UC Berkeley Reinforces its Reputation: Students Debate Antisemitism for 7 Hours

Danielle Sobkin

February 23, 2023

Disclaimer: This Op-Ed reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jewish on Campus.

University of California, Berkeley is known as a school entrenched in antisemitism. It’s reputation: a school you know to avoid as a Jewish student because your identity, your background, your faith, your religion, you, are not welcome here. 

I was warned not to come, told I would have to decide between my academic and social success or Jewish identity. As the daughter of two refugees, I couldn’t imagine antisemitism comparable to that of my parents’ past. I couldn’t imagine a world where I would feel the same fear my parents felt as they packed to flee their home country into an unknown abyss.

Today, I share that same paralyzing fear, unsure of what to say, who to talk to, and where to go. I’ve knocked on every door and tried every outlet. I’ve submitted reports, reached out to professors, and signed petitions begging university administrators for change. Each time, the Jewish voice is turned away. I don’t know what else to do. It has been made abundantly clear that as a Jew, I am not welcome or safe at UC Berkeley. The hateful message scrawled on the door of our student union building stating “No Jew Go Away” remains painfully inescapable.  

On Feb. 15, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) ripped away the last remnants of my Jewish safety net by deciding to indefinitely table the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism. 

The IHRA definition is the gold standard definition of antisemitism. It explains that antisemitism can take many forms — from verbal or physical abuse to discriminatory policies. Recognizing the many forms of antisemitism is fundamental to addressing it effectively.  That is why American administrations of both political stripes have embraced IHRA’s legally non-binding Working Definition of Antisemitism. Over 1,100 entities including numerous countries, international bodies and non-governmental organizations have adopted IHRA, making it the most widely recognized and accepted standard for identifying and addressing antisemitism.

For seven hours, I watched Berkeley students and members of the public present their clouded, fallacious versions of the IHRA definition, extorting this time to share their antisemitic beliefs. I listened to blood-libel attacks. I saw my peers debate what a Jew is, how we are a threat to campus culture and why we do not deserve protection on a systemic level. I watched in agony as a conversation regarding Jewish safety on campus was reduced to a matter of political deflection and blame. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause as speakers yelled hateful phrases and blatantly false accusations. I can’t help but wonder if this was done intentionally to derail the Senate’s vote to the point of exhaustion. How can Senators cast an honest, unbiased vote at nearly 3 a.m.? 

One man argued that there is no exact definition of a Jewish person, and if we can’t clearly define a Jew, he theorized, anyone who supports Israel could be labeled a Jew. His leap of logic wasn’t humorously baffling but highlights the contrived attempts from implicit antisemites to undermine Jewish identity.

Berkeley law students took to the podium several times during the night. Their flawed logic was not only embarrassing to the school they represent, but shameful to the time of those who attended the meeting. These law professionals to-be not only failed to exercise their elementary reading skills, but exposed their inability to set bias aside. Their feigned synthesis of the definition and misguided attempts of justice asserted a growing manifestation of distorted, immoral impartiality. These are the individuals who will be stepping into the justice system, pledged with upholding fairness and equality. 

The most demoralizing part of the night was watching reactions to Jewish students speaking. Told they’d be better off dead, should be embarrassed of the Magen David, intimidated, harassed, given lower grades. And the Senate failed them in the end. 

As for the forum itself, there’s nothing more dehumanizing than watching whether or not you deserve protection debated via geopolitics in the Middle East for about 400 minutes. There’s nothing as humiliating as having to rehash your ancestors perishing in the Holocaust, your cousins beaten for their clothes, your parents abused by their workplace, just to be ignored.

A conversion intended to protect Jewish students became a kangaroo court of humiliation and degradation. Anti-IHRA individuals trampled on every compromise attempt, demonstrating that they had no intention of addressing antisemitism with a middle ground or alternative solution. It was an all-or-nothing battle, aimed to delegitimize Jewish students’  fears and safety concerns. Jewish students asked for protection and were met with terror and screaming provocations. I, along with all my Jewish peers, fear for our future at Berkeley. I saw first-hand how my campus peers sought to dismiss Jewish persecution and how necessary the IHRA adoption was for this very reason. Nearly every day, an antisemetic attack happens on a college campus, and every day I must wonder if I’ll be safe. 

Throughout my time at UC Berkeley, I have seen antisemitic graffiti and swastikas displayed openly and proudly on campus. I have heard my Jewish peers receive death threats and fear for their safety and survival. For years, Jewish students at Berkeley have been ignored and generalized into a group not worth the essential protection other minorities on campus receive. What will it take for UC Berkeley to listen? What will it take for administrators and student leaders to take action? 

As an openly Jewish student on campus, I do not feel safe. I do not feel safe going to class knowing my graduate student instructors and professors have a bias against me because I am Jewish. I do not feel safe participating in clubs after hearing my peers demonize the Jewish people and compare us to murderers. I do not feel safe wearing my Star of David, wondering if I’ll be hate-crimed today. I do not feel safe knowing there isn’t an elementary definition of antisemitism that can be used to identify this targeted, Jew-hating behavior. I shouldn't have to explain myself when asking to reschedule an exam that falls on High Holidays or beg the dining hall for Kosher food. The experiences of Jewish students at UC Berkeley are terrifying. They represent the deep-rooted hatred Jewish individuals face and the never-ending battle that comes with being Jewish. 

Actions speak louder than words, but even those are hard to find on campus. Administrators and student leaders remain idle despite our continuous, humiliating pleas for something as simple as ensuring administrative protection against antisemitic rhetoric. The bullying, threats, and now possibilities of violence against Jewish and Zionist students have made their way to the forefront of campus life. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel heard. And I most certainly don’t feel welcomed. This should not be the norm for Jewish students. This should not be the norm for anyone.

UC Berkeley administrators and student leaders have the responsibility to protect students, staff, and faculty from antisemitism and hostile campus environments that are the results of Jewish and/or pro-Israel identities. Reporting antisemitism, offering trainings, and creating committees to combat the problem should all be rooted in a foundational understanding of what antisemitism is. Put simply, we cannot address something we cannot define. IHRA is a clear and concise description of antisemitism in its various forms, including conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, prejudices against Jews, and the denial of Israel’s right to exist. Antisemitism and the Jew-hating culture on campus was bad, and still I didn’t think it could get worse. I was wrong. 

As a member of the UC Berkeley community I am ashamed, as a first-generation citizen I am disappointed, and as a Jewish student on campus I am scared for my safety. The ASUC has failed Jewish students yet again, letting their actions and words speak volumes. 

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