UC Berkeley Jewish Leaders Urge Action After Being ‘Harassed and Threatened’ at Two Student Gov’t Meetings
Jewish student leaders at the University of California, Berkeley, are calling for action after allegedly being “harassed and threatened” twice in less than a year during student government meetings.
The letter, published Monday and addressed to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, accused the administration and the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), an independent student association, of “continually” failing to protect Jewish students.
The signatories — who include the Hillel and Chabad student boards, two pro-Israel clubs, and Jewish ASUC senators Shelby Weiss and Milton Zerman — pointed to recent tensions surrounding a resolution condemning the anti-Zionist student group Bears for Palestine for displaying photos of Palestinians who were involved in hijackings and bombing attacks. They include Fatima Bernawi, a Palestinian woman who planted an explosive in a Jerusalem cinema, as well as Rasmea Odeh and Leila Khaled, both members of the US-designated terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which has carried out multiple suicide bombings targeting civilians.
The resolution was ultimately rejected by a 4-1 vote at an ASUC committee this Monday, with Weiss — the only member who supported the measure — saying she heard “a lot of rhetoric and discourse steeped in historic antisemitic tropes” during the meeting, and encouraged Jewish students to stay away. “There were two [Jewish] students who showed up who were told, ‘You feel so safe behind your camera, wait until we catch you outside,'” she told The Algemeiner on Tuesday. “It was very reflective of the kind of sentiments we heard last week,” Weiss added.
According to the student-run Daily Californian, one Jewish student at the same meeting said they “stand with the Palestinian freedom fighters acting out of self-defense,” while a speaker who only identified themselves as H said they planned to join the Israeli military after graduation to “eliminate Palestinian nationalism and Palestinians from the world.” Weiss denounced the anonymous speaker’s comments after the meeting’s conclusion, saying they “do not reflect my feelings and I speak for most members of my community that we do not condone those words … Our support for the bill itself does not amount to those sentiments or those feelings of violence or hostility.”
Tensions also ran high during the hours-long debate the resolution sparked at a February 3rd ASUC meeting, which students on either side said was marked by incivility and hostility. Bears for Palestine claimed its supporters were “called several racial slurs,” groped and “followed home and harassed,” though these allegations were disputed by Zerman and another Jewish student who was present that evening. Zerman did acknowledge calling the PFLP and Bears for Palestine “godless,” and at other times describing some resolution opponents as “cowards.”
Jewish students in turn accused Bears for Palestine supporters of harassing, heckling and physically threatening their peers. (Bears for Palestine did not respond to The Algemeiner‘s request for comment on these allegations.) Zerman said one opponent tore up a photo he was holding of Leon Kanner and Eddie Joffe — two university students who were murdered in a Jerusalem bombing carried out with the help of Odeh, one of the figures Bears for Palestine is criticized for promoting.
In their letter to Chancellor Christ, the Jewish students recounted that one of their peers was “screamed at for recording” the February 3rd meeting, then “chased and chanted out [of the room] by numerous people,” even after stopping the recording.
“The moderator told students that if they wanted the video deleted, it would be up to them to ‘take care of it’ themselves,” they wrote. “The chair’s statements incited a climate of intimidation and hostility, which served to enable a group of highly emotional students to chase after a single individual.”
Later on in the meeting, the letter stated, “a student walked up to a seated Jewish student and said, ‘I give consent to kick your ass.'”
“When our community asked that this student be removed, the moderator claimed she could not force a student to leave and decided to not get involved; despite previously using her authority to remove the Jewish community member mentioned above,” they asserted. “Realizing that the rules were malleable depending on who was asking for them to be enforced, and that the moderator or administrators would not intervene when Jewish students explicitly stated that they felt threatened and unsafe, we decided to leave.”
These recent incidents exacerbated concerns raised in the wake of an ASUC meeting last April, when “a Jewish student was repeatedly harassed for having an Israeli flag sticker on their laptop, and was eventually forced to leave the meeting,” the signatories wrote.
“The administrator was asked repeatedly to intervene but did nothing,” they recalled of the meeting, which was denounced by a dozen student groups in April. “Later during the meeting, students were given that microphone by an ASUC Senator and shouted antisemitic remarks at the Jewish students in the room.”
“The remarks were riddled with antisemitic conspiracies that mirrored those outlines in the New Jersey deli shooters’ manifesto this past December,” they wrote. “We are appalled that the ASUC and the administration were arguably negligent in failing to properly prepare for Monday’s meeting and did not take necessary proactive and reactive steps to ensure Jewish students’ safety this time around.”
The students called on UC Berkeley’s administration, which is independent of the ASUC, to intervene — citing the school’s “responsibility” to take action when “student safety is in question.”
In comments to The Algemeiner on Tuesday, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the students’ letter was “being taken very seriously.”
The chancellor, who is currently traveling off campus, “has been provided with a copy,” he added, and is expected to respond. “Meetings are being set up as we speak,” Mogulof said. “When students tell us they feel fearful, that they don’t feel respected … we are going to leave no stone unturned, no matter who they are.”
He underscored that “the ASUC is completely and totally legally autonomous and independent from the campus,” and was “independently funded.”
“Whether we like it or not, the constitution of the United States protects hate speech, that is indisputable,” he said. “Despite that, as our chancellor has often said, just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should.”
“We have before us hard, urgent work to do with students from across the spectrum of perspectives, to understand how their words and deeds impact others on this campus and impact the community as a whole,” Mogulof added. “That includes the impact of the posters in question, and also includes some of the things that were said by Jewish students at the meeting last Monday night.”
“If you call Muslim students ‘godless,’ you have to expect a negative reaction,” he noted. “If you you put up posters that celebrate those who killed or tried to kill unarmed civilians, you have to expect a negative reaction.”
(Zerman has objected to this representation, telling The Algemeiner his use of the description “godless” was meant to address claims that his bill was being fueled by Islamophobia. “Calling people who oppose this [display] Islamophobic is just an affront to what Islam is and what religion is,” he maintained. “It’s godless, it’s not Islam.”)
Shortly after the February 3rd ASUC meeting, Christ issued a statement saying she received “numerous disturbing messages … from Black students, Jewish students, Muslim students” who were in attendance, each describing “what were perceived to be harmful verbal assaults and actions that left the student feeling unsafe, and concerned that they are not being seen or heard.”
“I am not able to adjudicate what happened on Monday, and nor am I interested in blame,” she added. “Students who support the Palestinian cause have a right to celebrate those they see as fighters for that cause, and their rights to express that support are fully protected by our country’s constitution.”
“By the same token, Jewish students have a right to feel dismay and concern after seeing a poster they perceive as honoring those who killed, or attempted to kill, unarmed Jewish civilians,” Christ continued. “Each side has an equal right to express and have heard their perspective.”