Women confront one another at a meeting
Dorothea Dorenz (center) argues with protesters who surrounded Israel supporters during a Berkeley City Council meeting on March 26, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘We’re wiped out’: Hostility has overwhelmed Berkeley council meetings since Oct. 7

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Updated March 29.

A phone was thrown. A microphone was hurled. Posters were raised to block people. Chanting and shouting followed every public commenter until the mayor was forced to call a recess.

It was business as usual at the Berkeley City Council meeting, where for months tempers have been high and the mood volatile.

“Our meetings have been horrendous since October,” said councilmember Susan Wengraf. “The meetings have been extremely difficult.”

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel and the start of the ongoing war, anti-Israel protesters have pressed the council to vote on a Gaza cease-fire resolution, continually disrupting meetings to make their point.

About 10 Israel supporters attended Tuesday night’s meeting and sat in the first two rows on one side of the meeting room. At least 30 anti-Israel protesters and cease-fire supporters were also present.

After each speaker, whether in person or on Zoom, protesters stood and waved large posters with photos of Gazans who have died since the war began. They shouted in unison that the dead were “murdered by Israel” and that the mayor and city council were “complicit” in genocide.

When Berkeley resident Susanne DeWitt, 89, took to the lectern to voice her concern about the rise in antisemitism in the U.S., the anti-Israel protesters yelled at her, with one person shouting, “Lies!” When another speaker said that her Jewish 7-year-old son had heard a group of kids calling Jews “stupid,” the same people smirked and scoffed in response.

The disruptions have been constant, said DeWitt, a Holocaust survivor from Germany who is a regular attendee at Berkeley’s twice-monthly meetings.

“This one was possibly a little more dramatic,” she told J. afterward.

On Tuesday night, the council had two items on the agenda that would, in a normal year, go unnoticed. Both involved Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Berkeley has marked for more than 20 years. One item was a proclamation in honor of the day, which falls on May 5 this year. The other was a small expenditure from discretionary accounts for the city’s virtual event. Both were proposed by Wengraf, who is Jewish, and both passed unanimously.

But discussing Holocaust Remembrance Day in front of already-hostile protesters seemed to heighten the atmosphere of outrage and anger.

“We had several people come and speak at public comment in favor of the Holocaust items,” Wengraf said, adding that “I think that was kind of irritating to the pro-Palestinian protesters who were there. So it was rowdy.”

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín condemned the protesters in a post on X  after the meeting.

“I am outraged over the hateful and deeply antisemitic behavior we saw at Tuesday’s Council meeting,” he said in the post. “Heckling people including Holocaust survivors, then co-opting its message for an anti-Jewish agenda, threats and hate speech will not be tolerated. We will not be intimidated.”

The demonstrators arrived at Tuesday’s meeting particularly incensed with Arreguín, who has repeatedly refused to bring a cease-fire resolution before the council. In November, he put out a statement with his position: “These resolutions will not end the violence abroad, but they do fan the flames of hatred here at home. That’s a threat I cannot ignore.”

Arreguín received the majority of votes in the March 5 primary for state Senate District 7 and is one of two candidates who will compete in the general election in November.

On Tuesday night, one demonstrator interrupted Arreguín, saying “We’re tired of you, Jesse.” Another held a large banner with the words: “Genocide Jesse.”

Twice Arreguín called a recess to calm the crowd.

During one such break, Israel supporter Dorothea Dorenz shouted at the demonstrators, who quickly surrounded the seated pro-Israel attendees. A yelling match ensued that was broken up by Berkeley police.

Video recording in the council chambers became a point of contention among the demonstrators, who objected — sometimes violently — to anyone recording or filming them. One unplugged a wireless microphone on the lectern and threw it at the man who had set it up, a documentary filmmaker. A staff member with the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area was backed into a corner when he tried to record protesters, who blocked his view with their signs. And an Israel supporter’s phone was snatched and thrown at a table that sits in front of the council dais.

One Israel supporter told J. that a demonstrator who held a large Palestinian flag at the meeting regularly calls her a “stupid Zionist bitch.”

Wengraf said the chaos and hatred have had a chilling effect.

“There are many people who are intimidated and will not come to our meetings in person because they don’t feel safe,” she said.

Wengraf acknowledged she’s also frustrated at how the ongoing protests make it harder to conduct city business. Tuesday was a perfect example, she said. There was an important item concerning demolition rules that the council wasn’t able to address, even after meeting for more than six hours.

“We’re wiped out, we’re exhausted,” Wengraf said. “We’ve had to use every emotional armor that we have to get through the meeting because we’re abused and called names and heckled.”

The city’s Holocaust Remembrance Day program will be virtual. That’s partly because survivors are elderly and remain concerned about Covid-19, Wengraf said. But there are also safety considerations.

“We were very concerned about it being disrupted in person,” she said, adding that worrying about that kind of thing is “very sad.”

Wengraf doesn’t expect city council meetings to calm down anytime soon, though. She’d like to see different rules about what is allowed in the chamber, but she doesn’t expect the protesters to stop interrupting the meetings or the regular business of the city council.

“At this point, they really feel like we don’t care, which is absolutely not the case,” she said. “I personally care a lot. I’m very distressed and distraught about what’s going on in the Middle East. And I know my colleagues are, too. But that has nothing to do with what I do as a councilwoman.”

Update on March 29: Adds the mayor’s response on X to Tuesday’s meeting.
Update on March 28: The identity of the person whose phone was thrown has been corrected. 

Aaron Levy-Wolins
Aaron Levy-Wolins

Aaron Levy-Wolins is J.'s photographer. See more of his work on Instagram @aaron_levywolins and @jewishnews_sf.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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