Beware of anti-Semitism germinating in Oakland

After 20 years at the Anti-Defamation League, I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, right? Wrong. Case in point is the latest anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slur percolating through parts of the Bay Area: that there are direct parallels between the conflict in Gaza and oppression in Oakland.


Jonathan Bernstein

In early January we first noticed this phenomenon at protests over the New Year’s Day shooting death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, by a BART police officer. We saw signs there making the strange parallels about how “our taxes kill” in both Gaza and Oakland. Though the notion was absurd, my colleagues and I had a queasy feeling that it could catch on. And, unfortunately, we were right.


First, we noticed posters and speeches at anti-Israel rallies making the same link throughout January. Then late last month, I heard about a public event for Oakland youth sponsored by the Gaza Action Committee and the Eastside Arts Alliance, which describes itself a group of “artists, cultural workers and community organizers of color … that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.” The promotional flyer declared that participants would “learn and discuss the connections between state-sponsored violence in Palestine and Oakland.” I decided to attend and observe.

Once there, it didn’t take long for me to understand how seriously the Jewish community needed to take this latest development.

The first thing I noticed were multiple posters of the wounded in Gaza taped on the exterior windows of the Eastside Arts Alliance building. Every one of these pictures was emblazoned with a large Jewish star with the U.S. presidential seal inside the middle of the star. The unequivocal message to me: Jews control the U.S. government, and both are responsible for the deaths in Gaza.

I listened with dismay to the presentations. After a brief, distorted history lesson about Israel in which Jews were portrayed as colonizing European interlopers with no prior connection to the land, speakers took turns convincing the audience that the experiences of a person of color in Oakland mirrored those of a Palestinian in Gaza.

To do this, they repeated one false claim after another: Palestinians have curfews just like youth in Oakland; Oakland police are trained by Israeli law enforcement to oppress minorities; during Hurricane Katrina, the Israeli Mossad shot black Americans trying to survive the devastation; the gentrification of Oakland is the same as “the Occupation”; the same company which built the security barrier in Israel is building the barrier between the U.S. and Mexico; and so on.

In sum, the young people attending this event learned that Jews and the Jewish state are responsible for Palestinian oppression, and that this is the same sort of oppression they feel in their own Oakland communities. Furthermore, they learned that to combat this oppression, the two communit needed to band together against their common foes.

To say the event was depressing for me is an understatement.

Yet I also knew that the Jewish community could not afford to simply dismiss this event as just a fringe phenomenon. We can all remember when only extreme activists made Nazi analogies at anti-Israel demonstrations — now the swastikas are routine.

The Oakland event drew about 200 young and passionate activists. These youths clearly had leadership skills. They were articulate and motivating, but the realization that they were capable of becoming community leaders startled me: What words and beliefs would they share with their peers now and in the future? How would Jewish youth find common ground with them?

The difficult question for our community is what can we do about this? I propose the following:

• Don’t ignore dangerous parallels. Yesterday’s fringe agitation might be today’s routine occurrence.

• Build alliances with other communities, and reinforce appropriate parallels with them. Help others to understand our communities’ perspective and experience. Talk to your neighbors. Plan a meeting with members of the church or other house of worship in your town. In other words, humanize us to them.

• Listen to the experiences of those around you. It makes sense that others will be more sensitive to us when we make a genuine attempt to be sensitive to them.

• When you see biased activism in your town, newspaper or community center, take action: Call the ADL, write a letter to the editor, plan a more balanced program to provide perspective, etc.

Changing attitudes is hard but rewarding work, and all of us should be a part of this effort in the workplace, home and community. At the ADL and other Jewish organizations, we strive to do this every day. I hope you will join us in this endeavor.

Jonathan Bernstein is regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region, based in San Francisco.

Jonathan Bernstein
Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is the executive director of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ San Francisco Bay Area region.