March 29, 2020

UC Berkeley Jewish Groups Condemn Anti-Semitic Comments at Student Government Meeting

UC Berkeley's Campus; Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The UC Berkeley Jewish community wrote a letter to the university community at large condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric that occurred during an April 17 Associated Students of the University California (ASUC) meeting.

The meeting focused on the ASUC Judicial Council’s decision to disqualify all candidates affiliated with the Student Action party that won seats on the student government after being censured for campaign finance violations.

According to the letter – whose signatories included UC Berkeley’s Alpha Epsilon Pi chapter, the Berkeley Hillel student board and J Street U at Berkeley –, one of the disqualified candidates was a Jewish student, prompting other Jewish students to voice their concerns during the meeting that “the Jewish community lost essential representation in the ASUC.”

“In the comments following, we were the only identity group whose desire to be represented was rebuked,” the letter states. “Several speakers used the opportunity to invoke anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist views as dog-whistles to target Jews, including specific Jewish students in the room.”

Two of the comments in question occurred during the public comment section. A live stream of the meeting shows someone identifying herself as a former said that her party was once disqualified from an election because “I spoke out at a pro-Palestinian rally, condemning Israel’s genocide.” After she said that, someone from the audience shouted, “Free Palestine!”

Another former senator, who was the last speaker of the public comment section, said, “I just had to talk y’all, because all I was hearing… was some white tears, some Zionists tears, some Greek tears about some disenfranchisement. Y’all don’t know what disenfranchisement even means.”

Following the public comment section, a student leader said, “So I met my first Zionist tonight. Woohoo. I’ve never met a Zionist in my life, and it is really disrespectful if you are pro-Israeli settler-colonialist in Palestine to tell a black person you are Zionist.”

She then said she was asked why she cares about the Palestinians when she isn’t a Palestinian, prompting her to reply, “It’s because the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] trains the police departments in America to kill black people. It’s because all of our [liberations] are intertwined.”

“If you align yourself with Zionists and people who are anti-Palestinian freedom and pro-Palestinian oppression, then I don’t know what to say to you,” the student leader said. “If you think you’re comfortable enough that your friends are Zionists and you won’t call them out even though you don’t believe in those ideals and you use your privilege to stay implicit in the oppression of Palestine and the oppression of settler colonized countries all across the world, I don’t know what to say to you. If you stay implicit in prison-industrial complex and prison militarization and modern day-slavery as somebody who is Zionist and you stay complicit in that and you support this, I don’t understand why.”

She proceeded to say that it was possible to be “Israeli” and “Jewish” without being “pro-Palestinian oppression” and that it was “disrespectful” for Zionists to complain about a lack of representation when “there’s a whole continent of people who suffer from the same ideals that you all uphold.”

The Jewish community letter stated they were “troubled” that the aforementioned speakers were unaware that “each member of our community has their own personal relationship with Israel and Zionism.”

“Using Zionism as a code for Judaism, and subsequently conflating this with white supremacy, is completely ignorant of how white supremacy is founded on anti-Semitism and victimizes Jews,” the letter states. “The words we heard last night mirror the anti-Semitic rhetoric of white supremacy and contribute to the oppression of Jewish people on this campus and beyond.”

Alexander Wilfert, the president of the ASUC, issued a statement on April 19 addressing the matter.

“We believe the ASUC Senate Chambers should remain a safe space for students to put forward thoughts and ideas regarding topics as long as it is done so in a respectful manner,” Wilfert said. “We do not tolerate attacks on people’s identities and communities, and I look forward to meeting with community leaders to bring our campus together.”

Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of UC Berkeley, told the Journal in an email that “there were, unfortunately, a number of highly regrettable comments made by students that were deeply hurtful and harmful for a number of identity groups” during the April 17 ASUC meeting. He then pointed the Journal to a statement from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ stating she is looking into the “disturbing expressions of bias” that occurred during the meeting.

“Even as we seek to more fully understand what was said, I want to make clear that the University’s administration condemns bias, including racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, on this campus and beyond,” Christ said. “I also understand that at the same meeting students of color provided passionate, moving comment about the extent to which they feel isolated and marginalized on this campus. This, too, is disturbing and demanding of our attention and concern.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement to the Journal via email, “This incident goes to show you that at Berkeley( and other campuses) that (1) ‘Zionist’ genuinely functions as a stand-in for ‘Jew’ in campus discourse to deflect charges of anti-Semitism, still (2) all the horrible stuff that is laid at the feet of ‘Zionists’ applies to Jews qua Jews, and (3) that there is an aggressive, consistently-applied effort to ‘white-ify’ Jews/Zionists as the first step of making y’all the uber-white supremacists.”

Cooper also called the university’s response to the matter “mealy-mouthed.”

“Memo to University administrators—you have obligation to denounce and take action against bigots—whatever their political persuasion, ideology or color of skin,” Cooper said. “Bigotry comes in all sizes and its about time that the UC Administrators stopped coddling anti-Semites of a particular persuasion. Otherwise anti-Semitic intimidation, bullying and worse will follow!”

The full live stream of the meeting can be seen below: