Content warning: discussions of antisemitism
Berkeley Law has recently ramped up security in the wake of “Berkeley Bans Jews” billboard trucks that have driven by campus to protest the decision of nine student groups — of which there are more than 100 — to ban Zionist speakers.
Accuracy in Media, or AIM, is the conservative news media watchdog behind the recent trucks that have driven near campus and parked in front Berkeley Law and Berkeley Hillel, campus’s Jewish Student Center.
The initial truck had an image of Adolf Hitler saluting with the phrase “All in favor of banning Jews, raise your right hand.” According to AIM’s website, the “Berkeley Bans Jews” campaign is intended to encourage people to “politely” tell the Berkeley Law student groups to “stop their hateful actions and embrace tolerance.”
However, AIM’s tactics have turned more aggressive recently, with a billboard truck broadcasting Berkeley Law students by name if they are associated with the student groups who banned Zionist speakers. The screens read “Berkeley Law’s Antisemitic Class” with the graduating year of the student and the organization they belong to.
A recent article on AIM’s website said the first truck called out the groups but did not include the names of the students because they were “not made public beyond Berkeley faculty and staff.” As of press time, it is not clear how AIM accessed the names of individual students — some of the named students allegedly had “nothing to do” with banning Zionist speakers, according to Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.
While AIM claims this is in defense of Jewish students on campus, many of them, including Zionists, have condemned the trucks in a show of solidarity with the affected Berkeley Law students.
Zionist students condemn trucks, show solidarity with student groups
Berkeley Law students Noah Cohen, Billy Malmed, Adam Pukier and Charlotte Aaron, who are Jewish Zionists, called for the student groups to remove the bylaws banning Zionist speakers. However, they also condemned the trucks in a letter sent to the affected student groups.
“We sent the letter to let our classmates know we recognize and understand their fear, support them, and want to work together to improve the environment at our school,” the students said in an email.
The students said none of the Berkeley Law student groups have responded to the letter as of press time.
Malmed also confronted the man who allegedly paid for the truck driver and who was conducting interviews with students on campus. Malmed said he asked the man to leave and “stop harassing students on campus,” but he refused.
“While we do not think our classmates had any intention of crossing a line from political advocacy into anti-Semitism, there are elements of the the by-law and the process with which it was adopted that certainly appear to some to be anti-Semitic,” the students said in the email. “With very small changes, we strongly believe that groups could remove any hint of anti-Semitism while still forcefully advocate for the Palestinian people and against Israeli policies.”
In addition to the four students, the Jewish Student Association at Berkeley Law also wrote a statement condemning the “abhorrent acts” of the latest truck and sharing support for all affected students.
ASUC Senator Shay Cohen, who represents Jewish students in the ASUC, also condemned the trucks in a statement.
“We reject this group’s actions and want to make clear that the Jewish community at UC Berkeley has no association with them,” Shay Cohen said in the statement. “We believe that all students on this campus have a right to feel safe, secure and included.”
How Berkeley Law plans to protect affected students
In response to the trucks, Berkeley Law has increased security measures including bringing in additional campus security officers, or CSOs, according to Chemerinsky. He added that information on class room numbers is no longer available to the public and said the law school is considering restricting access to the building at certain times.
“We are willing to do all we can to protect the safety of our students,” Chemerinsky said.
Chemerinsky has been meeting with the students whose names were broadcasted on the trucks, but believes no legal action can be taken against AIM.
Defamation requires a false statement of fact that injures a person’s reputation, according to Chemerinsky, but calling someone an antisemite is “probably a matter of opinion.”
Although Chemerinsky believes no legal action can be taken against AIM’s trucks, he condemned the trucks, calling them “despicable” and “outrageous.”
“This is not contributing to meaningful public debate in any way,” Chemerinsky said.
Chemerinsky added that some of the names of students “appeared by mistake” and noted one instance where a student who voted against the bylaws banning Zionist speakers saw their name appear on the truck.
When asked about the alleged mistake, AIM president Adam Guillette said the students tried to “hide their involvement” with the “hateful groups” until AIM took action.
Guillette added that if students email AIM and state their support for the right of Israel to exist, AIM will “make sure to never target them.”
Berkeley Hillel rejects AIM trucks’ messaging
In response to the initial truck displaying Hitler, Berkeley Hillel released a statement Oct. 13 condemning the messaging.
“Berkeley Hillel rejects antisemitism of any kind, and in all its forms,” the statement reads. “We also reject subjecting Jewish students to additional fear and trauma.”
Berkeley Hillel noted in the statement that they were saddened students had to “confront such ugly images” during the Jewish holiday Sukkot.
In response to Berkeley Hillel’s statement, Guillette said “the normalization of antisemitism at Berkeley is a far greater threat” than the image of Hitler.
“To suggest that Jewish students are so weak and frail that they can’t handle pictures is insulting,” Guillette said. “It plays into the hands of those who claim that young people are weak and need safe spaces.”
Guillette called AIM’s campaign “long term” and said it will likely last beyond the current semester.
JewBelong truck opposes Zionist speaker ban but has ‘nothing to do’ with AIM
While the AIM billboard trucks have received condemnation from the campus community, another truck from the Jewish nonprofit JewBelong also aims to combat anti-Zionism, which they equate with antisemitism, on campus.
The pink trucks have been driving throughout Northern California in recent weeks with messages on the truck such as “For a town that loves social issues, you’ve been pretty quiet on antisemitism.”
While JewBelong is also against the Berkeley Law student groups’ decision to ban Zionist speakers, JewBelong COO Robyn Fener emphasized that the AIM billboard trucks “have nothing to do” with JewBelong.
“The JewBelong billboard truck was at UC Berkeley to deliver the message that we oppose the ban on Zionists from any spaces on campus,” Fener said in an email.
Student well-being moving forward at Berkeley Law, Berkeley Hillel
Both Berkeley Hillel and Berkeley Law offered support to students affected by the trucks’ messaging.
Berkeley Law created “safe spaces” for students and offered online instruction to those feeling unsafe. Additionally, Berkeley Hillel provided 24/7 staff support for students who were “upset or disturbed” by the trucks.
“The trucks are deeply offensive and despicable,” Chemerinsky said in an email. “They are causing great pain in our community.”