Recall election takes aim at pro-Zionist Cal undergrad

U.C. Berkeley student senator John Moghtader is fighting for his political life.

The college junior is days away from a Monday, Feb. 23 special recall election, a vote he has tried to stop and which he believes has everything to do with his pro-Zionist views. His detractors, accusing him of making the campus climate unsafe, say he should be removed from office.

A Jewish student and co-founder of Tikvah, a pro-Israel group at U.C. Berkeley, Moghtader has been an assertive Zionist presence on campus.

A recall petition, launched in the wake of an on-campus fracas last November between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students, garnered the requisite 1,000 signatures to put the issue before the student body.

The petition read in part: “We believe that [Moghtader] has persistently acted in a way that silences those who espouse views different from his own and creates an atmosphere that undermines the physical safety of students.”

The recall effort withstood multiple challenges Moghtader filed with the Associated Students of the University of California Judicial Council (the campus version of a Supreme Court).

Moghtader has few options left but to get out the vote.

“It would be a very sad day for democracy and the Jewish community if I would be recalled,” Moghtader said. “It’s a slap in the face to the democratic system and to Israel’s voice on this campus.”

The recall election, estimated to cost around $25,000 in student funds, falls under the aegis of the U.C. student elections council, chaired by student Emily Liedblad. She predicts a low voter turnout.

“I’m impartial in this election,” Liedblad said, “and take an unbiased stance. Finance-wise [the recall] isn’t a very good use of student funds. There’s just the one proposition on the ballot and another election happening in just a few weeks.”

John Moghtader looks through a copy of the Daily Californian on Sproul Plaza in Berkeley.

The ASUC Senate on which Moghtader serves is a 20-member body that is the legislative branch of student government. It controls a $1.4 million budget and oversees campus safety, healthcare and other academic services. Moghtader ran for a one-year term last spring, receiving the seventh-highest vote total out of several dozen candidates. He took office with the start of the 2008-2009 school year last fall.

The recall process has been entirely student-led, with no input or guidance from U.C. Berkeley administrators. Dan Mogulof, the university’s executive director of public affairs, notes that the ASUC is an independent campus group. “It’s been the tradition and policy for decades,” he said, “so we have neither the means nor the inclination to interfere.

One of Moghtader’s complaints is that the recall process has been “handled on the fly.” He argued that the nine-member Judicial Council passed rulings on his case with as few as four members present, less than half the full body.

On Feb. 16, the council rejected this argument, saying in a ruling that the ASUC constitution “does not state that the Judicial Council cannot exercise its authority when there are vacant seats.”

“There is no check on this process,” he said of the recall. “You can basically steamroll straight ahead. If 1,000 students don’t like a senator because he’s pro-Israel, then that senator is up for a recall. All they want is to see the Zionist senator removed from office. It’s not fair to me, not fair to the student body. Their student fees are going to waste.”

Moghtader first drew local attention last October after he and other Tikvah students led a disruptive protest at a campus lecture by author and anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein.

The Jewish Student Union, an umbrella organization that oversees Jewish student groups and promotes Jewish culture on campus, placed Tikvah on probation. Tikvah leaders subsequently decided to secede from the JSU rather than work around the terms of the probation.

Then, during a pro-Israel concert on campus in November, a fistfight occurred after members of Students for Justice in Palestine draped a Palestinian flag from a second-story balcony. The outdoor concert was part of Israel Liberation Week, sponsored by the Zionist Freedom Alliance, a student organization that operates on campuses throughout North America.

In an opinion piece published in the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, student Nathan Shaffer, one of the initiators of the recall petition, wrote that Moghtader, “chose to respond to serious, valid questions about his commitment to free speech in an inappropriate manner. He was present when Palestinian students were assaulted for displaying a flag. At best, he did not intervene. At worst, as supported by the [campus police] report on the incident, he participated in the attack. Additionally, Senator Moghtader disrupted an on-campus lecture in possible violation of the student code of conduct and there are ongoing allegations that his behavior is designed to intimidate other students that do not share his viewpoints.”

The Daily Californian reported Moghtader was one of three Jewish students who attempted to remove the banner. The Alameda County DA never charged Moghtader, who has consistently denied involvement in the altercation.

Moghtader is not without his supporters. In addition to campus Jewish groups standing by him, the Daily Californian ran an editorial condemning the recall effort and has run opinion pieces defending Moghtader.

There is even a Facebook page supporting Moghtader, with 285 members.

“If every student were required to vote, I’m confident I would win the election,” Moghtader said. “But the people behind this, led by the anti-Israel crowd, those people will get up at 6 a.m. and walk through snow to make sure I get out. To be frank, I think the anti-Israel forces are so motivated to get me out, [winning the recall election] is an uphill battle.”

As for life lessons the experience has taught him, Moghtader says he has learned that “standing up for Israel and the Jewish people is a difficult task.”

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.