Recently, UC Berkeley has embarked on a spate of renamings as it seeks to distance itself from the legacy of racism and colonialism that is embodied by our campus — the very names that adorn our buildings and the various ill-begotten fortunes that put them there.
Yet in February, the campus accepted a $10 million donation from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, earmarked for the Berkeley Institute of Jewish Law and Israel Studies, and renamed the Institute in honor of Helen Diller. This institute, housed at the law school, now gives the highest and most visible recognition to a group that champions Islamophobic hatred, misogyny and the suppression of political speech, with a fortune built from harmful real estate tactics in the Bay Area.
Law Students for Justice in Palestine demands that UC Berkeley immediately return the $10 million donation and restore the original name of the institute.
The Diller family’s real estate fortune was built through the mass eviction regime that has led to California’s current housing crisis. The endowment of the Helen Diller Family Foundation was seeded by the fortune of real estate billionaire Sanford Diller. Jackie Safier, Diller’s daughter, is currently the president of both the foundation and of the company Sanford founded, called the Prometheus Real Estate Group. Prometheus is the largest private owner of multifamily properties in the Bay Area and has actively campaigned against rent control, spending $2 million to campaign against Proposition 10 in 2018, and more than $650,000 to defeat Prop. 21 in 2020. As a result, Prometheus made a fortune and middle-class Bay Area locals lost their homes to skyrocketing real estate speculation and market deregulation. Even more concerning, Safier crusaded against eviction protections such as rent control during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to this concerning relationship with Prometheus, the Helen Diller Family Foundation has supported racist, Islamophobic and far-right organizations, some of which have actively harmed members of the Berkeley community. Tax documents reveal that between 2014 and 2016 the foundation funded a number of far-right Islamophobic organizations. It donated $25,000 in 2015 to a foundation created by the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who called for a halt to Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and promoted legislation that would ban the Qur’an. The foundation also donated $150,000 to the American Freedom Defense Initiative — deemed an active anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — spearheaded by Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. These organizations, along with others that the foundation has funded, actively work to engender violence against Muslims both in the United States and around the world. Berkeley Law should not align itself, explicitly or implicitly, with the global Islamophobic right.
The tax documents also made public that in 2016, the Helen Diller Family Foundation gave a $100,000 grant to Canary Mission— a project meant to operate as a blacklist against people speaking about human rights for Palestinians or those who are critical of the violent occupation of Palestinian land by the state of Israel. The project is an explicit attempt to silence free speech and the Israeli government has used the project’s website to bar human rights defenders from entering the country. The site also acts as an employment blacklist for students seeking admission to further graduate programs. As recently as last year, right-wing students threatened Palestinian UC Berkeley students with doxxing on Canary Mission in an attempt to prevent them from speaking freely in a public student senate meeting, and UC Berkeley students are already listed on the site. UC faculty members have also been negatively impacted, prompting the UC Academic Senate to send a letter to former UC President Janet Napolitano condemning Canary Mission. Berkeley Law, the home of the free speech movement, should not be aligned with this suppression of political speech and dissent. This would betray the legacy of those who fought for free speech on campus.
The tax documents also show the Helen Diller Family Foundation giving more than $100,000 in grants to Project Veritas, a right-wing organization run by James O’Keefe. The organization is known for doctoring graphic videos for the purpose of provoking outrage at Planned Parenthood, is openly misogynistic and actively attempts to incite violence against health care providers. Berkeley Law should not in any way be associated with such an organization.
After the aforementioned tax records were discovered, the Helen Diller Family Foundation tried to mend its public image by claiming the Canary Mission donation was unintentional. Although it has promised not to repeat such actions, it never acknowledged the harm done by the donation, never retracted the donation and went on to funnel further hundreds of thousands of dollars into Islamophobic hate groups. Acknowledging the funding of one racist, anti-civil rights organization while continuing to fund many others demonstrates the foundation’s pattern of far-right support and suggests that the apology was an attempt to quell backlash rather than a genuine showing of remorse.
The Helen Diller Family Foundation has directly funded groups and initiatives that represent Islamophobic hatred, misogyny, suppression of political speech and oppression of tenants. We are deeply concerned that the decision to accept the donation was made without any consultation of the student body or any reckoning with the implications of tying the Diller name to our institution. We demand accountability.
Law Students for Justice in Palestine at Berkeley Law advocates for human rights and self-determination for the Palestinian people. We educate the wider community on legal issues around Israel/Palestine and support law students working for Palestinian liberation.