(JTA) — Within two weeks, a series of Bay Area billboards equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism were targeted by activists. In the first incident, an unknown group of culprits wrote “Free Palestine” on them, leading the billboards’ sponsor to replace them and call the graffiti “a hate crime.”
The second time they were targeted, a group of Jews took the credit.
On Tuesday night, a group of self-proclaimed “anti-Zionist Jews” papered over three billboards paid for by the New Jersey-based group JewBelong. It was a further escalation in a national debate over anti-Zionism, antisemitism and whether and how Jews and non-Jews alike should criticize Israel.
“We are part of a growing number of Jews across the United States who know that opposing Israeli apartheid and occupation has nothing to do with antisemitism, and that the biggest threat to Jews in this country comes not from those supporting Palestinian rights, but from white, Christian nationalists,” the collective, who identify themselves on the billboards as “Jews4FreePalestine,” told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a statement.
The original billboards read, “You don’t need to go to law school to know that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” It was JewBelong’s tongue-in-cheek reference to a recent controversy at the University of California-Berkeley law school, in which some student groups signed a statement pledging not to invite “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views … in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”
The bylaws attracted national attention after Ken Marcus, founder of the pro-Israel legal group Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, declared that Berkeley was erecting “Jew-free zones.” Later, allegations against the law students prompted an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education. The episode caught the attention of a right-wing group, which drove trucks displaying Adolf Hitler through the Berkeley campus and intimidated some of the anti-Zionist petition signers at their homes out of state. Meanwhile, attempts by Berkeley students to pass a resolution condemning antisemitism failed to pass when some student senators did not show up for the vote.
Targeting the billboards, the anonymous group of self-proclaimed “anti-Zionist Jews” changed the word “antisemitism” to “anti-racism.” They added other messages: “Jews for a free Palestine” and “End Israeli apartheid.”
Declining to provide their names, the group said only that they are “organizing ad-hoc in response to the billboards from JewBelong” and that they numbered more than two dozen. Though spokesperson Joe Rivano Barros said the group was not responsible for the first tag, the group defended the anonymous first group against JewBelong’s hate-crime allegations, calling the labeling “dishonest.”
Online, the altered billboards were being promoted by the Jewish Voice for Peace anti-Zionist group, an editor of the anti-Zionist website Electronic Intifada and a Jewish former Google employee who has organized against some of the company’s business dealings with Israel.
The group also directly went after JewBelong — which it said “has long equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism in order to normalize Israeli apartheid” — and its co-founder, Archie Gottesman, whom they said “has an appalling history of making racist and genocidal statements.” Originally founded as a public relations movement to promote Jewish pride, JewBelong pivoted in 2021 to focus on combatting antisemitism, aligning itself with staunchly pro-Israel influencers.
Gottesman sits on the board of Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobbying group that pushes Democratic Party lawmakers to adapt more pro-Israel stances. She tweeted in 2018 that Gaza was “full of monsters” and that it was “time to burn the whole place,” statements for which she has since apologized.
“We stand by our billboards,” Gottesman told JTA in a statement in response. “The vast majority of American Jews are Zionists. The billboards appear to have been defaced by a fringe group trying to create a Jew vs Jew fight at a time when we should all be united against the larger issue, which is growing antisemitism in the US.”
While Berkeley Law’s own Jewish dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, has called the law students’ bylaws antisemitic, he has also criticized JewBelong’s billboards, saying they are not “contributing to useful discourse.” After they were graffitied over the first time, Chemerinsky said the culprits were infringing on JewBelong’s First Amendment rights.
Since the recent Israeli elections bringing to power the country’s most right-wing government in generations, a growing number of influential Jews around the world have increased their criticism of the government and stated that such criticism should not be conflated with antisemitism.
Berkeley police told the Jewish News of Northern California they were also categorizing the latest billboard incident as a hate crime.