Is anti-Semitism on the rise on the UC Berkeley campus?
Pro-Zionist students point to a string of incidents, including several this past year, as a clear sign of continued anti-Jewish intolerance at the university.
But many associated with groups that have been linked to claims of anti-Semitism said that, contrary to the claims, their groups are working to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of racism on campus, but have been targeted because of their Pro-Palestinian political agenda. Claims of anti-Semitism, they said, are a quick and easy way to try to sway the political debate by students who construe any sort of political criticism of Israel as criticism of Jews.
Additionally, as reports surface, Palestinian solidarity activists on campus point to incidents of hate crimes and discrimination aimed at Muslim, Arab and other communities of color that they say are continually deflated, overlooked or dismissed by a campus they say is being taught to accept certain types of racism in a post-9/11 environment.
According to UC Berkeley campus police, there were three hate crimes and seven hate incidents reported to police during the year 2003 (hate incidents are reported events that do not fall under a crime already on the books).
Of the three reported hate crimes last year on campus, one stemmed from the harassment and assault of a Sikh man wearing a turban. Another involved anti-Semitic graffiti spray painted in a lecture hall. One of the hate incidents was a report of two graffiti defacements that insulted people named Mohammed.
The statistics compiled do not represent all of the hate crimes or incidents on campus, according to the police, but only reflect the ones that get reported. A representative from the police said the department does outreach to groups that may be the target of hate crimes or incidents in order to ensure that group members know they can turn to the police. Still, the police representative admitted, reports are fairly infrequent.
Anti-Israel is Not Anti-Jew
Students doing Palestinian solidarity work on UC campus claim that pro-Israel students are conflating incidents as a way to quash pro-Palestinian activism. They point to a long article recently published in the East Bay Express which documented what several students claimed was a spree of anti-Semitism since the second Palestinian Intifada started in 2000.
One section of the Express article recounted a February incident in which Harvard professorand fervent Israel supporter Daniel Pipes lectured at Pimentel Hall and was met by numerous protesters. The article described the protesters as making physical threats to people who are Israel sympathizers.
Pipes—the founder of the Campus Watch website which posts dossiers on university professors alleged to be anti-Israel—has been widely criticized for public remarks that many feel are racist towards Muslims and Arabs.
Lisa Stampnitzky, a graduate student and member of Tzedeck, a Jewish group on campus, was at the Pipes lecture. She not only disputes the claim that the event was filled with anti-Semitic protesters, but also the claim that UC Berkeley has experienced widespread anti-Semitism.
“As a student, I don’t see [UC] Berkeley as a particularly anti-Semitic place, which is not to say that there are not incidents of anti-Semitism,” she said. But “it doesn’t seem to be a rampant problem.”
At the Pipes event she said she saw at least one person, who she said was not a UC Berkeley student, carrying an anti-Semitic sign. But for the most part, she said she and others were there to protest Pipe’s political views, not Judaism.
Stampnitzky said she has never been the victim of anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley, even though she is involved in organizing around the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. Tzedeck, the group she belongs to, actively supports the right for Israel to exist. However, the group has also worked with pro- Palestinian groups demanding human rights and a viable state for Palestinians.
Stampnitzky did say, however, that she has seen a trend where Palestinian solidarity activism is construed as anti-Semitic. She said she thinks it’s a tactic used by a few who feel a strong connection to Israel and want to discredit any kind of criticism. Stampnitzky says that strategy doesn’t represent her views as a Jew, nor does it allow for criticism of any real anti-Semitism.
But those most prominently involved in pro-Israel organizing on the UC campus say there have been instances of anti-Semitism during pro-Palestine events and that some of the political claims made by activists are anti-Semitic. They dispute the claim that anti-Semitism is being used to quash pro-Palestinian activism.
Gordon Gladstone, the Israel initiatives coordinator for Berkeley Hillel, the Jewish student center at UC Berkeley, said Hillel tries to draw a specific line when classifying anti-Semitism as it relates to Israel. Hillel says one of the group’s main concerns—stated in its charter—is a commitment “to Israel’s right to exist and flourish as a democratic Jewish state within secure and internationally recognized boundaries.”
When political protests claim Israel does not have a right to exist as a state for Jewish people, Gladstone said he would classify that as anti-Semitism. He said he would also classify claims that Israel is an apartheid state as anti-Semitic because he said those claims de-legitimize Israel as a state.
Pro-Palestinian groups on campus who have been labeled anti-Semitic say the lines are not drawn so clearly. Chris Cantor, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said he would label Israel as an apartheid state because of the way an Israeli minority occupies a Palestinian majority in the West Bank and Gaza strip.
“When they say Israel is a Jewish state, I have no problem with that, as long as that doesn’t translate into preferential rights for one group of citizens over another,” said Cantor. But in Israel’s case, he said, the occupation does give preferential treatment and therefore critics have the right to label it with the proper political term.
Others put it more plainly.
“The problem they have is not everyone is in love with Israel,” said Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at UC Berkeley who has continually spoken out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and in return received political flack. “They are disturbed that not everybody is towing the line in this country.”
Bazian said behind all the definitions of what is and isn’t anti-Semitism concerning criticism of Israel is a campaign to stop all criticism of Israel. Israel has consistently violated international law, he said, so it uses anti-Semitism to defray criticism.
“If you are unable to challenge the content, then smear the messenger as a way to try and win the debate by excluding the other from the debate to begin with,” said Bazian. “There is nothing unique about Israel, there is nothing unique about other nation states. If [Israel is] violating international law, they cannot take a carte blanche exception. There is nothing unique about occupation. They are asking for Israel to be handled as an exception to the norm. They don’t want to hear that message, they want to manage the situation so they are the only ones who have the right to speak about Israel.”
While many question the legitimacy of the claims of anti-Semitism, others question why it gets so much publicity. They said even though it goes unreported, Berkeley is full of hate incidents targeting other groups, including Arab and Muslim students, especially those involved in Palestinian solidarity work.
According to Afira Vhora, a student at UC Berkeley and a member of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Hate Bias, most hate incidents go unreported. She said students also claim the university puts less emphasis on hate crimes or incidents that target students from Arab or Muslim countries or against students who resemble Arabs or Muslims.
“Some communities [are] favored over others by the administration,” said Vhora. She said the hate incident reported to the police concerning the Sikh student is just one incident of the how the campus mishandles discrimination and hate. She said that even though the case was reported, the university never met with the Sikh community to do a comprehensive follow-up.
An official campus representative from the Chancellor’s Task Force on Hate Bias was not available for comment.
“On the world political scene, we have daily torture and slaughter of Iraqis and Palestinians, we have occupations,” said Jess Ghannam, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Council. “That is on the foreign front. The domestic manifestation [is the] Patriot Act that targets Arab Americans very aggressively. Generally speaking, there is an awesome movement of hate.”
As a result, said Ghannam, reports that conflate instances of anti-Semitism, in particularly when they are related to Palestinian solidarity work, only increase that hate toward the Arab and Muslim community.
“We are not saying anti-Semitism doesn’t exist,” he said, but conflation only “fuels the flame of a climate that is deeply hostile to our community.”
Other students have personal experience with hate incidents they say are a common occurrence on campus. One student, a member of SJP who wished to remain anonymous, said she is continually told to blow herself up at political rallies.
The same student, who wears hijab, the covering worn by Muslim women, said she and other women consistently get called names, told they are oppressed and are sometimes harassed with brash sexual comments.
When she reported these instances to the campus, she said the campus told here to join the Muslim Student Association so she could be around people with similar experiences. Most of the time, however, she said people are afraid to even report these incidents because they don’t want to draw attention.
“Its very palpable, the hatred,” she said.