Dan Kalb, Oakland City council member for District 1, in Oakland on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Dan Kalb, Oakland City council member for District 1, in Oakland on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Jewish environmentalist on Oakland City Council disinvited from speaking to UC Berkeley class

Updated Dec. 15 at 11:00 a.m.

A progressive environmental advocate and longtime Oakland City Council member was disinvited from addressing a UC Berkeley environmental policy class after students discovered what they considered to be pro-Israel social media posts, questioned the “legitimacy” of his views on environmental activism and accused him of supporting “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.”

Dan Kalb, 64, has spent decades working on environmental policy in the nonprofit sector, advocating for clean energy, combating climate change and working on other conservation priorities.

He was invited to address an undergraduate course called Environmental Problem Solving, something he’d done a few times in previous semesters. He planned to share his experience advocating for climate policy at the local and state level, both as a nonprofit professional with groups like the Sierra Club and as a lawmaker.

But in the weeks leading up to Kalb’s Nov. 21 presentation, a group of students looked into his background and found social media posts that they said promoted “pro-Israeli propaganda.” Days prior to the event, Kurt Spreyer, the course instructor and an adjunct professor, contacted Kalb and shared a strongly worded letter that had been composed and co-signed by more than 30 students.

The letter, which was seen by J., alleged a litany of crimes committed by Israel, including environmental harms that the students said “forever chang[ed] the ecology of a once flourishing community and landscape.” The letter accused Kalb of playing an “active role in retweeting and spreading pro-Israeli propaganda, which often equates pro-Palestinian voices as ‘anti-Semitic.’”

Kalb is a familiar face at Oakland Jewish community events and has served on the city council since 2013. He considers himself a liberal supporter of Israel and a “passionate supporter of Israel’s right to exist,” he said. He was baffled when he read the letter; he called it “crazy.”

Kalb said in past visits to the class, the subject of Israel had never come up. The course provides “hands-on learning” for students “and exposure to environmental professionals in the field,” according to an online course description.

Spreyer did not respond to an email from J. seeking comment. A UC Berkeley spokesperson said that what transpired was “not consistent with the university’s values” and that Cal administrators were looking into the incident.  

Since Oct. 7, Kalb has used X a handful of times to repost or comment on the violence and hostage situation. He said he has posted to Instagram Stories, too.

Instructors are not supposed to rescind invitations for classroom speakers based on student disagreement with the speaker’s views.

About a week after the canceled appearance, on Nov. 27, Kalb voted in favor of a city council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza — a progressive priority — and for the release of hostages.

The Cal students who signed the letter expressed “growing concern” about Kalb’s classroom visit. The letter mentioned his social media reposts and his association with groups including the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which endorsed his current run for the state Senate, and the Jewish Community Relations Council, where Kalb served on the board for several years.

Considering these factors, “Questions arise regarding the validity, legitimacy, and authenticity of your views,” the letter said.

“As an Oakland City Council member with a platform advocating for environmental and social justice, affordable housing, and universal access to health care, among other things, it is utterly disappointing and hypocritical for someone of your esteem to be in support of the apartheid state of Israel and the current and ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” the letter said.

Kalb said Spreyer is his neighbor and described him as a “good guy.”

“He did not support their request. He pushed back on them,” Kalb said. “He was very supportive of me and told the class, ‘He’s coming to talk about climate change, not about the Middle East.’”

But the students were “adamant,” Kalb said.

Spreyer reportedly was concerned about two scenarios. The first was that if Kalb did come, “I would never get to speak about climate change,” Kalb said. “Students would force a conversation about the Middle East.” Spreyer also worried that there would be student protests.

“I don’t know if that would have happened or not, but he was worried about that,” Kalb said. “And he didn’t want to invite that. So he felt it would be best if I didn’t come this year. He felt very bad and said he was sorry. And that was that.”

Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb (center) at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a statement on Gaza from the Oakland teachers union, Nov. 10, 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)
Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb (center) at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a statement on Gaza from the Oakland teachers union, Nov. 10, 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)

The incident comes as UC Berkeley continues to grapple with public controversies surrounding Israel politics and the university’s climate for Jewish students. Last year, a number of law school student groups banned speakers who support Zionism, a word whose meaning is often obscure even to activists who use it, but that refers to people who support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. The law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, called the bans “very troubling,” but both he and Chancellor Carol Christ have maintained the free speech rights of students and have resisted calls by pro-Israel groups to sanction the law groups.

Last month, a group of Jewish students and professors sued the university, alleging that it has not done enough to protect Jews on campus.

“The problem of antisemitism — the problem of what we’re seeing — apparently is not exclusive to the law school,” Kalb said.

Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley assistant vice chancellor and spokesperson, said the university is taking steps to investigate what occurred and to prevent this type of incident from repeating itself.

“What happened in this class is not consistent with the university’s values, particularly because the class discussion had nothing to do with the war between Israel and Hamas,” Mogulof said in a statement emailed to J. on Wednesday. “Instructors are not supposed to rescind invitations for classroom speakers based on student disagreement with the speaker’s views.

“Our provost, who first learned about this [Tuesday] night, has written to Councilmember Kalb to express our dismay about what happened and to assure him that the leadership of the Rausser College of Natural Resources has reviewed the matter with the instructor to ensure nothing like this will happen again,” the statement said. “The provost will also be sending a message to every dean and department chair to remind them of Berkeley’s support for an open exchange of ideas, and our rejection of political litmus tests when it comes to who can speak in our classes.”

It concluded: “The college leadership also intends to use what happened as an opportunity to engage the community in a discussion about the importance of diversity of perspective and the dangers of censorship of any sort.”

The incident occurred as extreme pro-Palestinian activists across the United States increasingly target people they identify as Zionists, usually Jews, in campaigns that equate support for Israel’s existence with support for “genocide,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.”

In Philadelphia, a group called the Philly Palestine Coalition circulated a list of Israeli restaurants and so-called “Zionist businesses” as targets for boycotts, and a massive crowd demonstrated outside of Goldie, a popular falafel shop owned by Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov. In Los Angeles, a historic Jewish deli was vandalized with a message that said, “Israel’s only religion is capitalism.”

For nine years, Kalb served as California policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he promoted renewable energy and climate change policy, lobbying for it in Sacramento. He also directed a local chapter of the conservation nonprofit Sierra Club. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1982 at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, the same college where he was scheduled to speak.

Kalb described the Cal students’ behavior as maddening and, in his view, plainly bigoted.

“If someone wants to go speak about climate change — they are an expert on climate change — what the hell does Israel or Zionism have to do with that?” Kalb said. “Why not put a yellow star on our sleeve? How about we do that too?”

A review of Kalb’s X account shows recent posts dealing mainly with municipal issues like fire safety, combating gun violence and supporting the local food bank. Since Oct. 7, he has reposted or replied to a handful of messages related to the Israel-Hamas war “mostly to counter all the negative anti-Israel crap that goes on on social media,” he said.

Kalb responded to an Oct. 11 post about Hamas’ attack, stating: “I’ve been condemning the murderous Hamas terrorists repeatedly. I was in Israel back in March of this year including at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. My heart is broken. There is no ‘but’ here. Hamas must be unequivocally condemned and, if possible, dismantled so this never happens again.”

A repost from Nov. 5 described decades of poor resource management in Gaza that contributed to its living conditions prior to the outbreak of war, shared details about the grisly Oct. 7 attack and said a cease-fire would come only after the hostages came home and Hamas surrendered.

Kalb also commented “Very moving gathering. Am Yisrael Chai!” to a Nov. 9 post about an empty Shabbat table in Piedmont set to bring attention to the hostages. “Am Yisrael chai” — an expression of solidarity — means “the people of Israel live.”

Earlier this year, Kalb announced a run for state Senate to represent Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, aiming to replace another environmental advocate, Nancy Skinner, who will be termed out. In campaign materials he highlights, among other initiatives, his role championing a 2016 law that blocked the transport and storage of massive amounts of coal in Oakland, a win for environmental groups; a ballot measure he authored to form an independent police oversight commission in the city; and efforts to facilitate affordable housing development.

Kalb said he’s been shocked and disturbed by some of the extreme rhetoric that has filled social media in the past two months, some of which spilled into the Oakland City Council chambers at its Nov. 27 meeting about the cease-fire resolution. During public comment on the resolution, which Kalb supported, some speakers defended Hamas and others shared conspiracy theories about the terrorist attack. On social media he saw people denying evidence of Hamas atrocities, including rape.

“That’s not anti-Zionism,” he said. “That’s antisemitism.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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