Controversy erupts over Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s visit to Israel

photo of bay area politicians protest
Jonathan Hale/Staff
Following Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín's visit to Israel, Berkeley residents and activists responded with concerns regarding the timing of the trip with the death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh as well as ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine.

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Dozens of Berkeley residents protested outside Berkeley City Council’s meeting Tuesday, voicing their disapproval of Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín’s visit to Israel earlier this month.

A diverse array of activists spoke out at the protest, including former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport, campus lecturer and co-founder of Zaytuna University Hatem Bazian and Jewish Voice for Peace member Ellen Brotsky.

Wassim Hage, spokesperson for the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, expressed his disapproval of Arreguín’s trip to Israel, considering the death of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh three days before Arreguín’s arrival.  Hage emphasized that a CNN investigation concluded that the killing of Abu Akleh was a “targeted attack” by Israeli forces, rather than an accident.

“Jesse Arreguín was in Israel right after this murder, eating and drinking, while Israeli forces were attacking Abu Akleh’s funeral,” Hage said.

Hage alleged tensions between Israel and Palestine have been inflamed since the eviction of Palestinians by the Israeli military in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood. Because of these tensions, Hage claimed Arreguín should have refrained from going on the trip altogether.

He voiced his belief that Berkeley should join the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement to put pressure on the Israeli government to better treat Palestinians.

Brotsky echoed Hage’s sentiments, claiming that as a member of Jewish Voices for Peace, she believed that Judaism and support for Palestinians are not mutually exclusive.

Brotsky voiced her disapproval of Zionism. According to Brotsky, Zionism is a movement for the inception of a sovereign Jewish nation that arose in the 19th century due to antisemitism in Europe. She alleged that as a Zionist state, Israel prioritizes the rights and quality of life of Jews over Palestinians.

“Within the Jewish community, you will have Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists,” Brotsky said. “We are opposed to Zionism as a political movement and we feel that safety from antisemitism lies in solidarity with other people who are experienced in oppression, including the Palestinian people.”

Arreguín said in a statement that his visit to Israel was not an endorsement of its government; instead, he emphasized that his visit was to “learn about the people, the culture, and a conflict that has overwhelmed the region.”

“This was an important experience for me, not just to be a more effective advocate for peace in the Middle East, but also to be a more effective public servant for a community with a large Jewish and Palestinian community,” Arreguín said in the statement. “Interpreting my travels as an endorsement of how either side has managed the conflict would be an unfortunate mistake.”

Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, added that during his trip, Arreguín visited the West Bank and met with Palestinian officials and activists.

However, Brotsky said she believes Arreguín did not receive an accurate portrayal of the political atmosphere in Israel.

In response to the allegations, Arreguín said the perpetrators of Abu Akleh’s killing should be “held to account,” and noted no city funds were spent on the trip.

Both Hage and Brotsky pointed to a circulating petition containing a list of demands they have for Arreguín to rectify the alleged consequences of his trip. Among the demands are a public denouncement of the killing of Abu Aqleh, a release of documentation that prove the mayor was not paid while on this trip and a reconciliatory meeting between Arreguín and local Palestinian residents.

Lance Roberts is a city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @lance_roberts.