Students rally to support Israel at UC Berkeley, Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/Ben Weiss-Ishai)
Students rally to support Israel at UC Berkeley, Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/Ben Weiss-Ishai)

A tense Berkeley campus reacts to Hamas massacre and war

Like many of his Jewish peers on campus, Noah Rothman, a UC Berkeley senior and president of the Berkeley Hillel student board, is struggling under the emotional weight of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack and its war with Israel.

“It’s really hard to actually focus on homework and set aside time to just take care of things like cooking, going to the gym, showering, doing laundry,” Rothman said. “It’s hard.”

Rothman, 25, is a Los Angeles native who lived in Israel for five years after high school. He served in the Israel Defense Forces before starting at UC Berkeley, and his older brother has been called up as a reservist since the war began.

Rothman joined about 30 fellow pro-Israel students and faculty outside Berkeley’s Sather Gate at the edge of Sproul Plaza on Monday afternoon as a counterprotest to a pro-Palestinian rally.

Rothman described the scene of more than 100 pro-Palestinian students, many of them holding Palestinian flags and signs decrying Israeli “genocide,” chanting rally cries like “viva, viva la intifada” (long live the intifada) and “Israel, Israel, what do you say? How many children have you killed today?”

“It’s really hard to hear that stuff,” said Ethan Katz, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies, who also attended the counterprotest. “It was deeply painful for a lot of students to hear.”

Pro-Israel students, including Rothman, formed a line and held Israeli flags. They remained silent for 23 minutes and 30 seconds — 1,410 seconds in memory of the number of victims of the Hamas massacre.

Rothman said he was relieved that the protest didn’t “feel hostile.” Overall, he added, “it was not as bad as I thought it would be.”

Since Oct. 7, Berkeley’s campus has been rife with tension between students with opposing views on the Hamas terrorist attack, Israel’s declaration of war and its bombing campaign.

The campus, known as a stronghold of Palestinian support among American universities, has been more strained than usual over the past week and a half. That has surfaced in the form of protests and political events among students and a series of open letters from faculty expressing their indignation over the campus climate and the university’s official positions toward the massacre, the war and student responses.

“I would say for Jewish students, there’s this combination of grieving and anger and sorrow that is being manifested in many ways,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, hosted a panel of Palestinian speakers on Oct. 12, attended by an estimated 200 people in person and close to 100 people on Zoom, according to Charlotte Aaron, a Jewish and Zionist student in the UC Berkeley School of Law who listened to 45 minutes of the meeting on Zoom before she’d heard enough.

“It’s providing an extremely one-sided narrative of the conflict, which is dangerous and counterproductive to resolution,” said Aaron, who is 28 and in her final year in law school while working on a joint master’s degree in public policy. She said the Berkeley LSJP event was similar in content to an event she attended by the group last year called “Palestine 101,” characterizing both events as “demonizing” Israel.

On Sunday, Berkeley corporate law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with the headline, “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students” that also referenced Berkeley LSJP’s controversial decision last year to ban Zionist speakers from participating in its events and encourage other student groups to adopt the same bylaw.

“The student conduct at Berkeley is part of the broader attitude against Jews on university campuses that made last week’s massacre possible. It is shameful and has been tolerated for too long,” Solomon wrote in the WSJ.

Pro- and anti-Israel students at UC Berkeley, Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/Ben Weiss-Ishai)

None of the seven Berkeley students, faculty and staff interviewed by J. is aware of any physical violence at Cal in reaction to the Israel-Hamas war. Yet the campus is on edge.

Ahead of a Hamas leader’s call for a “day of jihad” on Oct. 13, UC Berkeley professor Ron Hassner, faculty director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, was deeply concerned about the potential for students to turn violent that day.

He’d already heard of heated arguments between students that were interrupted before turning physical. He contacted his colleague, Hatem Bazian, who is a Palestinian lecturer on Middle Eastern languages and cultures, founder of Students for Justice in Palestine and an anti-Zionst who “has never said a kind word about Israel,” Hassner said.

Hassner proposed that two of them write a joint statement calling for students to remain peaceful toward one another. Hassner posted the statement on his Facebook profile on Oct. 12. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ shared it later that day in a campuswide email. Hassner and Bazian’s five-sentence statement read:

“To our students: We are two professors on this campus who disagree, vehemently. But we have always treated one another with respect and dignity. We love this campus with its diverse communities and all of our students and are heartbroken to hear of incidents of near violence between students in recent days. We will not tolerate our students harming one another. Disagreement and differing points of view are an essential part of campus life, and we expect that you treat one another with the same respect and dignity that we are modeling here.”

Hassner praised Bazian for his willingness to work with him on the letter.

“I know that it took courage on his part, and I admire that,” Hassner said. “Any identity I might carry as a Jewish person or as an Israeli person is the identity I carry as a teacher. And as a teacher the idea that my students would do one another harm is just unbearable to me.”

The university administration has contributed to the problems on campus, Jewish students and faculty said.

A letter from two university vice chancellors, Dania Matos and Stephen Sutton, on Oct. 8 sent to all registered student organization leaders that addressed the violence in the “Middle East” didn’t land well with Jews on campus because it didn’t condemn Hamas or the antisemitism pervading Cal.

The words “Israel,” “Gaza” and “Hamas” were not used in the statement, which read:

“We are writing to offer our heartfelt sympathy and support to members of our campus community with ties to the Middle East, whether they be familial, religious, ethnic, national, academic, or ideological. We mourn the loss of life and recognize that this conflict is causing a great deal of fear and anxiety among members of our Cal community. We deeply regret the pain and trauma that is caused by this ongoing conflict.”

The statement concluded with links to campus mental health resources and reaffirmed the university’s policy on free speech.

Katz called the message “very upsetting” and “very weak,” adding that many Jewish students were outraged and voiced those feelings to administrators.

“The administrators heard them, and they realized they had made a mistake and that they had not gotten it right,” Katz said. After “trying to figure out how to address the pain of Jewish students while acknowledging other people’s different perspectives,” according to Katz, Chancellor Christ sent her own statement campuswide on Oct. 11.

“I am heartbroken by the terrible violence and suffering in Israel and Gaza,” Christ wrote. “The brutal attack by Hamas on Israel, the killing of so many innocent people — including children and the elderly — and the taking of hostages, fill me with grief and dismay. Israel’s subsequent blockade and bombing of the Gaza Strip is causing the loss of yet more innocent lives. This tragedy has a long and complex history, one leading to an appalling result. I know many members of our community have deep ties to Israel and to Palestine and are experiencing tremendous sorrow and trauma at this time. Your suffering must be particularly acute; we feel compassion for all that you are experiencing.”

Separately, more than 300 UC Berkeley faculty members signed a letter, released Monday, that denounces the Hamas attack on Israel and stands in support of Jewish students on campus. Those signing the letter included Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Ben Hermalin — who signed it not as provost but as “Distinguished Professor of Economics & Business” — and Christ, who signed it as “Emeritus Professor of English.” The letter remains open for more signatures.

The 527-word letter states in part, “We condemn this violence for what it is, and we extend our deepest sympathies to Israelis and to Jews worldwide in this hour of terror and brutal devastation. It is possible to do this and simultaneously evince deep sympathy and concern for the people of Gaza as they face a major military onslaught whose impact will indeed be brutal. It is possible simultaneously to condemn unequivocally what occurred this weekend for the barbarism it was and to advocate for justice for Palestinians. We mourn all loss of life and security in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we pray for a swift resolution to the current violence and the return of the hostages.”

Danielle Sobkin, UC Berkeley class of 2024, said the official reactions came too late.

“It’s been over a week,” Sobkin said. “It shouldn’t be Jewish students begging administrators to take a stance and for them to finally hear that after so much has happened.”

Hannah Schlacter, a student in the class of 2024 at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, echoed that sentiment and added, “It’s one thing for faculty to sign that letter. It’s another thing for the chancellor to refuse to condemn Hamas terrorism.”

Schlacter and Sobkin co-authored an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post on Monday about their frustration with the university administration’s response.

Katz, who helped write the faculty letter, said in an email to J. that the letter came out of a need to denounce the Oct. 7 terrorism and the loss of lives on both sides and to “show support for our many Jewish students who are facing a very difficult environment from many of their peers and some of their professors on campus. We also did so because we believe it is important for Berkeley faculty to make a statement that draws clear lines on these horrific events.”

While the campus continues to feel the weight of grief and anger, there have been glimmers of hope, too.

In a separate letter sent to students on Monday, Asad Ahmed, a Berkeley professor and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, said the Center for Middle Eastern Studies “prays for peace and healing in the darkest of times. We dream of a safe and thriving Israel and Palestine.”

Rothman was grateful to read those words.

“It was a really beautiful statement to see from someone who you wouldn’t necessarily believe to be your ally,” Rothman said. “I think we have a lot more allies than we think we do.”

Emma Goss
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.