Jewish, Arab students brawl during pro-Israel concert at U.C. Berkeley

Jewish and Palestinian student activists at U.C. Berkeley both agree that a physical altercation occurred on campus last week during a pro-Israel concert.

But that’s about the only thing on which they agree.

The fistfight took place Nov. 13 at U.C. Berkeley’s Eshleman Hall. It was sparked after members of Students for Justice in Palestine draped a Palestinian flag over a second-story balcony above a Lower Sproul Plaza concert sponsored by the Zionist Freedom Alliance, a pro-Israel student organization that operates on campuses throughout North America.

According to Lt. Adan Tejada of the U.C. Berkeley campus police, after the Palestinian flag was unfurled, “some gentlemen were upset and went up to the balcony to try to remove it.”

This is where both sides offer opposing narratives.

U.C. Berkeley junior John Moghtader of Tikvah, a pro-Israel campus group unaffiliated with ZFA, said he and two other Jewish attendees — Gabe Weiner and performer Yehuda De Sa — walked upstairs to the balcony and “asked them to please remove the flags. That’s the first thing we said: ‘Would you guys please remove the flags?’ ”

With that, he told j., one of the Palestinian students “became outraged and extremely hostile, and he assailed Gabe Weiner, put his hand into his face and pushed him back.” Moghtader said a scuffle then ensued, which he tried to break up. Both Jewish and Palestinian students were struck in the fracas.

The Arab students’ version is quite different. According to a statement released by Students for Justice in Palestine, “The Arab students had decided to display the flag as a silent statement after hearing offensive anti-Arab remarks at the concert. They did not attempt to interfere with the event.”

The statement also accused the Jewish students of throwing the first punch and yelling “racial epithets directed at Arabs and Palestinians,” such as “We’re about to take care of some f—ing Palestinians,” and “You Arab dogs, we will kill you.”

Because of those alleged statements, campus police are considering classifying the incident as a hate crime, according to a Nov. 17 report in the Daily Californian, the U.C. Berkeley student newspaper.

Moghtader categorically denied that any Jewish students made offensive remarks, either during the concert or during the fight. “[The SJP press release] is 100 percent fabricated,” he said. “None of those things ever came out of my mouth, and never [from] someone else’s who took part in the altercation. It’s one big act of defamation. Those are horrible things to say.”

Tejada said officers arrived on scene after the fight and, at the urgings of both sides, issued citations for battery to Weiner and two Arab students.

The case, which is still being investigated by campus police, will next go to the district attorney’s office for further review, Tejada said.

Though not present during the incident, 21-year-old Yaman Salahi, a member of SJP, decried the actions of Tikvah, the pro-Israel student group recently censured by U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union for disrupting a lecture by anti-Israel academic Norman Finkelstein last month.

“Since Tikvah has become active,” he said, “it’s a matter of our views and opinions being threatened, mostly through these intimidating actions where people get in your face. In the past, we tried to work with the dean of students to set up guidelines for group interaction for events, but Tikvah has refused to show up.”

Not surprisingly, Moghtader saw things differently, denying that Tikvah ever failed to show up at any pre-arranged parley.

“SJP hasn’t changed,” he said. “If anything they’ve gotten more vile. The only thing that’s changed is now there are proud Jewish and pro-Israel students willing to respond. SJP no longer has carte blanche to do whatever they want. People are finally standing up to them, and so tensions have increased.”

Salahi seemed to get his facts wrong at one point when he told j. the Palestinian flag was hung from a fourth-story balcony so that the protestors would “remove themselves by proximity” from the pro-Israel event below. Both the campus police and photos of the scene confirm the flag was hung from a second-story balcony.

Though not involved in the ZFA concert or altercation, Berkeley Hillel has urged calm. Said Ken Kramarz, executive campus liaison for Hillel’s Northern California field services, “We condemn all acts of violence and violations of university policy. These stories brought about by the action of two or three students represent a very small minority of Jewish students on campus.”

The SJP statement specifically thanked Berkeley Hillel, among others, for “expressing their solidarity and condemnation of those attacks.” Hillel disagreed with that characterization.

“We never expressed solidarity,” noted Kramarz. “What we expressed was unilateral opposition to acts of violence or violation of campus rules.”

Though U.C. Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande told the Daily Californian this was the first time in his 27 years at Cal he has seen such “a high incidence of ideological and ethnic violence,” for Lt. Tejada of the campus police, this is all old hat.

“In my experience on [Sproul] Plaza, you end up with people very passionate on both sides,” he said. “Typically people try to keep cool heads and occasionally it boils over.”

Staff writer Stacey Palevsky contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.