Sather Gate at UC Berkeley
Anti-Zionist students block Sather Gate at UC Berkeley on Feb. 27, 2024, following violence the previous night on campus against an Israeli speaker. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Mob violence at UC Berkeley shows free speech doesn’t exist for Zionists

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At UC Berkeley on Monday, Students for Justice in Palestine promised a reprise of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom, hanging from the campus’ main entrance a pledge to “Flood Sather Gate” — a reference to “Al-Aqsa Flood,” the Hamas code name for its rampage in southern Israel.

The latest target was Ran Bar-Yoshafat, an Israeli attorney and a reserve combat officer in the Israel Defense Forces who was invited to speak at an event that evening on campus. Members of Bears for Palestine, the local SJP affiliate named for the university mascot, made good on their vow by rioting, breaking into Zellerbach Playhouse and forcing the speaker and dozens of people, including me, to evacuate via an underground tunnel for their own safety.

The people who were forced to flee apparently forfeited their right to security after committing the unpardonable sin of coming to hear an Israeli speak on campus. The university, which has touted its commitment to free speech while actually condoning a climate of antisemitic intimidation, did little to protect the safety of the speaker and audience — and even less to protect their free speech rights.

Parading through the campus in a fashion worthy of the finest paramilitary, the pro-Palestinian rioters exulted in their victory.

This latest episode at UC Berkeley caps months of harassment — and on occasion, violent outbursts— from wannabe Hamasniks. On Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas pogrom, Bears for Palestine released a statement praising its “comrades in blood and arms” for their operations “in the so-called ‘Gaza envelope.’” The same organization then mounted demonstrations at which participants clamored to “globalize the intifada” and “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

The university’s response to these events has felt tepid at best. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ acknowledged in early November that “fear is being generated by the rhetoric used at some of the recent protests on campus” — a turn of phrase that was telling in its use of passive voice and refusal to point to culprits. 

The mob savored its win in a triumphal march through the campus.

She did address antisemitism. “I am appalled by and condemn any condoning of or making excuses for terrorism, by stereotyping, threats, and the repetition of false, damaging tropes about the Jewish people. I reject calls for Israel’s elimination,” she stated. 

But Christ’s both sides-ism in her statement included the condemnation of the “harassment, threats and doxxing that have targeted our Palestinian students and their supporters.” She even noted that one ought not to equate pro-Palestinian campus protests with support for terrorism (which seems at odds with the declarations of these self-same protesters). 

Christ closed her statement with a lofty call to honor the institution’s “long-lived and unwavering” dedication to free speech.

The university’s dedication to free speech has since been on display — in the X feed of history professor Ussama Makdisi, who posted that “I could have been one of those who broke the siege on October 7.” That dedication has also been seen in signs on campus depicting the State of Israel as a snake and calling on people “to unite against Zionism.” 

At UC Berkeley, this principled stand on the First Amendment has included allowing pro-Palestinian groups to block campus entrances for hours at a time, as disabled students, including me as someone who is legally blind, have been forced to traverse through dirt and puddles.

Pro-Palestinian activists often lament a supposed “Palestine exception” when it comes to respect for the First Amendment. But on Berkeley’s campus Monday night, the “Israel exception” was in full view. Bears for Palestine called on students to shut down the event with Bar-Yoshafat, plastering his photo on social media, falsely blasting him as a “genocidal murderer” and as “dangerous.” Perhaps in reference to other Jews … er, Zionists … at UC Berkeley, Bears for Palestine exclaimed: “Genocidal murderers out of Berkeley.”

I had to do some sleuthing to find the event, as the venue was changed at the last minute to try to avoid clashes. When I arrived at Zellerbach Playhouse, a few anxious undergraduates were checking IDs at the door. A sparse police cordon was also present at the entrance. Ultimately, only about two dozen attendees were able to enter the building prior to the disturbances.

Before the event could begin at 6:30 p.m., the “Free Palestine” mob smashed the glass at the entrance, pried open a door to let more allies enter and then broke into the auditorium.

Antisemitism is a lethal passion, and this was evident on Monday night. The police, no doubt hindered by the university’s restrictive rules of engagement, attempted briefly to block the rioters’ way. In all of five minutes, the event was canceled and a dean arrived to escort us out via a subterranean tunnel. 

The mob savored its win in a triumphal march through the campus and a series of online posts. The university, in its pusillanimous glory, dispatched this email to the entire campus: “The event is canceled; when exercising your right to free speech, please take care of yourself and others.” The message could not be clearer: Intimidation and the specter of mob violence carry the day at this institution. In one evening, the university contradicted four months of its own dross. 

There need to be consequences for students who foment mobs and for the administrators who enable them. The chancellor plans to leave her post at the end of this semester, so calling for her resignation is a moot point (though she should not continue in office a day longer). Universities that persist in absurd calls for “both sides” to remain civil and uphold free speech, while allowing rioters to exercise a heckler’s veto against Jewish and pro-Israel students, must be held to account.

Daniel J Solomon
Daniel J. Solomon

Daniel J. Solomon is a Ph.D. student in the history department at UC Berkeley.