A pro-Palestine student protest takes place at the University of California, Berkeley’s Sather Gate on Oct. 16, 2023

AP Photo/Michael Liedtke

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Berkeley Is a Safe Space for Hate

Thuggish intimidation of Jewish students and teachers is the new normal as leftist brownshirts topple once-heralded free speech bastion

Daniel Solomon
March 18, 2024
A pro-Palestine student protest takes place at the University of California, Berkeley's Sather Gate on Oct. 16, 2023

AP Photo/Michael Liedtke

If graduate school has any function, it is as a preserve of a serious clash of ideas. But the UC Berkeley campus is the stage for a confrontation of a different kind. Last month, ahead of a lecture by Ran Bar-Yoshafat, a reserve combat officer in the Israel Defense Forces and a regular on the lecture circuit, Graduate Students for Justice in Palestine promised a reprise of the Hamas pogrom, hanging from the campus’ main entrance a pledge to “Flood Sather Gate”—a reference to “Al-Aqsa Flood,” the code name for Hamas’ rampage in southern Israel on Oct. 7.

On the night of the lecture, the group’s undergraduate fellow travelers, Bears for Palestine, made good on that vow, disrupting a pro-Israel event in a protest and quickly escalating into a riot. The mob smashed windows, shouted antisemitic chants, and sent at least one student to urgent care. The attendees, this author included, had to be evacuated, ironically, via a tunnel. We, the Jewish students, had forfeited our right to security after coming to hear Bar-Yoshafat’s lecture. The university had assured the campus Jewish organizations behind the event that police officers would fend off disruptive protest and uphold our First Amendment rights. The administration did little to protect the safety of the speaker and audience, and even less to protect their free speech rights.

The antisemitic riot capped months of harassment, terror apologia, and occasional outbursts of violence from the campus “Free Palestine” movement. The university’s response has been consistently craven. Meanwhile, some faculty members, such as in the history department, where I am a Ph.D. student, have justified and covered for this behavior. My department has been a microcosm of a larger institutional failure, in which “equity” and “anti-colonialism” act as shields for rank antisemitism.

Leading a coterie of Ph.D. students in the UC Berkeley history department is professor Ussama Makdisi, the chapter president of what Harold Bloom labeled the school of resentment. Makdisi wrote his first books on sectarianism in the late Ottoman Empire, and his latest volume rhapsodizes about a 19th-century convivencia in the Levant that Zionism supposedly ruined. Even before the Hamas pogrom, he told a lecture hall full of students that Jews should have founded their state in postwar Germany. The university press office rewarded him for this in an article in which he was lauded, including by Berkeley’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, for creating a “learning space” that exemplifies “what’s possible when we imagine, create and actualize the conditions that support thriving for every member of our campus community.”

The message could not have been clearer: Intimidation and the specter of mob violence carry the day at this institution.

On the day of the Hamas pogrom, Makdisi posted a thinly veiled justification of the slaughter: “Just waking up to the news. Go read CLR James, Black Jacobins, on the violence of the oppressed. And then try to ignore the utterly racist double standard of Western politicians and media when it comes to questions of resistance and occupation and international law.” His online verbiage has since become more florid: He has accused Israel of “hunting” Palestinian children “in the name of Anne Frank,” and mocked diaspora Jews as “narcissists” for fretting over their security. He has addressed the crowds that have gathered on campus for “Free Palestine” marches and participated in a slew of events with Bears for Palestine.

Since the UC Berkeley Feb. 26 riot, Makdisi has defended the campus malefactors in a flurry of posts on X. Lavishing praise on an op-ed in The Daily Californian that attempted to “contextualize” the incident, he charged the whole brouhaha was no more than an attempt to distract from “the genocide” in Gaza. In a missive dispatched on the same day, he hit out at “the campaign of bullying, intimidation, and narcissistic gaslighting occurring across our campuses … all designed to make sure we don’t talk about Israel’s appalling genocide of Palestinians.”

Makdisi had put the light to the touchpaper in our department in the days after the Hamas pogrom. Canceling a mandatory course for first-year Ph.D. students that he taught, he urged the class to attend his “teach-in” (organized with BFP), in which he would “historicize” and “contextualize” the events of Oct. 7. The event was then promoted on our graduate student listserv, on the same email chain as a union organizing session. When I balked at this, pointing out the campus Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter’s vehement defense of the Hamas pogrom, a group organized a letter to the department chair directed at me. “We reject the assertions made, within our very community, that learning the history of Palestine is tantamount to terrorism or terror apologism,” the signatories, numbering about half of the graduate students, wrote. The signatories, who were mounting a defense of their mentor, spiced the letter with the customary accusation of lack of departmental engagement on “white supremacy ... within our community” (that is, those who had deplored the Hamas pogrom), and intoned about our “obligation to listen to the scholars whose research and lived experiences center these issues [Palestine and the Palestinians], and an equal responsibility to ensure that their voices are heard.” Hostage posters in our academic building were soon ripped down by fellow graduate students. Around this time, some members of the department started Graduate Students for Justice in Palestine, the group that posted the “Flood Sather Gate” sign.

Protesters bang on windows (shortly before the glass was smashed) to disrupt the Ran Bar-Yoshafat event last month
Protesters bang on windows (shortly before the glass was smashed) to disrupt the Ran Bar-Yoshafat event last month

NBC via YouTube

Jewish students’ repeated attempts, over email and in-person, to explain to department administrators and colleagues how these actions were offensive and off-base soon met with escalating ostracism from others and a progressive withdrawal of Jewish students from departmental spaces and events. Antisemitism has battered a Jewish friend out of this department, after the majority of his first-year cohort claimed that “all resistance is justified to anyone with morals.” Another friend told me she would no longer come to our graduate library because “people there want my family dead.” Despite the department’s concern about the situation, administrators have maintained that academic freedom and institutional procedures prevent them from adopting a clear stance against the antisemitism in our midst and the primary instigator thereof. The same administrators have also consistently misrepresented the matter as a question of upholding civility in the course of intense political discord. Jewish students have sometimes felt like we are talking to a brick wall in explaining that this is not the case.

One faculty member who has taken a public stand in solidarity with Jewish students is Ron Hassner, a professor in the political science department. Hassner began a lock-in in his office in the Social Sciences Building and is now teaching, eating, sleeping, (and not showering) in his tiny seventh-floor space. “Our Jewish students don’t feel safe walking across the campus so I won’t walk across it either,” Hassner told The Daily Californian. His goal, he said, “is to provide a quiet home on campus for students who want to hold their heads high. And perhaps gently persuade our campus leaders that it’s time for decisive action against anti-Semitism.”

SJP’s antisemitic onslaught began on the same day as the Hamas pogrom. On that day, Bears for Palestine released a statement praising its “comrades in blood and arms” for their operations “in the so-called ‘Gaza envelope.’” The same organization then mounted demonstrations at which participants, wearing masks and Palestinian headscarves, clamored to “globalize the intifada” and “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” The demonstrations sometimes spilled over into minor altercations, such as when an SJP member attempted to rip an Israeli flag from a counterprotester’s hands. The protests took place on the university’s main plaza, right next to the academic building where in the fall I was teaching a freshman seminar on Holocaust memory. I was so concerned for my students’ safety that I moved our meetings to the campus Hillel.

The university’s response to these events was tepid and laden with false equivalencies. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ acknowledged in early November that “fear is being generated by the rhetoric used at some of the recent protests on campus”—a turn of phrase that was telling in its use of the passive voice and refusal to name names. She mentioned worries about antisemitism, which she nullified in the same breath with a condemnation of the “harassment, threats and doxxing that have targeted our Palestinian students and their supporters.” She even noted that one ought not to equate pro-Palestinian campus protests with support for terrorism (which seems at odds with the declarations of these self-same protesters). Christ closed her statement with a lofty call to honor the institution’s “long-lived and unwavering” dedication to free speech.

At UC Berkeley, this supposedly principled stand on the First Amendment has included allowing pro-Palestinian groups to block campus entrances for hours at a time, for weeks on end, as disabled students (including me as someone who is legally blind) have been forced to walk around the illicit obstacle through dirt and puddles. Even after the antisemitic riot, this installation has not been removed, even though the university has said it violates campus rules.

Pro-Palestinian activists often lament a supposed “Palestine exception” when it comes to respect for the First Amendment. But on Berkeley’s campus last month, the “Israel exception” was in full view. Bears for Palestine called on students to shut down the event with Bar-Yoshafat, plastering his photo on social media, describing him as a “dangerous” “genocide denier” who has “committed crimes against humanity.” In an ominous threat to others on campus, Bears for Palestine exclaimed: “GENOCIDAL MURDERS [sic] OUT OF BERKELEY.”

The event was almost impossible to locate; the venue had been changed at the last minute to try to avoid clashes. When I arrived there, a few anxious undergraduates were checking IDs at the door. A sparse police cordon was also present at the entrance. Ultimately, only about two dozen attendees were able to enter the building prior to the disturbances. Before the event could begin at 6:30 p.m., the “Free Palestine” mob smashed the glass at the entrance, pried open a door to let in more of their comrades and then broke into the auditorium. The police, no doubt hindered by the university’s restrictive rules of engagement, attempted only briefly to block the rioters’ way. I saw one of the trespassers refuse to remove her mask and provide an ID when a police officer ordered her to do so. She instead pulled out her phone, began filming, and alleged that the officer was “in my face.” She was not arrested.

The police capitulated to the mob in a grand total of five minutes. Scanner recordings since released have shown the department head telling them not to use their riot gear and that the event was being canceled. A dean arrived to escort us out via a subterranean tunnel; I accompanied a former student of mine outside as she broke down in tears. I was not aware of this at the time, but we soon learned that several students had been assaulted and one had been spat on and called “a dirty Jew.”

The mob savored its win in a triumphal march through the campus and a series of now-since deleted online posts. The university dispatched this email to the entire campus: “The event is canceled; when exercising your right to free speech, please take care of yourself and others.” The message could not have been clearer: Intimidation and the specter of mob violence carry the day at this institution. In one evening, the university contradicted four months of official rhetoric.

A week after the riot, the university finally denounced the antisemitic violent protest. But the administration has done nothing to halt continued harassment and intimidation on the campus. The organizations behind the mob still operate an installation at Sather Gate, the university’s main entrance and iconic landmark. The barricade, obstructing most of the path, is a mashup between blockade and listening post. Festooned with inflammatory placards accusing UC Berkeley of having “blood on its hands,” it comes complete with an AI-generated recording of an “Israeli” woman boasting about bombing Gaza. Pro-Palestine activists also use the encampment to film students opposed to their presence.

In response to the university’s inaction, UC Berkeley’s Jewish students and allies have raised their voices, organizing a march last Monday to demand that the university clear the blockade and dissolve the groups that fomented the riot.

The antagonism between progressive dogmas like “equity” and the battle against antisemitism has become almost axiomatic. Audre Lorde, the godmother of intersectionality and contemporary grievance politics, once proclaimed there was “no hierarchy of oppressions.” In the activist left’s worldview, however, Jews, read as white or even “super-white,” are relegated to the bottom of the new pecking order. Antisemitism rates at best as a minor concern and at worst the excusable indiscretion of subalterns.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs also take direct aim at the dominant political ethos of most Jews in the post-emancipation West—which has not been socialism so much as liberalism. Emancipation in 18th- and 19th-century Europe was premised on the notion that Jews ought to be seen first and foremost as individuals, not as members of an amorphous, indigestible mass. Despite the ambivalence at the heart of emancipation, the liberal ethos enabled European Jewry to reach the fore of the continent’s commerce, culture, and politics in a few generations. Antisemites, then and now, count heads: How many Jews are in this profession or that institution.

Jewish organizations have wrongly responded to the rise in hate against our community in seeking inclusion into the DEI framework, incorporating education about antisemitism into their anti-bias trainings. At UC Berkeley, the diversity dean now sends out emails for Jewish Heritage Month, these having been added to the rotation of other vital communications about “Transgender and Nonbinary Empowerment Month” and “Becoming a LatinX-Thriving Institution.” Presumably, the diversity office would agree its mission of “perpetuating beauty in the center of injustice” through “actionable solutions that lead to transformative change” encompasses battling antisemitism. But only a fool would take them at their word: Anti-antisemitism and “anti-racism” have been made to rest on mutually exclusive predicates.

The disparity in DEI’s treatment of antisemitism and anti-Black racism gives up the game, if nothing else. DEI and “decolonization” also reinforce one another in a shared assertion that historically disenfranchised groups have more moral value and greater rights than others—including the “right” to commit senseless violence. The entire “equity” edifice must be demolished; to do otherwise nourishes a parasitic bureaucracy that traduces academic freedom, contributes to antisemitism, and spreads a poisonous anti-liberalism into wider society.

Hello, Berkeley? Columbia’s Calling.

A Conversation with Professors Ron Hassner and Shai Davidai about Campus Antisemitism: Wednesday, Mar. 20, 6 p.m. ET, on Zoom

Daniel J. Solomon is a history Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. Find him on X: @DanielJSolomon