update deskSchools & Higher Education

Berkeley students accuse Oakland councilman of ‘environmental apartheid’

In a letter leading to the cancellation of a presentation by Dan Kalb, a class accuses Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “war crimes.”

Aerial view of buildings in the University of California, Berkeley campus. Credit: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock.
Aerial view of buildings in the University of California, Berkeley campus. Credit: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock.

An adjunct instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, along with more than 30 students, accused a Jewish city councilman and environmental advocate in Oakland, Calif., of playing an “active role in retweeting and spreading pro-Israeli propaganda, which often equates pro-Palestinian voices as ‘antisemitic.’”

“Questions arise regarding the validity, legitimacy and authenticity of your views in regard to the advocation of our community,” wrote the students and professor, revoking an invitation for Dan Kalb, 64, to address the climate policy class.

“This is especially concerning with your relationship and endorsements by organizations such as the California Legislative Jewish Caucus (CLJC) and the East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council (JRCR)—both of which applaud the recent additional funding toward Israel by Gov. Gavin Newsom and reject the use of language that considers Israel an apartheid state,” per the letter, which misstated the JCRC.

The professor and students noted that “the United Nations, as well as countless other international communities” labeled the Jewish state “apartheid,” and accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “war crimes.” More unusually, the signatories accuse Israel of “environmental apartheid,” claiming that Palestinians have “lived harmoniously with their land, maintaining long-standing indigenous practices of cultivation,” dating back “generations older than the State of Israel.” 

After the “unethical occupation of Palestine in 1948,” according to the letter, Palestinians have faced “disproportionate effects of ecological degradation by the State of Israel—including the eradication of native trees and olive groves, a hallmark of Palestinian identity.”

Kalb, who voted in the Oakland City Council for a ceasefire, told the J. The Jewish News of Northern California that Israel had never come up before in discussions with this class. He told the paper that he is a “passionate supporter of Israel’s right to exist” and that the letter was “crazy.”

The city councilman added that the instructor, a neighbor of his, “pushed back on them” and said: “He’s coming to talk about climate change, not about the Middle East.”

When students insisted, the professor thought it was a bad idea for Kalb to come, anticipating that the class would only talk about the Middle East and that there might be protests, the city councilman said.

“If someone wants to go speak about climate change—they are an expert on climate change—what the hell does Israel or Zionism have to do with that?” Kalb told the paper. “Why not put a yellow star on our sleeve? How about we do that, too?”

Dan Mogulof, an assistant vice chancellor and spokesman at Berkeley, told the paper that “what happened in this class is not consistent with the university’s values, particularly because the class discussion had nothing to do with the war between Israel and Hamas.”

“Instructors are not supposed to rescind invitations for classroom speakers based on student disagreement with the speaker’s views,” he added, noting that the university provost wrote to Kalb “to express our dismay about what happened and to assure him that the leadership of the Rausser College of Natural Resources has reviewed the matter with the instructor to ensure nothing like this will happen again.”

“The provost will also be sending a message to every dean and department chair to remind them of Berkeley’s support for an open exchange of ideas, and our rejection of political litmus tests when it comes to who can speak in our classes,” Mogulof added.

“The college leadership also intends to use what happened as an opportunity to engage the community in a discussion about the importance of diversity of perspective and the dangers of censorship of any sort,” he said.

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