Public Comment

Address the Real Problems at Berkeley

By Yehuda HaKohen
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:00:00 PM

As director of the Zionist Freedom Alliance and one of the organizers of Israel Liberation Week at UC Berkeley last month, I was disturbed to learn some of the things being said about the ZFA not only by the “Students for Justice in Palestine” and their supporters, but also by the Bay Area’s organized Jewish leadership. For readers unaware of recent events at Berkeley, the ZFA hosted Israel Liberation Week on campus from Nov. 10-14. On the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 13, we brought Jewish, black and Mexican performers together for a concert advocating Jewish national rights. A series of unnecessary events that began with a disruption of the concert by the SJP and ended in a violent confrontation between Arabs and Jews has since become the focus of media attention.  

Rather than address the underlying tensions at Berkeley that led to the unfortunate incident, the Jewish community leaders have placed the blame for the violence on the ZFA, labeling us as an “extreme right-wing” group and accusing us of brainwashing impressionable Jewish students towards confrontational behavior. But this libel holds no water when one looks at what we stand for and what we stand against. The ZFA message carries absolutely no anti-Arab or Islamophobic sentiment. ZFA has never brought speakers like Daniel Pipes or Walid Shoebat to any campus, nor have we ever screened alarmist anti-Muslim films like Obsession. To the contrary, genuine efforts were made to dialogue with members of SJP and the Muslim Student Association. I even personally invited SJP leaders to an Israel Liberation Week event called “Moral Dilemmas Confronting the State of Israel Today” that deals with certain problematic areas of Israeli government policy. Although similar efforts to engage in genuine dialogue with Muslim and Arab students on other campuses have been well received, we encountered only a hostile atmosphere at Berkeley to anything that could be labeled Zionist. 

In truth, the perception that Zionist students at UC Berkeley are “confrontational” is simply the most recent outgrowth of an obvious intolerance on campus for any individuals or groups who appear supportive of the Jewish state. In all my years working on university campuses, I have never encountered a climate of hate towards Israel like that at Berkeley. During the week I spent on campus, I witnessed pro-Israel students incessantly mocked, taunted and ridiculed by their peers. The Zionist students justifiably feel discriminated against by the university. The dean of students, Jonathan Poullard, told me following the concert that these Zionist students (most of whom are members of the Tikvah organization) have been making trouble on campus for the last year. But such “trouble making” simply means that these students have been assertive in their opposition to the anti-Zionist bigotry and SJP propaganda that has flourished unchecked at UC Berkeley for years. Before Tikvah, the activities of anti-Israel groups went unchallenged and no one contested the erroneous narrative that Zionism is akin to racism or that Israel is an oppressive colonial regime. But now Jewish students at Berkeley proudly proclaim their national rights and anti-Israel groups know that they no longer have free reign. 

Marginalizing any ideological group is dangerous, yet this is precisely what the UC Berkeley administration, dean of students, Jewish Student Union and campus Hillel have done to the leaders of Tikvah. If the administration is truly interested in calming tensions on campus, the first step is making pro-Israel students feel that their political views are valid and that Zionism has a legitimate place among the many other just causes at UC Berkeley. 

The ZFA’s overall message is one of Jewish rights. We unapologetically assert that the Jewish people, like all other peoples, enjoy national rights—specifically the right to self-determination in our homeland; without denigrating anyone else. Even though some Jewish leaders and groups are curiously afraid to vocally assert such rights, these are mainstream views within the Jewish community. Just because we promote the Jewish people’s legal, moral and historic rights to our country does not justify labeling the ZFA as a “right-wing” group. And neither does defending oneself from physical attack. It was the assertion of our own people’s legitimate rights that prompted the regrettable disruption of our concert by the SJP and the physical confrontation that ultimately followed. 

The ZFA leadership fully understands that the deplorable incident at our concert has justifiably alarmed many in the Bay Area community. We understand that it has brought long standing tensions to the forefront and forced Jews and non-Jews alike to deal with deeply rooted problems that have in the past been swept under the rug. But rather than seek a convenient scapegoat to deflect blame from local Jewish leadership, why not work together and address the real difficulties confronting pro-Israel students at Berkeley? Why not take advantage of ZFA’s experience and expertise in making the Berkeley campus, and the Bay Area in general, a more accepting place for those who speak of Jewish rights? 


Yehuda HaKohen is director of the Zionist Freedom Alliance.