued that even hate speech must be protected, self-identified as a Zionist after Oct. 7 — at a time when many of his colleagues believe the law school should have remained neutral — was compelled to respond, and he had the power.

What struck me most was that Chemerinsky, who describes himself as a supporter of Palestinian rights, and his wife, both advocates for free speech and expression and highly regarded professors who spend their lives mentoring young people on a progressive college campus, were simply unwilling or unable to simply put themselves in Afaneh’s shoes, to somehow deescalate the confrontation by dialing back their privilege.

Unable or unwilling to recognize her pain.

Unable or unwilling to recognize the righteousness of a young student whose people — over 34,000 of whom have been killed since Oct. — were daily being bombed with the unconditional support of the United States.

From the River to the Sea, unable to entertain a crowd of sorrows.

“Your world, my world, all worlds,” Salman Rushdie wrote in “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” “They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all.”

Malak Afaneh, inside her story-world, was denied her chance to rule.

We are all the poorer for it.