A JewBelong billboard at  San Pablo Ave. and Hearst St. in Berkeley had the words "Free Palestine!" spray-painted on it. (Photo/Courtesy JewBelong)
A JewBelong billboard at San Pablo Ave. and Hearst St. in Berkeley had the words "Free Palestine!" spray-painted on it. (Photo/Courtesy JewBelong)

Provocative JewBelong billboards vandalized with ‘Free Palestine’ in Berkeley

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Two of eight new billboards in Berkeley were defaced last week by vandals who took issue with their provocative message: “You don’t need to go to law school to know anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

Paid for by JewBelong, a New Jersey–based nonprofit known for its edgy messaging delivered in 22 states, the billboards and their tongue-in-cheek message refer to the recent controversy at UC Berkeley, where last semester a dozen student groups at the law school agreed to ban speakers who support Israel or Zionism. Spearheaded by Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, the move was covered widely by national media and condemned by Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League.

The Berkeley billboards went up over the week of Jan. 9. By Jan. 20, they had been reported defaced.

On one, the “Jew” in JewBelong was crossed out and the logo was painted over with “Every1belong.” On the other billboard, the words “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” were crossed out. On both, “Free Palestine” was added to the message.

Archie Gottesman
Archie Gottesman

“I feel strongly this is a hate crime. I don’t see it any other way,” Archie Gottesman, JewBelong’s co-founder, said in a phone interview with J. The organization seeks to “rebrand” Judaism, endorsing more inclusivity in the Jewish community and calling out antisemitism.

Ilana Pearlman, 37, a Berkeley resident who recently had donated to JewBelong and thanked the group for the billboards, contacted Berkeley police to report the graffiti. She felt it was intentionally hateful toward Jews.

“It makes me feel nervous. It makes me feel vulnerable and scared,” said Pearlman, who also worries about her three children facing discrimination for being Jewish.

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Berkeley police confirmed to J. that the defacement is being investigated as a hate crime. Byron White, public information officer, said a passerby had reported the vandalism on Jan. 20. The two billboards are located just a few blocks apart on San Pablo Avenue, one near Cedar and one near Hearst.

Gottesman said the billboards were created to spread awareness about the Berkeley student groups’ decision to adopt bylaws last August banning supporters of Zionism from speaking at their events. She called the bylaws “blatantly antisemitic.”

“I keep thinking of my 4-year-old putting her hands over her ears saying, ‘I don’t want to hear you, I don’t want to hear your side of the story,’” Gottesman said of the student ban. “That’s essentially what it feels like.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law School, said he condemns the defacing of the billboards. At the same time, he found their message to be “inflammatory and misleading,” he told J. in a phone interview.

Erwin Chemerinsky
Erwin Chemerinsky

“The reality is, we’ve been dealing with a very difficult issue over the last several months, and the billboard ignores what the issue is about,” said Chemerinksy, who previously has condemned the bylaws and called them antisemitic.

“I don’t think that this billboard is contributing to useful discourse,” Chemerinsky said. “But [JewBelong has] the First Amendment right to express it, and no one has the right to deface it.”

Gottesman said the organization is paying for replacement billboards to be made and installed, which she said is expensive and takes several weeks to complete.

“I feel a mixture of being sad and angry and defiant,” Gottesman said. “I’m not going to back down [just] because they spray-painted the billboards.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.