Plywood covers a shattered door and window at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
Plywood covers a door and window at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus on Feb. 27, 2024, following a violent protest by pro-Palestinian students the previous night. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘I’m screaming for help’: Jewish students face violence at UC Berkeley Israel talk

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Jewish students at UC Berkeley evacuated from a campus theater Monday night after a mass of protesters, chanting “Intifada! Intifada!” and other slogans, shattered a glass door at the venue and shut down a scheduled lecture by an Israeli attorney and IDF reservist.

Several students who were attending or working the event at Zellerbach Playhouse were injured, including two young women, one of whom sprained a thumb when she wrestled to keep a door shut as protesters muscled it open. Another female student reportedly was handled around her neck, leaving marks. A third student was spit on, he told J.

The lecture was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Ran Bar-Yoshafat, who is a reserve combat officer in the Israel Defense Forces and was deployed in Gaza, planned to discuss international law as it pertains to Israel. “He’ll explore whether Israel violates international law, the rules of wartime conduct, and how the IDF can better protect civilians,” a social media post publicizing the event said.

The talk was conceived of as a small lecture in a classroom at Wheeler Hall, but organizers moved it at the direction of campus police for safety reasons after the anti-Zionist group Bears for Palestine, the Cal affiliate of Students for Justice in Palestine, called for a protest to “shut it down,” according to Joseph Karlan, a student leader of campus pro-Israel group Tikvah and one of the event organizers.

“Shut it down: Genocidal murderers out of Berkeley,” the Bears for Palestine announcement said. It showed a picture of Bar-Yoshafat with glowing red eyes and a stamp under his face saying “murderer.”

“This individual is dangerous. Ran Bar-Yoshafat has Palestinian blood on his hands,” said the Instagram post, which got more than 2,200 likes and dozens of supportive comments. Bears for Palestine did not respond to an Instagram message from J. seeking comment.

J. interviewed a number of Berkeley students who said the incident was deeply discouraging and frightening.

Videos circulated widely on social media, showing protesters outside wearing keffiyehs and masks, yelling “You can’t run! You can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!” and other anti-Israel chants and banging on the glass door until it shattered. Videos also showed the students who were trying to attend the event being led down hallways — what one described to J. as an “underground tunnel of the building” — in order to safely evacuate the premises.

The incident shines a harsh spotlight on UC Berkeley amid concern that the university is not doing enough to protect Jewish students. 

Even prior to the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war — which has led to recurring pro-Palestinian protests that some say use intimidation tactics with violent slogans — the university was under scrutiny after a number of student groups at the law school banned speakers who support Israel. In December 2022, the U.S. Department of Education said it had opened a civil rights investigation into the university over the law school controversy. 

A spokesperson for the university lambasted the conduct of the protesters in an interview with J. Tuesday. 

“What happened last night was despicable,” spokesperson Dan Mogulof said.

He said property damage to the theater was still under evaluation, but he confirmed that there were broken windows and at least one broken door, which was damaged after being forced.

Mogulof pushed back on the idea that UC Berkeley was scanty with its police protection. There were 19 officers present, the university said, including the chief of campus police.

“The size of the crowd, the size of what was a mob, and the willingness and readiness of that mob to engage in violent behavior” were shocking, Mogulof said. “We are deeply disturbed by what happened. It was a terrible experience for the audience.”

‘I’m screaming for help’

Jewish students related their experiences in interviews Tuesday.

Senior Vida Keyvanfar, a co-president of Tikvah, was responsible for checking student IDs against a list and stood outside the entrance to Zellerbach. 

Keyvanfar said Tikvah worked with police for hours prior to the event to make a plan for student safety. 

“We had a ton of protocols,” she said, including allowing in only those students who had RSVP’d.

Members of Tikvah and Students Supporting Israel, among several organizers of the event, arrived at Zellerbach with the speaker around 5:30 p.m., according to Karlan. He said the protesters convened around 5:15 p.m. elsewhere on campus because they didn’t know the event had been moved from Wheeler Hall.

“Around 6:15 protesters heard of the location change, and it was blasted on social media. They came to the new location and started shouting,” he said.

“They found us,” said Keyvanfar. “I was the first to notify our security team: ‘OK, they’re coming. I can see them.’ It was a gigantic mob of people stomping, marching and screaming,” she said. 

UC Berkeley estimated there were about 200 protesters who “began to surround the building.”

“I was getting calls left and right from students who had RSVP’d,” Keyvanfar said. “They were saying ‘I can’t get through the crowd. How do we get let in?’ I was trying to identify ways for students to get through this crowd safely, which isn’t my job. It should be the job of the school and the police to make sure students are able to get where they want to go safely.”

She said protesters told her they were on the list, but weren’t. They demanded to be let in.  

“They were surrounding the table that I was standing at, yelling and screaming. There was spit flying left and right,” said Keyvanfar, who described herself as a “small girl.” “I was pretty nervous, surrounded by this crowd, but I was going to keep doing my job.”

She said a university administrator advised her to shut her laptop, worried that the protesters would take a photo of the RSVP list. “They’re looking at the names,” the administrator said, according to Keyvanfar.

At that point it was determined that it was “too unsafe to stand out there,” she said. “There were protesters to the front of me, to the side of me and behind me. I was getting kind of swallowed.” The whole time, Keyvanfar worried about her younger sister, a freshman, who was inside. 

Anti Israel poster
A protest placard sits on the ground outside of Zellerbach Playhouse at UC Berkeley on Feb. 27, 2024, the day after a violent protest. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

As Keyvanfar moved inside for her safety, she got a message that said the protesters had made it inside the building. The students had “gained unauthorized entry into the building,” Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement Tuesday.

“I’m running to go see if my sister is OK,” Keyvanfar said. The protesters were “banging on the windows and the doors. Eventually, glass broke.”

Keyvanfar saw another door being opened. She ran to try to pull the door shut, but it was too late. “I see that the protesters from outside had recognized that there’s an access point.”

As she held onto the door, a protester stuck out his foot to prop it open. “I’m trying to shut the door, but his foot is there. It’s just me trying to pull the door shut” against a group of protesters pulling it from the outside, she said.

“And I’m screaming for help from the police. And I’m screaming for someone to come help me.” 

She said the police were barricading another door and didn’t come right away. Eventually the protesters “were able to rip me out of the door,” she said. “They ripped the door out of my hand.”

She fell out into the crowd, she said, and injured her hand. The next day she said she was told she suffered a thumb sprain and began wearing a brace.

Elijah Feldman, a junior who belongs to AEPi, the Jewish fraternity, was also there to help with the event.

“There weren’t many cops, but everyone was trying to keep them out,” he said of the protesters. “They got into doors that were locked from the outside by trying to push through.”

He said he was called slurs and spit at.

“I personally was verbally attacked, being called a Jew and dirty Jew, with a very nasty connotation,” he said. I was also called a Nazi and spit at. All in my face.”

He said that the whole experience left him “in shock and with adrenaline pumping.”

One photo published on social media showed a young woman with several red marks around her neck. 

“One of the rioters grabbed her neck,” Tikvah’s Karlan said. Keyvanfar and Rabbi Gil Leeds of UC Berkeley’s Chabad said she had been “choked,” though J. could not independently verify that claim.

Keyvanfar said the experience was disturbing in part because the demonstrators had their faces covered and it seemed like they could do whatever they wanted.

“When I was standing out there, when they were surrounding me, and they were yelling in my face to let them in, I realized that there were no repercussions for what they were doing. Because there’s no way to identify these people,” she said. “Something clicked in my brain. I was like, wow, they really could do anything to anyone here — and get away with it.” 

Danielle Sobkin, co-president of the pro-Israel campus group Bears for Israel and one of the organizers who helped bring Bar-Yoshafat to campus, told J. she was walking toward Zellerbach on Monday evening to attend the lecture when friends began frantically messaging and calling her, telling her to turn back for her own safety.

“All I see is dozens of messages flooding in and all of these group chats, phone calls, texts,” Sobkin said. “We were expecting a situation of protests to arise, but none of us imagined it would escalate this fast, this quickly,” she added.

A frantic police response

Though campus police officers were present at the event, they appeared to be overwhelmed by the size of the demonstration.

Audio of the campus police scanner uploaded to YouTube revealed a chaotic situation. Officers first report around 100 to 125 protesters outside Wheeler Hall, the original venue, then some 150 going inside Wheeler to block the room.

After finding out about the venue change, protesters walked to the plaza outside Zellerbach. 

“We have a crowd at the door on the west side,” an officer says. “I’m trying to clear them away from the door.”

“I don’t see how we’re going to clear this,” another says.

At one point an officer describes a door that’s been opened and protesters inside.

“I need more people at this gate,” an officer says, sounding alarmed. “We’re going to lose this.”

“We need cover!” another yells.

Later, police officers confirm that the attendees have been safely moved out of Zellerbach but that protesters have reached the stage and lobby. Officers report vandalism and windows broken.

“We approach events like this with two priorities: to do what we can so that the event can go forward, and to do what we can to safeguard student safety and well-being,” Christ said in her statement. “Last night, despite our efforts and the ample number of police officers, it was not possible to do both given the size of the crowd and the threat of violence.”

Cancellation and aftermath

By 6:45 p.m., Karlan said, the Jewish students inside Zellerbach were told that the event was canceled. 

“We are asking all persons to leave,” chief of campus police Yogananda Pittman said over the PA system from the stage of the concert hall, a video showed.

“And then everyone was forced to leave,” Karlan said.

Videos posted on social media show students being led single-file down a concrete staircase to an underground hallway. “We’re like Yahya Sinwar,” one person jokes, referring to the Hamas leader said to be hiding in tunnels underneath Gaza.

At that point, students contacted Leeds and arranged for Bar-Yoshafat to speak at the rabbi’s off-campus home nearby.

Sobkin said more than 20 students managed to make it to the lecture. Leeds said he saw several students arrive in tears, including two women who were injured. He told J. he stayed up past midnight, fielding calls from concerned parents.

“A mother of a student called me at 10 p.m.,” he said, telling him that her son “was in tears.”

The statement on Tuesday from Christ and Provost Benjamin Hermalin expressed “deep remorse and sympathy” to the students and members of the public who fled in fear from Zellerbach and said the incident “violated not only our rules, but also some of our most fundamental values.”

“We deeply respect the right to protest as intrinsic to the values of a democracy and an institution of higher education,” the statement said. “Yet, we cannot ignore protest activity that interferes with the rights of others to hear and/or express perspectives of their choosing. We cannot allow the use or threat of force to violate the First Amendment rights of a speaker, no matter how much we might disagree with their views.”

In a video of Bar-Yoshafat’s opening remarks at Chabad to students, who were seated at long tables set up in Leeds’ backyard, Bar-Yoshafat acknowledged the “very stressful” interruption by protesters.

“Just because some very young people call me a genocidal murderer doesn’t make me one,” he told the audience.

Said Sobkin, “Despite everything that happened — which was probably one of the worst things on campus I’ve yet to experience other than Oct. 7 itself — we had a successful event.”

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.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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