Jewish student leaders at UC Berkeley said they were “appalled” and “deeply pained” by anti-Semitic remarks made at a student government meeting earlier this month, and the university’s response has left some unsatisfied.
The remarks were made during a heated meeting of the Associated Students at the University of California (ASUC) Senate on April 17. During an extended public comment segment, at least two student speakers targeted Zionists or Israel, although neither subject was on the agenda.
University administrators have held private meetings over the past week with Jewish student leaders and the head of Berkeley Hillel, according to one of the involved students, but absent an explicit public condemnation of the comments as anti-Semitic, the administration’s response was “very weak,” the student said.
“It was a nice forum to offer our thoughts on actionables moving forward,” said ASUC senator-elect Shelby Weiss about the sit-down with the dean of students. “But a lot of us left that meeting feeling as though we were just being smiled and nodded at.”
A dozen organizations, including Berkeley Hillel’s student board, Bears for Israel, the Jewish Students Association at Berkeley Law, and the Jews of Color Collective, signed an April 18 letter published online expressing concern about students resorting to “verbal abuse and harassment,” the “spreading of false information” and “using Zionism as a code for Judaism” at the nearly four-hour student meeting.
“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,” the student groups wrote.
One controversial statement came after Jewish student Ari Pickar spoke to oppose a punitive action taken by the ASUC’s judicial council. Shortly after the April 12 election, the council barred a student political party — one that includes Jewish senator-elect Weiss — for an unrelated infraction, leaving the senate with no Jewish representatives.
“My voice was silenced, the Jewish community was silenced, and many others on this campus were silenced,” Pickar said at the meeting.
Later, former ASUC senator Rizza Estacio refuted Pickar’s point of view, and seemed to reference his statement.
“All I was hearing for a fat minute was some white tears, some Zionist tears, some Greek tears about some disenfranchisement,” Estacio said, according to the meeting transcript and a video posted on the ASUC website. “Y’all don’t know what disenfranchisement even means, all right?”
Some students in the standing-room-only hall cheered when Estacio referred to “Zionist tears.” “Greek tears” was directed at fraternity and sorority members, many of whom supported Pickar.
Pickar said he was “mad” about the comment and other incidents at the meeting, attributing them in part to “institutionally anti-Semitic spaces” found at Berkeley and beyond.
“To dismiss concerns from the Jewish community as ‘Zionist tears’ is pretty anti-Semitic,” he said. “I think there are a lot of students here who are uneducated about the problems that the Jewish community faces. People generally conflate anything to do with Judaism to be about Israel.”
Pickar, a senior computer science major, is not an active member of any on-campus pro-Israel groups, he said. Estacio did not respond to a request for comment.
My voice was silenced, the Jewish community was silenced, and many others on this campus were silenced.
The second inflammatory statement came as the meeting was winding down. A simmering controversy emerged after a Jewish student was asked to leave because an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop reportedly was making other students uneasy. A student official became aware of the conflict and urged “respect” in an announcement over the microphone.
“I don’t want anybody in this room to feel uncomfortable,” he said.
Soon after, a student whose name was not listed on the meeting transcript was given the microphone, and said she had met her “first Zionist” that evening.
Citing a history of colonialism in Africa, she said it was “disrespectful, if you are pro-Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine, to tell a black person that you are Zionist.”
“It is possible to be Israeli and not be pro-Palestinian oppression. It is possible for you to be Jewish and not be pro-Palestinian oppression. It is possible,” she said.
She went on to criticize those who would be “friends with Zionists.”
“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 speaker also seemed to veer into unfounded theories, saying “the IDF trains police departments in America to kill black people,” and those who support Zionism are “complicit” in supporting “the prison-industrial complex,” “prison militarization,” and “modern-day slavery.”
Weiss, a sophomore and a Hillel student board member, said the implication of the comments was clear.
“She peddled in historically anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are the architects of all the world’s evil,” she said.
Weiss was deeply upset by the evening’s events. The most “painful” moment, she said, came when the “Zionist tears” comment was met with applause from other students.
“There were a lot of Jewish students in the room,” she said. “It felt to us that every other person agreed with these sentiments.”
Samantha Rubinstein, president of the Berkeley Hillel student board, echoed some of Weiss’ sentiments in an interview.
“The meeting in the first place was not at all about Israel or Zionism or Judaism,” she said. “And somehow the politics of Israel were brought into it, and the politics of the identity of the Jewish students.”
In response to the controversy, University Chancellor Carol Christ wrote an open letter on April 19 addressing what “appear[ed] to have been disturbing expressions of bias” at the meeting.
“Even as we seek to more fully understand what was said,” she wrote, “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.
“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. This, too, is disturbing and demanding of our attention and concern.”
Weiss appreciated Christ’s statement but overall found it to be “very weak.”
“It did name anti-Semitism as something the school doesn’t condone, but it didn’t name the events of the previous night as anti-Semitic,” she said. “It didn’t name the problem.”