A billboard on Hearst Street in Berkeley that was defaced by an anonymous group of anti-Zionist Jewish activists. Credit: Ilana Pearlman

An anonymous group of anti-Zionist Jewish activists took credit for defacing three JewBelong billboards Wednesday, plastering over and replacing words on three signs a little more than a week after two others were similarly vandalized.

This story was first published on J. The Jewish News of California

Of the three newly defaced billboards, two were in Berkeley and one was in Oakland.

Sponsored by New Jersey nonprofit JewBelong, the billboards were a response to the ongoing Zionism controversy at UC Berkeley. In August of last year, several student groups at the law school pledged to ban speakers who support Israel. The reaction from groups outside the university included incendiary mobile truck campaigns by the conservative nonprofit Accuracy in Media, a host of competing op-eds and an official complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Last month JewBelong commissioned eight billboards in and around Berkeley, all with the same messaging: “You don’t need to go to law school to know anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Within the span of a month, five have now been vandalized.

The Jewish anti-Zionist activists, who took responsibility for the protest in an anonymous press release obtained by J., pasted over the original signs with text in a similar font to the one used in JewBelong branding. On one, the words “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” were changed to “anti-Zionism is anti-racism,” with “Jews4FreePalestine” covering the JewBelong logo. Another includes the message “End Israel Apartheid.” A third has “Jews4FreePalestine” pasted over much of the sign.

“We are Jews who vehemently oppose the notion that anti-Zionism is anything but anti-racism,” reads the statement, which was sent to Bay Area journalists Wednesday. “We oppose the perverse use of the historical genocide and displacement perpetrated against the Jewish people to justify the current and ongoing genocide and displacement of the Palestinian people.”

This billboard at 52nd Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland paid for by JewBelong originally said, “You don’t need to go to law school to know anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” but was vandalized by an anonymous group of Jewish activists to read, “You don’t need to go to law school to know anti-Zionism is anti-racism.” Credit: Gabe Stutman

They said their decision to cover over the billboards was also a direct response to JewBelong founder Archie Gottesman’s claim in J. that the earlier tagging of the billboards was a “hate crime,” the press release said.

The group is “particularly opposed” to the JewBelong campaign, which it says falsely equates support for the Jewish people with support for Israel.

In a new statement to J., Gottesman sharply criticized the protesters, calling them a marginal group not representative of the Jewish community as a whole.

“We stand by our billboards,” Gottesman wrote. “The vast majority of American Jews are Zionists. The billboards appear to have been defaced by a fringe group trying to create a Jew vs Jew fight at a time when we should all be united against the larger issue, which is growing antisemitism in the US.”

A recent survey of Bay Area Jews showed 25% of respondents “support the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel” (commonly known as the BDS movement), a figure 15 percentage points higher than Jews nationally, according to a similar question posed in a recent Pew survey. (The Pew survey also showed 43% of respondents hadn’t heard much about the movement.)

The Bay Area survey, commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and published in December, also showed 89% of respondents agreed that “Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.” Meanwhile only a third of respondents said they are “generally comfortable with the Israeli government’s policies related to Palestinians.”

The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, which is based in Berkeley, expressed full-throated support for the billboards’ defacement in a tweet Wednesday.

Berkeley police were made aware of the vandalism Wednesday afternoon. The incident is being recorded as both vandalism and a hate crime, police spokesperson Byron White said.

The Oakland Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.