(JTA) — Three weeks after a prominent pro-Israel activist accused the University of California, Berkeley of creating “Jew-free zones,” two trucks rolled into town to address the controversy.
One of them displayed a massive picture of Adolf Hitler.
“All in favor of banning Jews, raise your right hand,” read the billboard on the side of the truck.
The truck had been dispatched by a political advocacy group called Accuracy in Media, which has a history of finding ways to provoke liberals and progressives. The group’s president Adam Guillette told J. The Jewish News of Northern California that the truck was part of a larger campaign to combat antisemitism on college campuses and was meant to oppose the nine Berkeley Law student groups that recently announced they had adopted a bylaw pledging to bar Zionist speakers from campus. (Since the initial story broke, five more student groups have adopted the bylaw, according to reports.)
“The amount of hatred, intolerance, and antisemitism is morally outrageous and it’s time for us to (non-violently) fight back,” Guillette, a former vice president at conservative media sting operation Project Veritas who last week told the conservative news channel Newsmax that he identifies as Jewish, told J. Weekly.
But whatever the truck’s intended effect, its presence frightened students and drew condemnation from the local branch of the Anti-Defamation League, Berkeley Hillel and the local Jewish Community Relations Council, along with offers of emotional support from university administrators. Some passersby threw rocks at the vehicle.
“Saw this bus on my morning run,” wrote Grace Stewart, a Berkeley student, on Instagram. “Very scary.”
“The addition of more antisemitism, like using Hitler imagery to score cheap rhetoric points, only trivializes the memories of the six million,” ADL’s San Francisco office tweeted, while Berkeley Hillel said on Instagram that it would be available to any students who felt “upset and disturbed” by the sight of the truck.
After meeting with Berkeley administrators last week, San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council issued a statement noting that “talk of ‘Jew-free zones’ is factually inaccurate and not productive” and that the Hitler truck is “unwelcome and unhelpful.” But the Council also decried the law student groups’ campaign against Zionist speakers as antisemitic.
While the Hitler truck offered particularly stark imagery, it was hardly the only visitor sent to Berkeley in response to the clubs’ exclusion of Zionists. The Jewish group JewBelong, which uses billboard ads to spread awareness of antisemitism, sent a truck of its own — in the group’s signature hot pink, with a message that also referenced the Holocaust. (“We’re just 75 years since the gas chambers,” the JewBelong truck’s sign begins.)
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Meanwhile, Noa Tishby, the Israeli actress and author who recently became Israel’s first “Special Envoy for Combatting Antisemitism and Delegitimization,” headed to campus to engage directly with students. Setting up a booth reading “Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism,” Tishby debated Berkeley students on Israel.
The buzz of activity reflects the extent to which Berkeley has become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing, and contentious, debate over shifting campus attitudes on Israel and Zionism, and the degree to which Jewish students feel comfortable expressing their identities.
Schools ranging from Berkeley to the University of Vermont and the University of Southern California have been the sites of recent campaigns, usually student-led, to root out or target “Zionists” — campaigns which, depending on who one asks, are either par-for-the-course student activism or harmful and antisemitic in nature.
Some of these schools have become the targets of federal civil rights investigations as a result of such activities. Many of the complaints that have triggered the investigations were filed on behalf of Jewish students by the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a pro-Israel legal group. Kenneth Marcus, the group’s founder, authored the initial Los Angeles Jewish Journal op-ed invoking the “Jew-Free Zones” image; it has since been shared by figures including Barbra Streisand and Sarah Silverman.
Opinions on the seriousness with which the Jewish community should treat such allegations can vary wildly, even within the same Jewish community. Berkeley Law’s Jewish dean and members of the university’s Jewish faculty harshly criticized the “Jew-free zones” article, saying it was false and inflammatory.
A senior director at the American Jewish Committee also wrote in an internal memo that the article’s “central claim was inflammatory, resulting in a distorted picture of both this incident and the overall climate for Jewish students on campus,” even as the AJC publicly signed onto a joint statement calling on Berkeley Law to take action against the student anti-Zionist resolution, according to a report in progressive magazine Jewish Currents.
At the same time, a group of Jewish law students at Berkeley published an op-ed in The Daily Beast in which they criticized what they said was the school’s “unacceptable tolerance for excluding and demonizing Zionist identities,” pointing to a student-hosted “Palestine 101” session that they said “fundamentally distorted Zionism.”