a water tower that says UC Davis in blue writing
(Photo/Flickr-UC Davis Arboretum & Public Garden CC BY-SA 2.0)

Talk by Israeli chemist at UC Davis ‘Zoombombed’

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A UC Davis virtual event featuring an Israeli chemistry professor was attacked by an antisemitic and racist “Zoombombing,” with anonymous people spamming the Feb.10 talk with Nazi slogans and disruptive sounds.

“It was chaos, and I was panicked trying to find the source,” said Judy Wu, a professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, who organized the event with UC Davis chemistry professor Dean Tantillo.

The incident was first reported by the Algemeiner.

The speaker, Sason Shaik, is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem well known in his field for work on theoretical chemistry and a broad range of subtopics. He has an undergraduate degree from Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Shaik was tapped for the event, called “Stories from My Journey Through Chemistry,” to discuss his acclaimed career with a group of around 70 students and faculty from around the world.

About 15 minutes into the talk, the Zoombombing began.

“Suddenly more and more unknown participants jumped into the meeting,” Wu said in an email to J. “We then heard some fighting sounds, comments negative toward African American people, and then a robotic sound repeating ‘Heil Hitler.’”

Wu, who was the Zoom call’s host, said she was confused and frightened.

“I only came to my senses when one of my students messaged me privately and multiple times to say, ‘Close the meeting!!’ she said.

We then heard some fighting sounds, comments negative toward African American people, and then a robotic sound repeating ‘Heil Hitler.’

According to the Anti-Defamation League, instances of antisemitic Zoombombing soared along with the widespread adoption of the videoconferencing software during the pandemic. Of the 264 reported incidents in the U.S. of antisemitic harassment in 2020, 114 were Zoombombings.

Virtual events in the Bay Area have not been spared. However, most incidents occurred earlier in the shutdown, when institutions were new to Zoom and unprepared for attacks.

In April 2020, a lecture by San Francisco State assistant professor Rachel Gross at the Jewish Community Library was attacked with vulgar language, drawings of genitalia and a Jewish star. The same month, the JFCS Holocaust Center was able to thwart an attempted Zoombombing. In May of that year, a racist and antisemitic Zoombombing incident occurred at Stanford, and in Janury of 2021, students at Lowell High School in San Francisco were subjected to racist and antisemitic slurs shared anonymously during a virtual anti-racism lesson.

Partly in response to these incidents, recommended protocols for virtual events now include having a password, pre-registration for participants, and dedicated monitors who are tasked with shutting down any harassment. UC Davis has tips for instructors using Zoom that include requiring a password and not putting the link on social media.

According to Wu, the link to the event was publicized on Twitter as part of a monthly series for students, researchers and faculty, and the Zoom link was not password-protected.

The organizers “decided to have the link open to all because we wanted it to be an inclusive community, where anyone who is interested could join our discussions,” Wu said. “We will now have to protect our meetings with a password.”

Shaik, who was not aware of the Zoombombing until after the meeting because he had the audience muted, spoke out against the hateful speech in an interview with the Algemeiner.

“Scientific talks are highly cherished by scientists, and are held with esteem as a major intellectual medium of exchanging knowledge and insight,” he said. “Any hacking of any scientific talk is deplorable.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.