Opinion | April 14th, 2024

Why Has Berkeley’s pro-Israel Fringe Set Their Sights on the Peace & Justice Commission?

By: Tim O’Brien

Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission was founded in 1986, against the backdrop of the South African divestment movement. It’s mission is to “advise the Berkeley City Council and the Berkeley Unified School Board on all matters relating to the City of Berkeley’s role in issues of peace and social justice,” and to “help create citizen awareness around issues of social justice and develop educational programs for implementation by the City Council and the School Board.” In the 38 years since its founding, the Commission has acted as the de facto nonbinding conscience of Berkeley. And while its advice has not always been followed – such as in 1988 when it recommended to the City Council that Jabalya Refugee Camp in Gaza be made a sister city of Berkeley to give it a measure of protection from ramped up violence in the region – its efforts and heart have always done their best to honor a crucial tenet of their founding code, that peace is inseparable from justice.


Their fortunes and relevance have risen and fallen over the years. When fully staffed, the Commission is composed of 15 commissioners, with one commissioner appointed by each of the eight City Council Members, the six School Board Directors, and the Mayor. Within the last few months, three new appointments have been made. Those three recent appointments bear closer scrutiny and a review of the context in which their appointments were made. 


BUSD Jewish Parents Group


Shortly after the events of October 7th, a group of Jewish BUSD parents announced they were organizing, ostensibly around the issue of antisemitism in the schools. These efforts included a petition to the Superintendent and the Board widely circulated among BUSD families – both Jewish and non-Jewish – asking them to ensure a safe learning environment for Jewish kids. While it was largely focused on confronting antisemitism and the notion of safe space – two universally embraced concepts in Berkeley – politics were already beginning to creep into the rhetoric with selective references to history and current events, including a reference to Israelis killed on October 7th, with no mention of subsequent Palestinian deaths, already about 8,000, or sevenfold, at the time. 


It soon became apparent, however, that antisemitism was not the defining mission of this group (“BUSD Jewish Parents”) as several Jewish parents, themselves concerned about antisemitism in the community and our schools, either dropped out or were excluded from future communications once it became clear that their sense of Judaism was not sufficiently Zionist for the group’s ethos. (Zionist is not a term I have been comfortable using in the past as it means different things to different people. For purposes of this article, when I write ‘Zionist’ I mean a person or people for whom the lens through which they see things – current events, social justice, indigenous rights, oppression, liberation and school curriculum to name a few – is colored by an “Israel-first” mentality.) In fact, it was the willingness to speak up for Palestinians and against the actions of the Israeli government that led to at least one parent’s exclusion from the group. A number of the dissenting Jewish parents went on to form and grow their own grassroots group, offering a powerful counterpoint to this narrative. 


By the end of November, “BUSD Jewish Parents” was knee deep in its assault on Berkeley’s schools and its legacy of liberated ethnic studies, which they see as threatening to their preferred image of Israel. This view was reflected in numerous emails to and from the group that Flipside was given access to. Organizers of the group were in close contact with the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council), a local pro-Israel lobby group, and appeared at several points to take direction from them. The emails contained numerous telling constructions such as putting “peaceful protests” in support of Palestine in quotation marks, suggesting, one imagines, that such protests by their nature, are not peaceful. These emails also called on their supporters to inundate one of Berkeley’s middle schools with calls and visits when they learned of a student-planned walkout. Several adherents later attended the walkout, surveilling and filming middle school children even though they did not have a child at the school, behavior that not long ago was roundly denounced as, if not creepy and criminal, certainly inappropriate. These emails also singled out for harassment a teacher at a Berkeley elementary school which resulted in that school’s reception being flooded with phone calls from area codes all across the country. 


In preparation for a December 4, 2023 meeting at a conservative Berkeley synagogue, the group sent out a kind of mission statement in which, among other things they stated: “We will connect with organizations like JCRC, ICS, Brandeis Law Center, etc. in order to drive accountability within BUSD policies, state and federal law.” These are all well-funded, litigious pro-Israel lobby groups, whose mission includes sanitizing school curriculum that dares to include teaching about Palestine through a lens of liberation and resistance. Flipside spoke with three Jewish parents who attended that meeting. 


All three parents told us that ICS (Institute for Curriculum Services) was a hot topic that night and the group was anxious to get the ICS curriculum inserted in the district. Some speakers allowed that people won’t like that it’s “ICS” given the organization’s obvious pro-Israel posture. So it was determined to soften the program’s landing by talking about the “Oakland curriculum” or the “San Diego Curriculum” since San Diego had adopted ICS’ model and Oakland had followed them. The notion was also floated that they might have to get the ICS curriculum into BUSD as a concession in a legal action. 


The Institute for Curriculum Services is a California-based non-profit organization, an initiative of the JCRC and affiliated with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. It works behind the scenes to change curriculum and textbook references about “Jews, Judaism and Israel.” Like so many actors in this arena, their founding ethos may well have been laudable, e.g., blaming Jews for killing Jesus in textbooks is a ridiculous and offensive notion. Unfortunately, like so many of their compadres (Brandeis Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Canary Mission, etc.), they have moved away from combatting antisemitism to concentrate on combatting all references in society – pedagogical or otherwise – that are critical of the State of Israel. And this shift in focus has tracked, in recent years, with the Israeli government’s increasing slide to the right. In spite of the rise of powerful, extremist, openly racist government ministers like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Belazel Smotrich, these pro-Israel lobby groups’ support of Israel remains unwavering. In many cases they have doubled down on Israel’s righteousness.  


Such doubling down belies an increasingly desperate fear as the world, and often times their own children, are turning away in greater and greater numbers from Israel’s indefensible treatment of Palestinians. This can be seen in one of the themes ICS was pushing in Virginia: “Discourage students from conducting open internet research on current events lest they run into controversial content. Instead recommend approved websites such as the ADL and the JewishVirtualLibrary.org.” In other words, only the unapologetically one-sided viewpoint of an increasingly adrift, former civil rights organization and the Jewish Virtual Library are positioned to offer students objective views on current events. Don’t go out into the world kids, don’t search things up for yourselves, you can’t trust them … we’ll tell you how it is. That is essentially ICS’ approach to K-12 schooling as well.  


What do all these behind the scenes educational machinations and intimidation tactics have to do with the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which is supposed to work for peace with justice? 


Since the war in Gaza began three new commissioners have been seated: Nimrod Pitsker Elias was appointed by Councilmember Sophie Hahn on 12/5/23; Robin Mencher was appointed by Susan Wengraf on 1/4/24; and Allegra Guarino was appointed by Councilmember Kesarwani on 2/2/24.  According to the three Jewish parents we spoke with, Guarino was a facilitator at the December 4, 2023 pro-Israel parent convocation and Mencher was in attendance and was actively involved. The wife of the third new Commissioner, Nimrod Elias, is Aliza Elias, the Executive Director of ICS. It should also be noted that Hahn and Wengraf are two of the three council members on an Agenda Committee that has consistently refused to calendar a Ceasefire Resolution, notwithstanding wide support for the resolution among Berkeley’s residents.


In an email to the City Council on December 13th, Nimrod’s wife and ICS ED Aliza Elias wrote: “My husband spoke last night and said what I feel which is that passing a resolution on the war between Israel and Hamas will have zero impact on the parties abroad.” Then why is Nimrod on the Peace & Justice Commission? Making such recommendations on issues that many feel “will have zero impact on the parties abroad” is the bread and butter of the Commission. Always has been. And, Ms. Elias, you might be surprised to learn that they don’t always have no impact, at least not according to Mayor Jesse Arreguin when he spoke in favor of divesting from companies building Trump’s wall. He connected the city’s move to its activist roots, citing its history as one of the first municipalities in the United States to divest from South Africa under apartheid. “That made a big difference, putting pressure on the South African government to change its approach.” The history of the Peace & Justice Commission is the history of such recommendations, including most recently on Ukraine, another move that was warmly embraced by the Mayor. “There’s this feeling of, what can we do about it, since we’re so far away?” Arreguín said. “But we have to do everything we can, whether it’s cutting diplomatic ties, donating or even just flying the Ukrainian flag. And we want to do more.” So why, in the middle of a war, is the City Council rushing to pack the Peace and Justice Commission with Commissioners who are pro-Israel and anti-Ceasefire? 


Fast Forward to Late March


At a contentious City Council meeting on March 26th, a man was filmed getting in the face of a Palestinian woman with his phone and, according to several witnesses present, made physical contact with her. He was later identified as Peace & Justice Commissioner Nimrod Elias. Without weighing in on whether his conduct constitutes an assault, a more fundamental question is: Why is a Berkeley Peace and Justice Commissioner getting aggressive in a woman’s face at all, under any circumstances, let alone at a City of Berkeley event? When it was learned that the aggressive man was a Peace & Justice Commissioner, many in the movement for Palestinian dignity decided to organize around the upcoming Peace & Justice Commission meeting, last Monday, April 8th.


April 8, 2024 Peace & Justice Commission Meeting


Around 25 pro-Palestinian audience members showed up to the meeting, some with signs calling for Elias’ dismissal or resignation. This appeared to fluster some on the normally sleepy commission, and several of the new commissioners, grouped together on the left side of the table, could be seen frantically texting on their phones. Many of the attendees gave public comment, with several speakers putting Elias’ conduct in a larger pattern of “Zionist men” aggressively harassing women, and most typically women of color. A number of female students from UC Berkeley gave compelling testimony about the kind of harassment they and other women have received on and off campus for their visible support of Palestine, which included assaults, threats and being spat upon. Most speakers called for Elias to be dismissed or resign.


Approximately 30 minutes into public comment, Councilmember Sophie Hahn appeared and began using her phone to apparently photograph and/or video speakers and the scene. Around the same time, a couple Berkeley Police Department vehicles and officers showed up as well. It is unknown who called the police, but they were not there prior to the council member’s rather sudden and unexpected appearance. Additionally, there had been no threatening conduct on anyone’s part that would otherwise trigger calling the police. It seemed to be a pretty clear attempt to profile the audience members there, many of whom were people of color wearing keffiyehs, as threatening and dangerous.


When the meeting turned to matters on the agenda, Commissioner Guarino read aloud her

letter (p.7 in the link) which begins: “It has come to the attention of the Peace and Justice Commission that many 9th grade students at Berkeley High were recently taught a set of lessons about the Israel Hamas War that included factually incorrect information.” It has come to the attention … that’s an interesting way of putting it, given that Guarino was a facilitator at a meeting four months prior, one of whose stated goals was to undermine the current curriculum in BUSD and, if necessary, sue the District to implement the curriculum of her fellow Commissioner’s wife. There’s a word for that, and it’s not antisemitism; it’s called corruption. 


Enough is enough. It’s time to stand up to these increasingly untethered elements in our community, hell bent on tearing down the long legacy of progressive pedagogy in Berkeley in deference to a rightwing government run amok. They are pretending to care about children, but they don’t care about your kids. They care about Israel and how it’s taught. They don’t care if your kids’ teachers are distracted by fear and are less effective. They don’t care if the district’s funds, already stretched thin, need to be diverted from say, support services for students of color to fight specious and exaggerated national complaints and frivolous lawsuits. Of course they don’t care, remember, that was their gameplan from the get go.

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