Opinion | January 18th, 2024

Modern Day McCarthyism in Berkeley

By: Becky Villagrán 

Back in 2012, when I first interviewed at Berkeley High as a young history teacher, I chose a lesson on the establishment of Israel from the different perspectives on the war. As a Jewish person of mixed heritage, I felt a duty to speak against Zionist oppression of Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian land. I would never shy away from teaching about the conflict. I wanted my students to, at the very least, be exposed to the history of the Nakba and the Palestinian dispossession of land. This was the Berkeley High that hired me. I felt grateful to teach at a school that had an unwavering commitment to teaching controversial issues and standing against oppression. 


Over the years, as I taught about Settler Colonialism and Apartheid of South Africa, I would often prompt discussion on modern-day Israel. There were times when students were upset about this comparison. Their concerns were welcome in our classroom, and we had rich discussions with a range of perspectives. These enthusiastic discussions enriched the educational experience of my students. 


Everything changed in October 2023. This past semester has been one of the most difficult semesters of my career. I have been surveilled and harassed because of my teaching of Palestine. Historically, when a student has a problem with a teacher, the first recourse is for the student to talk to that teacher. If that isn’t successful, then the student or family can work with an administrator to resolve the issue. But now, when it comes to teaching Palestine at BUSD, students and families are immediately filing civil rights complaints that accuse teachers of antisemitism.


In all my time at Berkeley High, I have never felt afraid to teach history until now. As a teacher, it’s terrorizing to be labeled as a hateful person. As a Jewish person, it’s awful to be labeled as an anti-Semite. And as a community member at Berkeley High, I look to my school and community leaders to give guidance. 


But in response, the district has offered no meaningful support. The district, in trying to appease these families, has given them what they want with no accountability. Berkeley is a city and a school district that perpetually claims solidarity with oppressed peoples. Now, suddenly, Berkeley is too scared to call for basic peaceful solutions in the face of horrific, genocidal violence. A ceasefire resolution was called ‘divisive’ by the Berkeley Mayor, while the BUSD Superintendent and School Board permit community members to lie and defame students and staff in BUSD schools. These actions were not followed with any apology or actionable support of academic freedom. Many times, when the ‘conflict’ is spoken about, those in leadership roles cannot even bring themselves to say the word Palestine. 


In my class, I teach about the humanity of Palestinian people and shine a light on the genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated against Palestinians by the Israeli government, underscoring the complete backing by the US government funded by our taxpayer money. Because of this, I have been surveilled in my classroom. Multiple students have requested to be moved out of my class, which has never before happened in my 12 years of teaching. 


This practice of moving students out of classes without question is caving in to the McCarthyism of today. It cultivates a Red Scare-like environment ,where many teachers are terrified to even mention what is happening in Gaza. The message that this sends to families is this: If you don’t like something a teacher says, you have the right to run away from that teacher and turn your head away from what is happening in Gaza – all you have to do is claim antisemitism. 


Additionally, families have repeatedly complained about posters reading “Free Palestine” and “Ceasefire Now” posted in classrooms. For now, our administration is protecting our right to have these posters up, but I am concerned that this could change if the school board doesn’t make it more clear that Berkeley schools support both the right to freedom for the people of Palestine and their teachers in teaching their humanity.


Right now is a time when we should be listening to Palestinian voices, reading Palestinian stories and poems, watching Palestinian films. Instead, when I invited a Palestinian historian to speak to students, the administration denied my request. I was told that it was not “safe.” The irony of this statement is clear. Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, and even in Vermont are not safe. Is it about safety, or is it about the discomfort of powerful families? I can’t think of anything more appropriate than for students to hear voices like these during this time. 


I still hope to bring Palestinian speakers to Berkeley High. I hope that, as this history unfolds, the Berkeley School Board and Berkeley High administration team will state publicly to our families that they support their teachers in teaching Palestine. I hope they will stand vehemently against the horrific violence perpetrated against Palestinian people – now and historically. 


The only way to fight McCarthyism is to stare it down, call it out, and refuse to be afraid of speaking the truth. I and many of my colleagues will continue to fight oppression, advocate for a Free Palestine, and work toward a Berkeley that doesn’t suppress free speech. 




Futher Reading: 


‘Business Insider Is Toast:’ Bill Ackman Vows To ‘Unleash Hell’ In Lawsuit Against Media Site Over Plagiarism Claims Against Wife (msn.com)


Editor Fired After Praising Onion Story (variety.com)


A New McCarthy | Era Daily Journal


Names and faces of Harvard students linked to an anti-Israel statement were plastered on mobile billboards and online sites | CNN Business 


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