I am a Jew and proud of it. Being a Jew means I am part of an ancient people who have passed down to me a tradition of joyous, just and life-affirming wisdom, culture and religious practice. But particularly since 2016, being an American Jew has also entailed a renewed sense of otherness and fear. These days, when a Jew alleges anti-Semitism, it triggers a profound fear in their fellow Jews. Particularly in the wake of murderous attacks, American Jews have been reminded just how dangerous anti-Semitism can be. But whether the perpetrators are white nationalists, as in Pittsburgh and Poway, or extremists driven by other hateful ideologies, as in New Jersey and New York, we must remember that all this anti-Jewish violence has one common animating feature: anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It is from this fact that the dangerous irony of ASUC Senator Milton Zerman’s (failed) resolution becomes apparent.
While Zerman was deeply troubled by alleged anti-Jewishness emanating from a third floor Eshleman Hall cubicle, through his former position as internal vice president of Berkeley College Republicans he was also involved in promoting conservative author Ann Coulter, who has a history of espousing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In fact, Zerman encouraged students to attend the talk, in a November post on his ASUC senator Facebook page. The trouble is, Coulter has peddled in vile anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, Coulter explicitly named Jews as “globalists” in March 2018. Worse still, Coulter alleged that “liberal Jews” were working to bring “millions of Muslims” to the U.S. While it is awful that Zerman, who is Jewish, would promote a speaker with these sorts of anti-Jewish conspiratorial beliefs, it is made even more grotesque by the fact that both these tropes apparently motivated the Pittsburgh synagogue murderer. The irony is apparent and should be especially apparent to my fellow Jews. While Zerman claimed to be fighting anti-Semitism, he promoted a speaker who spews vile anti-Semitism. Cherry-picking which sort of anti-Semitism one cares about is extremely dangerous.
Therefore, Zerman appears to be picking and choosing which sort of anti-Semitic activities to call out, and I am uncertain what motivated his resolution. Perhaps, I might let his behavior at the Feb. 3 ASUC Senate’s University and External Affairs Committee meeting serve as an indication. As reported by the Daily Cal, community members for and against the resolution packed the senate chambers to offer comment. Zerman used this as an opportunity to insult entire groups and embolden those attempting to videotape speakers. Zerman called Bears for Palestine, an organization with many Muslim members, godless. Coming from someone who apparently upholds the likes of Coulter, this sounds like a thinly veiled, Islamophobic dog whistle.
Furthermore, Zerman lambasted those who asked to not be filmed, calling fellow ASUC Senator Media Sina a “coward” for preventing filming. The reality is that sometimes, names of speakers and videos from debates involving pro-Palestine activists end up being obtained by organizations such as Canary Mission. Canary Mission publically shares the identities of activists, including links to their social media accounts, after which they become targets of harassment, including death threats, meant to jeopardize their personal and professional futures. For Zerman to call out those wishing to avoid such a situation appears at best ignorant and at worst intimidating. So, if we let Zerman’s behavior speak for itself, it appears as though he has used his position of power to intimidate and endanger students on campus who disagree with him while claiming to protect Jews.
The consequences of Zerman’s bill and behavior continue to reverberate. On Feb. 10, a student, apparently in support of Zerman’s resolution, spoke to a room full of Palestinian students expressing his plans to join the Israel Defense Forces after graduation in order “to eliminate Palestinian nationalism and Palestinians from the world.” This sort of violent, bigoted, murderous rhetoric has no place on our campus nor anywhere else. The presence of these words and this student on our campus must be incredibly painful, menacing and traumatizing for Palestinian students. It is apparent that the environment created by Zerman’s resolution and behavior was enough to empower hate.
In Jewish culture, we have a special word for this sort of thing: shanda, meaning a scandalous disgrace. Zerman’s apparent inconsistency on anti-Semitism coupled with his behavior toward those he disagrees with, all in the name of the Jewish community at Berkeley, is a great shame for our campus. The presence of a senator in the ASUC who emboldens hate is a shanda. It is appalling that Zerman is apparently facing no consequences for his behavior when he should not even hold this office. The student who expressed their desire to carry out genocide must also face consequences from the university. The ASUC and the university must make it clear that there are consequences for intolerable behavior.
Yet, there is an even greater shanda in all of this that must not be overlooked: the blind support that Jewish community leaders have given Zerman. Here, I write specifically to my Berkeley Jewish community. In supporting Zerman and his resolution, community leaders make it appear as though they are apparently fine allowing someone who supports Coulter and quotes Meir Kahane (see Zerman’s Facebook post from November) to become the champion of UC Berkeley’s Jews. The lack of condemnation from any establishment Jewish group of Feb. 10’s genocidal statement is astounding.
Jews on this campus deserve better from their leaders. The vast majority of Jews on this campus do not align with Zerman. Look no further than the fact that at meeting after meeting, Jews in support of BFP consistently outnumbered Jews in support of Zerman. Yet, establishment Jewish communal leaders failed to show up in opposition to the resolution and Zerman. This moral failing on the part of leaders and institutions to encourage a culture of basic respect and empathy when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Palestinian people allowed some Jewish students on this campus to feel that it is acceptable to insult and hate on behalf of the Jewish people. How is it that Zerman has been allowed to represent the Jewish community? Deplorable things are being done in our name. What, as a community, are we doing about it?
As a Jewish community, we need leadership with moral fiber. As a campus, we must vote to impeach Zerman.
Josh Burg is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in philosophy. He can be reached at [email protected] for coffee or comment.