UC Berkeley Jewish Student Says She Was Choked By Pro-Palestinian Protesters Who Shut Down Israeli Lecture

Three students were reportedly injured by the protestors.
February 27, 2024
University of California, Berkeley (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

A Jewish UC Berkeley student, who requested anonymity, told the Journal in a phone interview that she was choked by pro-Palestinian protesters Monday evening. The protestors were trying to  shut down an event featuring a former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldier as a speaker.

The event, “Israel at War: Combat the Lies” and organized by Bears for Israel (BFI), Students Supporting Israel at Berkeley (SSIB) and Tikvah, was set to feature former Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldier Ran Bar-Yoshafat speaking before being canceled due to the pro-Palestinian protest.

“Minutes before the event was to start, a crowd of some 200 protesters began to surround the building,” University Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Benjamin Hermalin said in a message to the campus community on Tuesday afternoon.  “Doors were broken open and the protesters gained unauthorized entry to the building. The event was canceled, and the building was evacuated to protect the speaker and members of the audience.”

The day before the event, Bears for Palestine (BFP) put out a call on Instagram to shut down the event, receiving more than 2,000 likes.

BFI, SSI and Tikvah met with the university administration to discuss the issue on a Zoom call to discuss the matter. “It kind of felt like we were begging for them to acknowledge the fact that this was a legitimate concern and a legitimate issue,” Danielle Sobkin, co-president of BFI, alleged. “At first that there are no available rooms, that they don’t know if they can change the venue, they wanted to move us off campus to a different school building. We remained pretty committed to this decision to have this event on main campus as we originally attended for weeks of planning.”

“It kind of felt like we were begging for them to acknowledge the fact that this was a legitimate concern and a legitimate issue.” – Danielle Sobkin

Eventually the university offered to move the event from Wheeler Hall to Zellerbach Playhouse, with the event organizers only letting those who RSVP’d know of the location change, but the pro-Palestinian protesters who showed up to Wheeler to shut it down somehow got wind of the new location and ran down to Zellerbach. The student who says she was assaulted told the Journal that she and a couple of friends had been observing the protest at Wheeler and that the protesters “all stormed” into Wheeler before the scheduled start time, and then ran out 15 minutes later saying that “it’s at Zellerbach” and chanting anti-Israel slogans like “intifada.”

BFI Co-President Daniel Conway told the Journal that as the protesters became more violent as police presence increased outside Zellerbach. The protesters were “pounding on the glass doors.” Sobkin said that “people felt the room shaking” from the protesters “literally pounding” on the doors and windows. “It was a very scary and a very intimidating feeling,” added Sobkin.

The student and her group of friends were escorted inside into Zellerbach; the student thought that the security around the event was tight enough to prevent any of the protesters from storming into the building. “We could hear their banging on the walls, we could hear the chants, but inside the actual event it was quiet,” the student said. “It was a really small turnout because no one could get inside.”

But somehow, four protesters wearing keffiyehs and masks managed to get in. “I was with two of my friends. One of them ran backstage because she didn’t know what was going to happen and the other one ran towards the doors to make sure they were all secured and I just stood there,” the student said. “I saw that when they’re walking across the hall they’re heading toward a door that can only be opened from the inside, and I don’t know why but I took it upon myself to chase after them …  and stop the door from opening because I knew that if that door would open, that this hall  — which was filled with Jewish students who are already scared of their safety — was going to be crowded with chants that were against Israel, against the Jewish people.”

The student recalled being “mushed in with a group of three people” while holding onto the door handle to keep it shut. The Jewish students repeatedly told the protesters, “you guys can’t come in” but one of them shouted, “Yes we can!” and yelled to the protesters outside to come in through that door. “The second that happened, I froze, and I’m just holding on to the doorknob trying to shut it close, and some girl to try to get me out of the way or try to stop me from closing the door… was to grab my neck and keep it open,” the student claimed. “Mind you, I was in shock. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t react, I pushed against this door yelling, ‘No no no.’”

Eventually, a police officer pushed all of the protesters and the student outside; the student broke free from the protesters and “ran away.” “People were crying left and right. Everyone was scared,” the student said. She also observed the protesters chanting, “We won! We won! We won!” when the event was ultimately canceled; Bar-Yoshafat and the Jewish students inside were escorted safely out of the building through underground tunnels.

And yet, “the event continued on successfully at Chabad,” Sobkin said.

The student said that she was “shaking and crying” after the events of Monday night and that her neck hurt. “I never have felt scared to be a Jewish student on campus until last night,” she said. The student has filed a police report.

She also alleged that one of her friends was also assaulted by the protesters. “She was trying to hold the main door closed, and someone from the inside and someone from the outside yanked it open, and she sprained her wrist, went to urgent care, and has a brace now.” Sobkin claimed that there were three Jewish students assaulted Monday evening, with the third being “spit on and tugged in by protesters” and that the student whose wrist was injured was checking RSVPs at the door.

However, UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof told the Journal in an email that “we are aware of multiple assaults being reported on social media” but the university has only received one report of an assault so far. “That is one reason the Chancellor’s message urges students to come forward,” he added. “We cannot fully and adequately respond or investigate absent the detailed information formal police reports provide.”

The university has received “a report of an injury to someone’s wrist during a struggle over a door last night. Too soon to say if this would be categorized as an assault, but that’s possible,” Mogulof said.

Additionally, the student told the Journal that people she knows were called “dirty Jews, Zionist pigs,” and told to “go back to where you came from.”

 “We want to express our deep remorse and sympathy to those students and members of the public who were in the building, fearing for their safety,” Christ and Hermalin said in their campuswide message. “Today, like last night, our colleagues in Student Affairs are reaching out with offers of support and we are urging students to report what they witnessed and experienced to UCPD and/or our Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. We share your anger and concern, and we understand that we must do all that we can to prevent anything like this from happening again.” They added that they “worked with the hosting organization to move the event to a different location, one that was believed to be more secure. We also stepped up security and sent a team of UCPD officers to the event. We approach events like this with two priorities: to do what we can so that the event can go forward, and to do what we can to safeguard student safety and well-being. Last night, despite our efforts and the ample number of police officers, it was not possible to do both given the size of the crowd and the threat of violence.”

Christ and Hermalin concluded their message by saying that the university will “decide on the best possible path to fully understand what happened and why; to determine how we will address what occurred; and to do everything possible to preclude a repeat of what happened” and called the events of Monday night “an attack on the fundamental values of the university.”

The student who claimed she was choked accused the university of handling the whole situation “terribly … We had a specific protocol on how security measures were going to go last night, and none of it was followed through,” she said, claiming that the event organizers were promised that anyone who infiltrated the venue or incited violence would be “immediately detained.” “They were very slow,” the student said regarding the security, alleging that the officers simply watched the four people that got into the event and took “10 seconds” for a police officer to come help her.

Conway and Sobkin had similar observations on the event’s security. “There were 8-10 Bears for Palestine rioters that just entered from this other entrance that was being monitored by UCPD and administration,” Conway said. “I saw them come in and out of that door a few times… It was chaos.” He further alleged that security didn’t remove protesters came in who were clearly not on the RSVP list came in, despite that being the protocol, because the officers were busy manning another door. “It was just evident that there was a severe lack of police officers in the moment,” opined Conway. Sobkin added that there was a “lack of follow through” and that “police officers were standing by as students were trying to break-in.”

Mogulof told The Jewish News of Northern California (The J) that he disputed the notion that the university’s security was inadequate, as 19 officers  — including the chief of the university police — were stationed at Zellerbach. The J also reported that, according to Mogulof, “there were broken windows and at least one broken door” at Zellerbach from Monday night’s events.

“This clearly felt like a witch-hunt on Jewish students,” Sobkin said. “The speaker we brought in, he’s not a big-name person … it was really just a speaker for pure educational purposes and these BFP students and the community in general has gotten to a point where they won’t even allow the Jewish community to allow educational events.”

She went onto call the events of Monday night “a breaking point for all of us.” “We’re at a point where we don’t know what else to do … for change to happen on campus,” Sobkin said. “If there is truly no change after last night, there’s no place for Jewish students at UC Berkeley.”

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