Inside Story'Israelis, Jews, non-Jews, all come to support us'

Bay Area Jews come together with grassroots effort to fight post-Oct. 7 anti-Israel bias

Stepping up against antisemitism on the streets and in schools, Jewish Californians and Israeli expats discover a dormant community that was waiting to be galvanized

Yoav Harlev and hundreds of others demonstrate on behalf of the Hamas-held hostages on the El Curtola highway overpass on the 100th day of the Israel-Hamas war, January 14, 2024. (Thomas Smith/Bay Area Telegraph)
Yoav Harlev and hundreds of others demonstrate on behalf of the Hamas-held hostages on the El Curtola highway overpass on the 100th day of the Israel-Hamas war, January 14, 2024. (Thomas Smith/Bay Area Telegraph)

SAN FRANCISCO — Yoav Harlev, a native of southern Israel, learned about Hamas’s brutal onslaught on October 7 from the far reaches of his home in San Francisco’s Bay Area, where he has lived for the last 20 years.

“For me, it was the night of October 6,” Harlev recalled. “I was on the phone with people who were there, going through this holocaust. Since then, I wake up every morning devastated. I cannot sleep well.”

Harlev’s childhood home was in Kibbutz Kissufim, in the heart of the Israeli communities near the Gaza border where thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butchered 1,200 people on October 7, most of them civilians, and abducted 253 more to the Gaza Strip.

Twelve residents of Harlev’s kibbutz were murdered, along with six foreign workers. Harlev knew most of them and grew up with his father’s close friend, Shlomo Mansour, 85, who is the oldest hostage still being held in Gaza.

His experience reflects how the massacre deeply affected not just the lives of Jews in Israel, but also abroad as Jewish communities in outposts such as the Bay Area struggle to cope and make their voices heard, in a setting that’s often quite different from the Jewish power bases on the Eastern Seaboard. From the streets to the school boards, anti-Israel sentiment is palpable — and residents are standing up against it.

Like many in his community, Harlev felt compelled to take action.

“In the beginning, I just walked around the neighborhood and put up flyers of the hostages. Then a good friend of mine, Itzik Goldberger, told me he wanted to get on a bridge with a sign. That’s how it started; just the two of us,” Harlev said of his daily public demonstrations that now regularly attract hundreds.

Yoav Harlev and hundreds of others demonstrate on behalf of the Hamas-held hostages on the El Curtola highway overpass on the 100th day of the Israel-Hamas war, January 14, 2024. (Thomas Smith/Bay Area Telegraph)

Seven days a week between 3 and 5 p.m. during rush hour, Harlev and Goldberger would stand alone on the El Curtola overpass on Highway 24 en route to Walnut Creek, with large images of the hostages and American and Israeli flags above some 24,000 passing vehicles. From an initial party of two, the overpass protest gained traction. On the 100th day of the war, a total of 400 supporters showed up.

“Responses are good. Israelis, Jews, non-Jews, many people come to support us,” Harlev said. “An 80-year-old man waiting for a hip replacement comes every day; in the cold, in the rain. Others don’t know why we are there, so we tell them.”

But not everyone is pleased. One woman halted her car in the middle of the highway.

Yoav Harlev on the El Curtola highway overpass on the 100th day of the Israel-Hamas war, January 14, 2024. (Thomas Smith/Bay Area Telegraph)

“I thought we were going to get shot!” Harlev exclaimed. “She pulled a Palestinian flag out of her trunk and climbed on the hood of the car, standing there for 10 minutes. We called the police, but she was gone before they arrived.”

The overpass protest also drew the attention of the media. One report portrayed the ongoing rally as loud and hazardous, but Harlev dismissed it out of hand.

“Some of the neighbors don’t like us and complained to the city of Lafayette [where the overpass is situated]. A hearing about our activity is scheduled to take place in the city. We did not come here for politics. Everyone uses these overpasses for protests. We just stand there quietly carrying signs of the hostages. We want them to return home,” he said.

A grassroots coalition to fight antisemitism in schools

Itamar Landau lived a blissful private life in the East Bay, but in the aftermath of the October 7 massacre, he was itching to do something. His chance arrived when a group of Jewish parents attended a school board meeting in his city of Berkeley.

“I went on a whim,” Landau said. At the meeting were 10 parents in support of the Jewish community — and more than 50 pro-Palestinian activists who were “well organized and loud, including teachers.” It was evident that his side was not as well organized.

Landau started reaching out to scattered Jewish activists in congregations and social media. The idea was to form an umbrella organization of members to tackle antisemitism in schools and in city council meetings that call for anti-Israel resolutions. Eventually, this group grew to 260 registered activists and was named the Jewish Coalition of Berkeley.

On January 6, pro-Palestinian protesters marched in the Berkeley-adjacent town of Albany, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. A confrontation with counter-demonstrators turned “a bit violent,” Landau said. Footage on NBC Bay Area showed a Jewish woman falling to the ground and her Israeli flag torched.

The Jewish Coalition of Berkeley sent its members to an Albany City Council meeting that took place the following week.

“We wanted to make it clear to the Albany City Council that it’s totally unacceptable for Jews and Israelis to be attacked in the street [for] waving Israeli flags. It’s a hate crime and they need to condemn it under no uncertain terms,” said Landau.

Among the locally established Jewish organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) has been one of the focal points for dealing with these issues since October 7.

Demonstrators from the Jewish Coalition of Berkeley at a Berkeley City Council meeting, December 12, 2023. (Courtesy Itamar Landau)

“Our competitive advantage,” said JCRC CEO Tyler Gregory, “is that all our leadership and staff live in the Bay Area and make decisions for ourselves. That allows us to go deeper and have a voice that matches the [local] challenges.”

Legacy organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League “are all based in New York or Washington. They all have a local office [in the Bay Area], but what works in Atlanta or Chicago doesn’t always work here,” noted Gregory. “We need strong national organizations because some of the problems are national problems, but this national voice may sometimes sound tone deaf if it doesn’t match the intensity of what’s happening locally.”

A 2021 study released by the Jewish Community Federation found that 350,000 Jews live in the 10 counties comprising the San Francisco Bay Area, making it the fourth largest Jewish population in the US. A JCRC survey published in December 2023, found that 61 percent of Bay Area Jews felt less safe since October 7, with 36% reporting direct experience with antisemitism. Another 56% expressed dissatisfaction with the local schools’ handling of antisemitism.

Taking the fight against antisemitism to the classroom

On Wednesday, the Brandeis Center and the ADL jointly filed a complaint with the US Department of Education concerning the Berkeley Unified School District. In a joint statement, the organizations stipulated that the Berkeley administration has failed to “take action to end nonstop bullying and harassment of Jewish students by peers and teachers since October 7.” It further stated that the Berkeley district has ignored pleas from 1,370 Berkeley community members who signed a letter to ensure the “physical safety of the victims.”

“The eruption of antisemitism in Berkeley’s elementary and high schools is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Brandeis Center chairman Kenneth L. Marcus. “It is dangerous enough to see faculty fanning the flames of antisemitism on college campuses, but to see teachers inciting hate in the youngest of grades while Berkeley administrators sit idly by as it continues to escalate by the day is reprehensible.”

Jewish Community Relations Council CEO Tyler Gregory, fifth from right, with California lawmakers on a trip to the Gaza Envelope on February 18, 2024. (Shanie Roth)

Ilana Pearlman, a mother of three, spoke of her experience sending her children to the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD).

Before October 7, “I knew there was anti-Israel propaganda in school, but I didn’t realize how bad it was,” she said. “My son’s art teacher screened one of his ‘art’ drawings in class in which a closed fist with a Palestinian flag is seen tearing through a Jewish Star of David on a strip of land next to the sea.”

The teacher did not reply to a request for comment.

A week after the October 7 massacre, former Hamas leader Khaled Mashal declared a “Global Day of Jihad” to take place the following Friday. Pearlman recalled: “I was scared for my son’s safety. When I asked him if he was scared, he told me, ‘My skin is dark so they don’t think I’m Jewish.’”

Pearlman and other Jewish parents decided to form the BUSD Jewish Parents Advocacy Group and hold the school administration accountable for antisemitic incidents. For the past three months, the organization has collected data through an “antisemitism tracker.”

The parents recorded pro-Palestinian student walkouts, politicized anti-Israel material in classrooms (“End Apartheid” posters, for example), and antisemitic slurs or chants, such as “Kill the Jews” and “From the River to the Sea,” including remarks made by teachers against Jewish parents at school board meetings.

Anti-Israel artwork displayed by a teacher in the classroom of one of Ilana Pearlman’s children in Berkeley, California, during the Israel-Hamas war, circa early 2024. (Courtesy)

The Brandeis Center and ADL said that instead of addressing teachers’ antisemitic behavior, the administration moved Jewish students into new classes, “normalizing” such behavior. In one incident, a teacher approached a parent who complained about her, saying, “I know who you are, I know who your f—ing wife is and I know where you live,” the statement read.

Pearlman cited two main reasons for launching a grassroots initiative. First, the parents had hoped they could deal with the situation internally through the proper channels of the school system. The second reason was more direct: parents were concerned about the hostile environment in K-12 schools and wanted to know firsthand what was going on. Having exhausted “every diplomatic avenue and getting nowhere,” she noted, they decided to appeal to the media and to more established organizations.

Anti-Israel protestors at a Berkeley City Council meeting attended by counter-demonstrators from the Jewish Coalition of Berkeley, December 12, 2023. (Courtesy: Itamar Landau)

With the news of the formal complaint, Pearlman expressed her gratitude to the “incredible grassroots efforts from lead parents,” adding that the complaint was the culmination of “some of the most painful months collectively as a Jewish people and locally in Berkeley.”

A Berkeley Unified School District spokeswoman said her district was “not aware” of the BUSD Jewish Parent Advocacy Group and has not seen the antisemitism tracker report. She stressed that the district has a reporting process for “hate-motivated behavior,” but did not provide a direct answer as to whether antisemitic incidents were recorded or if actions were taken to prevent them.

Concerning student walkouts, she said, the district does not sanction them, but “respects and supports” them as “first amendment rights” and accompanies the students during their march “to monitor for safety.”

Discovering a community

In two other San Francisco Bay Area school districts, the US Department of Education in January opened probes into the San Francisco Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District following complaints of antisemitism, which have yet to be completed.

Gregory noted that the JCRC has been dealing with the K-12 system for years, advocating for Jewish heritage studies in the curriculum and educating school board members and teachers about Israel.

“It’s great to have all these parents groups pop up because they’re the ones with their kids in the schools and their voices are so important [in tackling antisemitism],” he said. “The challenge is that you have to fight at every level of government: the federal department of education, the state department of education, the district level, the school level, and then there’s the teacher level. If you only focus on one of these, you’re missing the boat.”

Yoav Harlev and hundreds of others demonstrate on behalf of the Hamas-held hostages on the El Curtola highway overpass on the 100th day of the Israel-Hamas war, January 14, 2024. (Thomas Smith/Bay Area Telegraph)

The challenges facing the Jewish community since October 7 are multilayered and have especially impacted the Israeli-American community, Gregory added.

“They have been the least engaged in organized Jewish life. The Israelis have their own communities and they’ve been less connected [to Jewish organizations], so this whole thing took them by shock,” said Gregory.

Meanwhile, Harlev, a professional psychologist with a busy schedule, cited the discovery of a cadre of Israelis as motivation for him to continue his daily overpass protest.

He related how one day, a young Israeli approached him after learning Harlev was originally from Kibbutz Kissufim.

“He takes out his phone and shows me his best friend from high school,” said Harlev, breaking into tears. The photo was of Adam Agmon, a 21-year-old New Zealand-born soldier who died in battle at Kibbutz Kissufim on October 7 while fighting Hamas terrorists.

“I didn’t know any [Israelis] here,” Harlev said. “It was just me and Itzik. Then all of a sudden, we have this community that is here to help and care for each other.”

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