Residents protest Berkeley mayor’s Israel trip
Protestors objected to Mayor Arreguín and other politicians going on a trip they saw as friendly towards what speakers called an “apartheid” and “colonial” state.
About three dozen Bay Area residents rallied outside Berkeley City Council’s May 24 meeting to protest Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s recent trip to Israel to attend the Israel Seminar, a nine day program organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco that included gatherings with the country’s politicians and a military leader.
“He is literally celebrating with our occupiers,” said Sharif Zakout of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, which is also known as AROC, during a speech at the protest. “This is not tolerable, especially in Berkeley with its history of anti-apartheid movements.”
Along with AROC, protestors included members and supporters of Palestinian Youth Movement, Jewish Voice for Peace, United States Palestinian Community Network, and Middle East Children’s Alliance. These groups denounced the mayor’s participation due to what they describe as Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people since 1948, as well as recent events, such as an 11 day Israeli military offensive in May of last year into Gaza which killed at least 248 Palestinians and displaced at least 72,000 children. Most recently, these groups protested against the May 11 shooting death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering an Israeli army raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank and Israeli police beating pallbearers at her funeral.
In a statement emailed to this reporter, Mayor Arreguín wrote the trip allowed him “to learn about the people, the culture, and a conflict that has overwhelmed the region.” Arreguín cautioned that “interpreting my travels as an endorsement of how either side has managed the conflict would be an unfortunate mistake.” While addressing Akleh’s death, Arreguín wrote “any death is a tragedy, including that of Shireen Abu Akleh, and the perpetrators should be held to account.”
Former Berkeley Councilmember Cheryl Davila and former Berkeley Mayor Eugene ‘Gus’ Newport were also present and spoke at the rally.
“I just cannot believe under that a mayor of Berkeley took it upon himself under these circumstances and at this time to go to Israel, one of the most apartheid places that exists today,” Newport said during a speech.
Newport also spoke about Akleh and reminded the crowd that, starting in 1979, Berkeley was one of the first cities to divest from South Africa due to the country’s apartheid government which ensured domination by a white minority. In the last 16 months, human rights organizations have likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to South African apartheid. Human Rights Watch accused Israel of “crimes of apartheid.” Amnesty International described Israel as an “apartheid system,” a move that B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, welcomed. Newport expressed regret at having endorsed Arreguín when Arreguín first ran for mayor and called for him to be recalled, which was met with “recall” chants from the crowd.
In an email to this reporter, Tye Gregory, the executive director of The Jewish Community Relations Council, which is commonly referred to as JCRC, stated they provided the entire funding for the trip, which was “intended to educate local community leaders about Israel and Jewish identity, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond the headlines.” Gregory emphasized that participants met with “Israeli and Palestinian leaders with diverse political perspectives,” and “coexistence organizations working to build a future where conditions for peace are possible.” The group also “spent a full day in Ramallah led by a Palestinian guide, met with the Palestinian Authority, visited a refugee camp, and learned about Palestinian civic society.”
Gregory did not respond to questions about Akleh or human rights organizations’ recent stance on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; nor did he respond when asked if participants visited Gaza, an area of Israel/Palestine where around 1.85 million Palestinians live who are prohibited from leaving due to an ongoing blockade that Israel and Egypt impose.
In a speech at the protest, Hatem Bazian, a UC Berkeley lecturer and co-founder and Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College, speculated that the JCRC handpicked some of the few Palestinians that were supportive of the state of Israel in order to show participants of the trip a side of the country “that is completely cleansed of taking responsibility and accountability.” He criticized meetings with the Palestinian Authority, a governing body that exercises partial control over parts of the West Bank, by characterizing that body as “part of the colonial structure providing the security system to secure the Israeli apartheid system.” Bazian likened such meetings to Ronald Reagan’s use of “constructive engagement,” which maintained friendly USA business relationships with South Africa during its apartheid era. He questioned the timing of trip, which occurred just after Akleh’s death.
“If you did not stop to offer condolences to Shireen Abu Akleh’s family, then you are part of the clean-up crew that covered up the assassination of an American-Palestinian journalist,” said Brazian.
Along with Arreguín, JCRC social media posts show that 18 Bay Area politicians and community leaders participated in the trip. These people include San Francisco Board Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, San Mateo Councilmember Amourence Lee, Redwood City Councilmember Alicia Aguirre, East Palo Alto Councilmember Antonio López, San Francisco Director of Commissions and Community Relations Tyra Fennell, San Francisco 49ers Diversity Equity and Inclusion Director CJ Jefferson, and California Young Democrats President Diane Le.
“I used this as an opportunity to learn more about the complexities of the region and bring back that education to help me grow as a leader,” Diane Le wrote in an email to this reporter. “Criticism of the trip comes from a swift assumption that attendees would be shielded from all perspectives. In my experience, we received fair and balanced programming each day and were always encouraged to ask hard questions.”
López, who in addition to working as a council member is also a doctoral student at Stanford, said he would not have time to answer questions before this story was published due to being caught “at a real hectic time” in the middle of finals week. None of the other participates listed responded to multiple requests for comment about their participation in the trip in light of the protest.
JCRC instagram posts show the trip included a meeting with a Lieutenant Colonel named Sarit Zahavi who “spoke about the security challenges on [Israel’s] northern border” and that the group visited the Knesset, which is the supreme state body of Israel, to meet MK (Member of Knesset) Michal Shir, Yorai Lahav-Hertzano, and Yuval Steinitz.
A post by trip participant Amourence Lee states that Rami Nafez Nazzal, who is a Palestinian with United States citizenship that runs Beyond Borders Tours, guided the trip to Ramallah, West Bank settlements, and a UN refugee camp. The group also met with Dr. Micah Goodman, who describes himself as a leading voice on Judaism, Zionism, the Bible, and the challenges and opportunities facing Israel. In her post, Lee stated that Goodman “shared ideas on concrete steps that could effectively reduce the conflict in the West Bank and move closer to achieving a two state solution.” Instagram posts also show the group met with Mohammad Darawshe, who is a Palestinian political analyst that has acted as an advisor on Jewish-Arab relations for Israel’s Prime Minister’s office.
Although the JCRC trip included meetings with Palestinians during their trip, the protest’s organizers have remained critical of Arreguín’s participation and have been circulating a petition that currently has over 400 signatures. The petition has three demands: that the mayor and Berkeley’s city council denounce Akleh’s killing, the attacks on her funeral, and call for an investigation into her killing; that the mayor provide documentation that the trip was not taken as part of his salaried hours; and that the mayor meet with Palestinian Berkeley residents to apologize and learn from them.
“Carefully orchestrated meetings with Palestinians are no substitute for taking a strong stand against Israeli apartheid,” the petition reads, “especially when the state of Israel makes it clear by actions on the ground that it will continue with its policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”
Note: The Post News Group will publish a similar version of this story soon.