Anti-Palestinian, Anti-Muslim Threats and Harassment Go Unreported on UC Berkeley Campus

A shortened form of this article is published in Mondoweiss.

UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and allies have faced a stream of malicious attacks from a variety of pro-Israel forces. Most of these have gone unrecognized by the administration, and the student newspaper The Daily Californian (Daily Cal for short) has, in the view of SJP students, only helped to stifle their voices.

Students say editors have subjected them to double standards not applied to pro-Israel students and public figures writing in the student publication. Recently the Daily Cal would not let SJP activists write the line “the Israeli government’s policy of expelling Palestinians from their land in order to build ethnically-exclusive settlements, an ongoing project of ethnic cleansing” in an op-ed they had submitted. The editors deemed the sentence “libelous and unverifiable,” even though, as the students point out, “this is precisely how former United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights Richard Falk characterizes the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories. This isn’t a controversial opinion but rather a statement of fact according to international law.”

Mere days before refusing to publish these facts, on the other hand, Daily Cal editors saw no problem in publishing an op-ed alleging that the Obama administration’s nuclear energy deal with Iran poses a “real and existential threat” to Israel, a claim countless scholars, journalists, and government intelligence agencies (along with the former chief of Israeli intelligence) have dismissed.

Berkeley SJP told Mondoweiss they were “very disturbed” that the student publication refused to allow them to speak openly about Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians—which have been well documented by the UN, leading human rights organizations, Israeli scholars, and more—but allowed prominent right-wing demagogues such as David Horowitz to publish what they perceived as a “threat” against Palestinian human rights advocates.

David Horowitz’ Public “Threat”

The most prominent of attacks against Berkeley student activists has come from leading pro-Israel pundit David Horowitz. Horowitz published a vitriolic polemic in the Daily Cal on March 31, “Why I singled out Students for Justice in Palestine,” in which he compared Palestinian solidarity activists to Nazis and accused them of not just “anti-Semitic” but also even “anti-Palestinian” activities. He wrote:

Today we are witnessing a resurgence of global Jew hatred not seen since the 1930s when Hitler was laying plans for the “Final Solution” — the physical extermination of European Jewry…. [O]n campuses across the country, student groups explicitly echo the poisonous messages of these Jew-hating parties that hold events calling for the destruction of the Jewish state — the unmistakable meaning of their signature chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” because the river is the eastern boundary of Israel and the sea its western boundary.

These campus-approved organizations — most prominently Students for Justice in Palestine — engage in rhetoric and activities that clearly fall under the definition of anti-Semitism used by the U.S. government… They deny the Jewish people — and only the Jewish people — their right to self-determination, they demand that Israel be judged by standards not applied to any other nation, they deploy classic anti-Semitic imagery, they propagate the idea that Israel exists on land stolen from the Arabs, and they demonize Israel as an apartheid state.

Horowitz claims that it “is SJP that supports ethnic cleansing, not Israel,” and that Israel does not truly “‘occupy’ any Arab land.” The UN, every country (including the US) in the world except for Israel, and every leading international human rights organization have maintained, since Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967, that Israel is illegally occupying Palestinian land.

He also says that Israel was created “out of the ruins of the Turkish empire.” Horowitz fails to mention the almost three decades (1920-1948) of British colonial control of Mandatory Palestine after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, yet alone the 1947-1948 war in which Zionist militias forcibly expelled 700,000 indigenous Palestinians—approximately 80% of those who originally lived on the land—and destroyed hundreds of villages.

As for the apartheid charge, Desmond Tutu, a principal leader in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has maintained for years that Israel is an apartheid state and says “I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.” Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has, furthermore, documented “more than 50 Israeli laws enacted since 1948 that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life.”

On April 3, Berkeley SJP (also known as Cal SJP) published a response to the lie-filled article. The group strongly condemned the allegations made against them, writing

Truth be told, this despicable rhetoric was to be expected of Horowitz, who simply did what he has always done best: spread hateful lies, inflected with his brand of blatant and unapologetic Islamophobia, none of which could have survived even the most lax fact checking, let alone the strict standard Daily Cal applies to submissions by SJP members.

The organization noted that its constitution explicitly states, “SJP rejects any form of hatred or discrimination against any religious, racial, or ethnic group” and goes further to mention that SJP’s “strength is in the great diversity of its membership.”

“Racist hate speech cannot be tolerated in a diverse campus community that aspires to be welcoming and inclusive,” SJP members firmly insisted, “but this is exactly what the Daily Cal chose to print.”

The SJP also said the article represented a threat. “It is hard to see how unbalanced readers were not to understand it as a threat, and accordingly, we take it as a threat,” Cal SJP wrote, lamenting that Horowitz’ article is “likely to incite violence against students.”

Horowitz’ Targeting of Student Papers

Horowitz—whom the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) refers to as “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement”—has a long history of making overtly racist remarks and is a propagator of right-wing conspiracy theories about Muslims trying to enslave the world. He speaks of the entire Palestinian people as “sick, nasty terrorists” and “morally sick.”

Even the strongly pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League concedes that Horowitz “promotes anti-Muslim views” and gives a platform to and supports “anti-Muslim activists.”

Horowitz also has a history of publishing incendiary pieces in student newspapers. In April 2008, he ran ads claiming that the goal of the Muslim Student Association is “to bring jihad into the heart of American higher education.” In 2001, he published an ad in publications at 13 schools that blamed slavery on black people and insisted that slavery benefited black Americans. He paid $700 per student paper.

The Daily Cal issued an official apology for publishing the pro-slavery ad, admitting that it had “become an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry.”

Solidarity from Jewish Organizations

Jewish Voice for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation issued statements harshly condemning the libelous letter.

The UC Berkeley Jewish Feminist Group, the J Street U at Berkeley Leadership Team, ASUC Senators, and a Cal Interfaith organizer published a response titled “Progressive Jewish Students condemn hateful and factually inaccurate Op­Ed by David Horowitz,” criticizing the student paper for running Horowitz’ “divisive, hyperbolic, and intentionally misleading op-ed” full of claims that have “no basis in reality.”

Representatives from these organizations added that they felt “dismayed that our campus newspaper would allow an individual with no affiliation to Cal to publish a specific attack on a group of Berkeley students.” They concluded condemning the paper’s “ongoing censorship of pro-Palestinian voices on our campus” and “editorial double standard against such students.”

J Street approached Bears for Israel, a Zionist organization on campus, to ask if they would condemn Horowitz’ hateful missive. They reportedly considered it, but Ori Herschmann—a Student Action Senator who, in the words of an SJP member, “always makes a lot of noise in student government,” pushing for pro-Israel initiatives—pressured them to defend Horowitz. An email obtained by Mondoweiss shows that Bears for Israel claimed they had “serious concerns” about the statement and refused to endorse it.

Bears for Israel is one of the 13 organizations in the UC Berkeley Jewish Student Union (JSU). The JSU claims it refuses to take stances on political issues—although it is decidedly Zionist—and thus declined to reject Horowitz’ piece.

Most of the JSU members groups—such as Tikvah, the self-professed “Zionist voice at UC Berkeley”—are explicitly pro-Israel. In 2011, Hillel listed four groups on the Berkeley campus that were devoted solely to defending Israel.

Hillel—an explicitly pro-Israel organization that rejects groups that support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement or, in its view, “delegitimize” Israel—provides assistance and funding to the JSU.

In late 2011, the JSU voted to exclude the liberal Zionist organization J Street from its membership. The JSU has refused to allow J Street to join on at least two occasions.

AIPAC-Backed Bears for Israel’s Smear Campaign

bears for israel logo

Bears for Israel is supported by the leading US-Israel lobby organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and works in cooperation with AIPAC’s Leadership Development department.

Bears for Israel states its purpose is “pro-Israel lobbying on state and national level.” It claims it “aims to be an inclusive pro-Israel voice that promotes open dialogue on campus,” yet Palestinian solidarity activists say it has engaged in a vicious smear campaign against them.

In March, Berkeley student Sumayyah Din announced that she would be running for student senate. She posted a paragraph on Facebook discussing her plans for the campaign, concluding with four hashtag slogans: #DIN4THEWIN, #DINASTY, #DINTIFADA, and #DOIT4THEDIN.

Bears for Israel responded by bringing as much attention to the single Facebook status as possible, claiming that Din’s use of the imaginary term “dintifada” was “destructive” and “triggering.” The next day, the Muslim-American sophomore came under intense attack by numerous pro-Israel organizations for using a fabricated word one time.

Far-right anti-Muslim blogs like Truth Revolt reported on the hashtag. Pro-Israel organizations such as StandWithUS accused Din of defending “murder.” In response to StandWithUS’ libelous claims, Din received a flood of death threats, with people writing racist comments on the leading Zionist organization’s official Facebook page such as

  • Karma is coming for this ignorant brainwashed little girl, definitely not peaceful.
  • I thought Muslims were peaceful. [Response from another commenter:] Yup the dead ones !
  • These terrorists must be eradicated
  • SOMEONE SHOULD ELIMINATE HER FROM THE EARTH.
  • It’s time to ship the islamic migrants back to their deserts!
  • She is a terrorist.
  • wanna bet she’s muslim
  • Maybe the Mossad should send her a greeting card.
  • Islamic oil money………………
  • These savages don’t qualify as human therefore they don’t deserve a trial, just a speedy execution.
  • time to fucking deport these shitbags

Din published an “open letter to those misunderstanding #dintifada,” in an attempt to clear up all the libelous lies printed about her. “I have been harassed by multiple organizations and even news websites such as TruthRevolt and the Stand With Us Campaign, calling for my expulsion and telling me to ‘go to school in Mecca,’ among other hateful remarks,” she noted. Din adamantly opposed allegations of anti-Semitism against her, pointing out that she supported a bill to counter anti-Semitism that was written by ASUC Senator Herschmann, and recalled that she “was pleased when the bill was passed, because I do not support any hate speech on this campus.”

“For anyone to question my intentions and try to portray me as anti-Semitic or someone who practices hate mongering is absolutely unacceptable,” Din said. “I will not allow anyone to delegitimize the struggle of the communities I represent, and I will continue to fight for our voices to be heard on an even playing field with the utmost transparency, compassion and vigor.”

uaw local 2865

The UC Student-Workers Union, UAW Local 2865—which represents over 13,000 workers at the University of California and is the first major US labor union to support BDS—voted to endorse Din for student government. The union always endorses candidates from Cal Students for Equal Rights and a Valid Education (CalSERVE)—a progressive, multicultural coalition on campus—yet made an exception specifically in order to defend her against the bitter attacks and threats she endured. A head steward explained to Mondoweiss that the “union stood behind Din specifically for her strong support for BDS and in solidarity with her.”

Critics of the campaign of hatred against Din pointed out that many Palestinians would doubtless say that the word “Israel” is triggering to them. After all, Israel ethnically cleansed the indigenous Palestinian population in 1947-1948, forcibly expelling over three-quarters of them, and has military occupied the Palestinian territories since 1967, in flagrant contravention of international law.

In spite of the bitter hate she endured, Din maintained that her “campaign is themed with a central dogma of love, solidarity, and unity.”

Bears for Israel’s “Triggering” Behavior

Phan Nguyen documented these smear campaigns of the “right-wing ‘PC police,'” detailing how they have targeted Muslim- and Arab-Americans in rancorous hate campaigns, constantly taking language out of context and accusing students of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial because they, in one example, post a photo on social media of themself cutting a pineapple.

These right-wing “PC police” do not hold the student groups they support to the same standards. In one of such instances, Berkeley SJP activists discovered that Bears for Israel President Becca Berman had posted a photo of her on Facebook armed with an assault rifle—an action many saw as literally triggering, in multiple senses of the term. This picture could be seen by the public; it was not set to private.

becca berman gun facebook post

A friend commented on the photo writing “ooh kill em.”

An SJP member who wished to remain anonymous told Mondoweiss that he was “blown away” by the sheer hypocrisy of Bears for Israel. The gun “isn’t really the point,” he remarked; “it just shows how incredibly disingenuous they are.”

He claimed the picture shows the group only pretended to find the word “dintifada” triggering in order to censor Palestinian solidarity activists, and expressed frustration that the group is exploiting a very serious concern that many survivors of violence must endure for their own political gain.

“Can you imagine if Summayah Din posted a photo on Facebook of herself holding an assault rifle?” he added. “She would be expelled.”

Harassment of SJP Activists

Berkeley SJP activists say their own student paper has grossly failed to address the threats they have faced and injustices they endured. Mondoweiss spoke to the authors of a March letter to the editor titled “Injustices against Palestinian students go unreported.” The authors, SJP activists and PhD students at the university, say the student paper has consistently censored their voices.

In the piece, the activists note that they have withstood an “onslaught of bigotry and harassment.” They indicate that Cal SJP has in particular been the target of racism, harassment, and threats in the wake of their peaceful protests marking Israeli Apartheid Week. During this international week of action, Berkeley activists distributed fake evictions notices—bringing attention to Israel’s constant illegal demolition of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories—and engaged in a mock wall and checkpoint reenactment, both of which are common demonstrations SJP branches organize, and for which some have been ruthlessly and unjustly punished in the past.

Immediately after these actions, Palestinian solidarity activists endured threats and harassment. An SJP member received threats via anonymous phone calls in which the caller made numerous anti-Palestinian remarks, compared SJP to Hamas, and concluded his call threatening “You better shut down, you’re next.”

While students were acting out the mock checkpoint, the rabbi of Berkeley Hillel made openly racist comments. He asked a Palestinian student, in front of numerous witnesses, why “the average Palestinian” wants to blow themself up on a bus.

The students mentioned this incident in their letter to the editor in the Daily Cal, yet the paper would not allow them to name who it was who made the remark.

When the editors published the article, however, they accidentally included unredacted text messages indicating that it was the Berkeley Hillel rabbi who said the bigoted comments. Soon after, they published an update with the image redacted.

cal sjp text messages unredacted

 SJP says the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s anti-SJP poster campaign is at least partially responsible for inspiring “violent animosity” against them. Weeks before the Israeli Apartheid Week actions, Cal SJP activists—including both Muslim and Jewish members—received threatening and Islamophobic emails that “included violent messages and highly offensive cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.”

These threats and the racist comments from campus leaders such as Hillel’s rabbi are by no means isolated incidents, nonetheless. The authors furthermore noted

That leader is not the only prominent public figure in the Bay Area promoting bigotry. Andy David, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest, recently spoke about the 2013 Israeli divestment vote here at UC Berkeley: “I was at an evening of the student senate at Berkeley before the vote there. It’s a senate of 20 students and there were at least two women with hijabs. Muslims aren’t 10 percent of the students at Berkeley, but they’re gaining control of the committees.” Imagine the justified outrage and shouts of anti-Semitism that would occur if a prominent Bay Area Muslim figure accused Jewish students of unfairly “gaining control” of student government at UC Berkeley.

More Bias in the Daily Cal

In response to the harassment they have experienced, and in particular in response to Horowitz’ article, students expressed their concern to authorities. SJP members demanded “a firm public response from the UC Berkeley administration.” One has not yet been received.

Cal SJP activists also shared their grievances with the Daily Cal, hoping it would alert the campus to the issue. The publication refused to report on the harassment, claiming there is not “enough for a news story.”

The students noted that the student paper has published numerous superficial fluff articles in the past, but was not interested in reporting on “clear evidence of an open culture of racism targeting Muslim and Middle Eastern students.”

“By saying all of this isn’t enough for a news story,” they said, “the Daily Cal is unwittingly demonstrating just how pervasive and accepted anti-Muslim bigotry is at UC Berkeley and beyond.”

“They will do everything they can to cover fake news, but” refuse to bring attention to the hatred advocates for Palestinian human rights face, a student lamented.

Kumars Salehi, a UC Berkeley doctoral student and prominent activist (who was featured in a long-form Hebrew-language Haaretz piece about BDS), told Mondoweiss

Having subjected SJP’s op-eds to and later backed off from the most incomprehensible editorial standards, the Daily Cal’s willingness to publish the smears in Horowitz’s op-ed show that the editors willfully ignore the voices of Middle Eastern and Muslim students who have written and given personal testimony to their experiences of victimization. In doing so, these aspiring journalists have revealed their cowardice and complicity in the worsening climate of Islamophobia here and across the US.

Unreported Rise in Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Racism on Campuses

The threats and attacks against Arab and Muslim students and against Palestinian solidarity activists of all religious and ethnic backgrounds come in the wake of numerous reports about the alleged rise in anti-Semitism on US university campuses.

Some progressive Jewish activists have claimed that much of this supposed increase is indicative not of a rise in racism, but rather of “blowback” against Israel’s crimes and racist policies, noting that Israel and Zionist organizations have redefined anti-Semitism so that criticism of Israel, a political entity, is seen as racist. Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein, among many others, have strongly condemned this newly constructed definition, referred to as the “new anti-Semitism,” claiming its goal is “not to fight anti-semitism but rather to exploit the historical suffering of Jews in order to immunize Israel against criticism.”

Critics also point out that it was revealed in March that a swastika posted in a George Washington University dorm that houses the Jewish Zeta Beta Tau fraternity—which has a history of intimidating and “fearmongering” against student Palestinian solidarity activists—was in fact placed by a member of that fraternity, who himself is Jewish. This is not the first time such an incident has happened.

Student Palestinian solidarity activists, many of whom are themselves Jewish, nevertheless recognize that anti-Semitism is clearly unfortunately still a problem, and adamantly insist that it must be countered. They also indicate, however, that by conflating criticism of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians with anti-Semitism, pro-Israel organizations and individuals are in fact greatly undermining the struggle against real manifestations of anti-Semitism.

Other forms of racism are on the rise on US campuses. An increasing number of open displays of anti-black racism have also been observed. What goes unmentioned by many news outlets, nonetheless, is the rapid rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism on US campuses. Studies show racist Islamophobia continues to grow in the US and throughout the world. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Palestinian solidarity activists have faced relentless threats and attacks by pro-Israel groups and individuals, yet the harassment they face is largely ignored. The experiences of Berkeley SJP students constitute just a few among many.

SJP students remarked

The UC Berkeley student senate, the ASUC, has taken well-publicized steps recently to combat anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley in response to an anonymous act of anti-Semitism at UC Davis. Cal SJP hopes administrators, student government representatives and the campus press will take similar steps to combat the clear pattern of public bigotry against Middle Eastern and Muslim students here at UC Berkeley.

In the meantime, the very real and growing threats against Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinian solidarity activists go largely unreported by the media, unaddressed by authorities, and unknown by civil society.