A Feb. 3, 2020 UC Berkeley student union meeting where students debated a measure to remove a controversial anti-Israel display. (Photo/Sunny Shen-Daily Californian)
A Feb. 3, 2020 UC Berkeley student union meeting where students debated a measure to remove a controversial anti-Israel display. (Photo/Sunny Shen-Daily Californian)

5 Cal student senators sit out antisemitism vote in protest

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A UC Berkeley student government resolution denouncing antisemitism failed to earn unanimous support at a meeting of the student senate last week.

Five of the 20 student senators — elected to the ASUC, or the Associated Students of the University of California — protested the vote by not appearing at the Nov. 9 meeting where the resolution was considered and approved, according to Shay Cohen, the senator who introduced the measure.

The students who opposed the bill said it “penalizes” senators, “forcing them” to approve a resolution that “equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic,” according to the Daily Cal student newspaper, quoting a student government official who spoke on behalf of the dissenting senators at the meeting. 

In addition to decrying antisemitism, the resolution encourages students to learn more about anti-Jewish hate by visiting a webpage of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies that lists educational resources. 

One of those resources is “Antisemitism in Our Midst,” a video at the heart of the dissenting students’ complaints. The 11-minute, animated instructional guide for students and staff was created by UC Berkeley professors, the director of the campus Hillel, an animator and a video producer. Released last year, it charts the history of antisemitism from early Christian blood libels to the present day. 

While most of the video centers on the drumbeat of anti-Jewish bigotry in the Western world, from expulsions in medieval Europe to the race-based antisemitism that took hold in the 1800s culminating in the Holocaust, it also includes a section defining when criticism of Israel “crosses a line” into antisemitism.

The resolution, which had 17 co-sponsors and is titled “Denouncing Hatred Towards the Jewish Community,” does not mention Israel or Palestine. It cites a litany of recent hate crimes targeting Jews at U.S. universities; a recent incident in Davis in which white supremacists hung antisemitic banners; and statements by Kanye West, who has “regularly used his platform to antagonize, vilify, and target Jewish people.”

It also mentions an FBI statistic from 2020 showing Jews accounted for 54.9% of religiously motivated bias crimes in the United States that year while comprising only 2½% of the population.

“Be it resolved, the Associated Students of the University of California denounces these anti-semitic incidents,” the resolution says, encouraging students to access the educational materials and urging the university to “take swift and decisive action” against antisemitism.

The latest activity comes as UC Berkeley continues to dig its way out of an antisemitism controversy that erupted in the fall, when a number of affinity groups at the law school agreed to boycott Israel and ban speakers who support Zionism. 

The five students protesting Cohen’s bill said they didn’t show up at the meeting partly out of fear for their safety, according to the Daily Cal, after an effort by a conservative, D.C.-based media organization to dox and publicly shame law school students who supported Zionist speaker bans.

Emails to the public accounts of the student senators who protested the vote went unanswered.

The ASUC, which is composed of undergraduates, has seen a number of tense debates over the years about Israel and Palestine, some of which have boiled over into verbal attacks on pro-Israel students. 

The script for “Antisemitsm in our Midst” was written by Berkeley Law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon; UC Berkeley scholar of modern European history and Jewish studies Ethan Katz; and Hillel Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelmin. It is not antisemitic, it says, to criticize the Israeli government or to support “the right of Palestinians to a state of their own.” The video goes on to say that “denying the Jewish people the right to a state, while defending the right of autonomy of other ethnic or national groups,” is antisemitic. 

Katz, in an email to J., clarified that while he remains “very concerned about the rising number of instances where hostility to Israel translates into exclusion of Jewish students,” he does not believe that anti-Zionism is by definition antisemitic. He told J. he was open to clarifying language in the video and had offered a sit-down with the protesting ASUC senators, but they had not responded.

The resolution had a majority of support from the other ASUC senators, only two of whom are Jewish.

Still, Cohen, a sophomore from the Los Angeles area studying economics, expressed frustration that the measure received pushback at all; she said it felt like a slam dunk.

Shay Cohen
Shay Cohen

“It’s sad that it had to get to this point about a bill that had pure and honest intentions,” Cohen told the Daily Cal on Nov. 10.

Cohen told J. a few days later that when the resolution was in committee, one senator proposed an amendment to remove the link to the video. Cohen refused.

“Why would we take off the Jewish Studies department’s link?” she said. Jewish students “have the right to define” forms of discrimination targeting them, just like any other group does, she added.

Cohen criticized the decision by her peers to avoid the debate altogether.

“If they wanted to vote ‘no,’ I would respect their decision. But not showing up offended me,” she said.

“There were Jewish students that came to speak at the meeting about the importance of this resolution,” Cohen added. “The fact that [some senators] were not even there to listen sends a message that when Jewish students come to ask for help, [they’re] just not going to show up.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.