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Vandalism of anti-Hamas billboards highlights a divide among Bay Area Jews on Israel

A billboard which reads “Lets be clear: Hamas is your problem too.”, left, and the same billboard defaced with “Lets be clear: Zionsim is your problem too.
A JewBelong billboard along Interstate 101 in San Carlos was among several that were defaced in early December. A group of anonymous anti-Zionist Jews took credit, calling the action "a protest of rampant racism against Palestinians." | Source: Courtesy Jewish Anti-Zionist Network

In late November, more than a dozen billboards went up over freeways and city streets around the Bay Area. As big as 50 feet across, they bore a one-sentence message in eye-catching white letters against backgrounds of the same hot pink as Lyft and T-Mobile: “Let’s be clear: Hamas is your problem too.” 

JewBelong, a nonprofit that seeks to shine a light on antisemitism, has been putting up provocative billboards about weighty Jewish topics since 2021. So it wasn’t surprising to see the group chime in on the Israel-Hamas war, which has inspired rage and grief on both sides of the conflict. Local protests demanding an end to violence against Palestinian civilians in Gaza since Oct. 7 have included actions ranging from high school walkouts to an hours-long shutdown of the Bay Bridge.

Not long after the anti-Hamas billboards went up, though, some of them were defaced. Someone had plastered text over Hamas so they instead read “Zionism is your problem too.” 

But it was not an Arab advocacy group or Palestinian activists who were behind the graffiti. Instead, a collective of anti-Zionist Jews took credit for “redecorating” the billboards. 

A press release signed by “a collective of Jewish people who want to remain anonymous,” called the graffiti “a protest of rampant racism against Palestinians and unconditional support for Israel as it commits genocide in Gaza.”

A side by side photo of defaced billboard reading “Lets be clear: Hamas is your problem too. FREE PALESTINE!!” with the the phrase Hamas crossed and the original billboard reading “Let’s be clear: Hamas is your problem too.”.
A defaced JewBelong billboard, left, along Highway 101 near San Bruno Ave. in San Francisco and a partially defaced billboard, right, in San Francisco near Airport Blvd. and Linden Ave. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Their action highlights an uncomfortable divide among the Bay Area’s overwhelmingly liberal Jewish population between those who believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland and others—like those who defaced the billboards—who equate Zionism with “settler colonialism,” apartheid-like oppression, and the mass murder of Palestinians. 

The debate over the catastrophe in the Middle East has become particularly fraught in the Bay Area, where there is a strong tradition of Jews backing progressive causes.   

“Most Jews in the Bay Area are dismayed by [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s Israel. They abhor the violence that’s currently being perpetrated against Palestinians,” said Rio Scharf, a spokesperson for the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, referring to the hard-line Israeli prime minister. 

Scharf said that his group was not involved in the defacement of the billboards but that it calls on “all Jews who feel the same way to make their voices heard in support of Palestinians everywhere.” 

“Messages like this, they love to take advantage not only of our current pain but of the insecurity and anxiety and grief that Jews have felt for centuries as a persecuted group,” said Scharf, who called the billboards “pro-war.”

Some vocal Jews have publicly backed local actions that other Jewish residents have condemned as antisemitic. Among them are symbolic city council resolutions in several cities demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and an unauthorized pro-Palestinian “teach-in” organized by activist educators at Oakland public schools.      

Many Jewish Bay Area residents say they feel increasingly worried about their safety amid what they see as a rising tide of anger and hate toward Israel and Jews that has expressed itself in the vandalism of Jewish-owned businesses as well as shots fired near synagogues and assaults on people wearing yarmulkes or Star of David pendants.

Last week, vandals toppled the 11-foot-high, 350-pound, steel menorah on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt and scrawled profanity-laced epithets on the cement podium. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

a menorah with a lake and a cityscape behind it.
The public Hanukkah menorah on the shores of Oakland's Lake Merritt before it was destroyed by vandals in early December. The vandalism comes on the heels of a chain of antisemitic incidents in the Bay Area. | Source: Courtesy Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area

Then there was a widely aired confrontation this month between a Jewish customer and three young employees in an Oakland cafe. Farley’s East was forced to shut down temporarily after a video went viral of the employees blocking the woman from entering the restroom to document anti-Zionist graffiti.     

Similar angry messages have appeared repeatedly on JewBelong billboards in the Bay Area, according to Archie Gottesman, a co-founder of the organization. JewBelong, funded largely by donations from Jewish groups, has erected hundreds of billboards in 27 states. They seek to reach what Gottesman called the mushy middle, people who may not have an opinion on this. 

“We want to at least be speaking to them,” she said. “Because the other side is screaming.”    

Tikkun Olam

In early 2023, JewBelong put up several billboards in the East Bay after a national controversy erupted at the University of California Berkeley law school. Student groups imposed a ban on speakers who supported Israel or Zionism, inviting a federal civil rights complaint. 

The billboards stated: “You don’t need to go to law school to know anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” They stood for barely a week before several were scrawled over in black spray paint or changed to read “anti-Zionism is anti-racism.” Another included the message “End Israel Apartheid.” Then, as now, an anonymous group of Jewish anti-Zionist activists took credit for the defacement.   

Raising eyebrows is the point, of course. Gottesman, a New Yorker, employed a similar strategy as the force behind a successful, often left-leaning marketing campaign for Manhattan Mini-Storage, a business owned by her family. It made use of audacious, politically tinged one-liners on subjects such as abortion and gay marriage. A memorable one featured a picture of a coat hanger with the words: “Your closet space is shrinking as fast as her right to choose.” 

She and her partner, Stacy Stuart, started JewBelong in 2018 in an effort to make the religion more accessible by pushing cheeky slogans such as “We don’t care which half of you is Jewish” and “So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about.” 

In 2021, Gottesman switched tacks to concentrate on what she saw as a growing surge of antisemitism on the internet. 

A billboard reading “Let’s be clear: Hamas is your problem too.” next to Highway 580 in Emeryville.
A billboard sponsored by the organization JewBelong stands parallel to Highway 580 in Emeryville on Friday. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

“It is really frightening to be Jewish right now,” she said. “It became hard to say, ‘Well, let me keep talking to you about how to have a great Passover seder.’” 

Her goal is to raise awareness about subtle and not-so-subtle hatred directed at Jewish people in the same way that groups like Black Lives Matter spurred “a very necessary discussion about race in the United States.” 

The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents, including hateful graffiti targeting Jewish businesses, threats and assaults have reached record levels since Oct. 7, when Hamas killed around 1,200 people and Israel embarked on a ruthless counterattack that has killed more than 17,000 Palestinians. 

That trend started well before the latest violence in the Middle East. Last December, a survey by the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area (JCRC) reported that nearly a third of the 828 respondents experienced or witnessed antisemitism in the past three years.  

Jewish leaders say the impassioned protests against Zionism and Israel that have accelerated since the war broke out have often veered into ugly antisemitic tropes, intentional or not. Rabbi Mark Bloom of the Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland likened the strident hours-long debate that followed the Oakland City Council’s ceasefire resolution in November to a MAGA rally. It sparked national outrage after producing a viral video with clips of commenters who defended Hamas and questioned news accounts of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants.

Bloom said he has been giving sermons for years warning of the rise of left-wing antisemitism in the Bay Area. 

“What is a little bit different is that more Jews are participating in it than ever before, and their intent is not antisemitic, just the result is,” he said. 

To many people, the core Jewish concept of tikkun olam—or “mend the world” in Hebrew—means sticking up for the underdog. This is doubly so for those who think of themselves as socially conscious. So, it is not a leap to see why there would be sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza, particularly women, children and the elderly who have become trapped as victims of a decades-long, violent conflict. 

The problem, Bloom said, is the current culture “says that there are oppressed and oppressors. We’re failing to see the many, many shades of gray.” 

A Generational Divide

In early December, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors jumped into the fray by considering its own ceasefire resolution. Dozens of residents lined up around the block to speak in support of the measure, many draped in traditional Bedouin shawls and waving Palestinian flags. 

But the proposal divided local Jewish officials.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who is Jewish and whose father and grandfather fled the Holocaust, introduced the measure in a tearful show of emotion, calling it “an opportunity for us to come together in defense of human life.” Supervisor Hillary Ronen cited her Jewish heritage as a reason for co-sponsoring the resolution, which called for an end to antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry in addition to a “sustained” ceasefire.

Supervisor Dean Preston looks to the side with his glasses in his hand.
Supervisor Dean Preston pauses during an emotional moment in his speech on Dec. 5 where he introduced a ceasefire resolution for the Israel-Hamas War. Supporters of both Israel and Palestine were in the City Hall Supervisors Chambers and just outside holding separate rallies. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Other Jewish officials displayed their opposition to the measure by attending a vigil for Israeli hostages. Across the street from City Hall, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who has in the past called himself “a progressive Zionist,” said the city should “stay in our lane.” State Sen. Scott Wiener echoed concerns about antisemitic language surfacing during the public comments, echoing “a longstanding problem not just in the country but on this planet, going back centuries and millennia.” 

“People have every right in the world to criticize Israel—I’ve criticized Israel—but to call for the destruction of the state of Israel or to erase or even uplift what Hamas did, that’s where you cross a line,” said Wiener in a recent interview with The Standard.

Gottesman, for her part, sees the defacement of JewBelong’s anti-Hamas billboard message as supporting terrorism against Jews, plain and simple.   

JewBelong has inspired support from Jewish figures such as Deborah Lipstadt, President Joe Biden’s antisemitism envoy, who has praised the group’s “use of humor and irony to fight antisemitism.”  

The group has also garnered plenty of criticism for its increasingly antagonistic tone and hard-line pro-Israel stance.

“There’s no room for nuance and dialogue and conversation with a billboard that is just meant to provoke,” said Tyler Gregory, CEO of the JCRC. “You’re just reinforcing what people already believe. I don’t necessarily disagree with the messages on those billboards, I just don’t think it’s a practical approach.” 

Israel remains a divisive subject among Jews, especially in progressive circles. 

Gregory cited a widening generational divide between older Jewish Americans who grew up feeling a crucial identity connection to Israel as a Jewish homeland and younger ones who “all they’ve seen is Netanyahu in power.” Critics have accused Israel’s longest-serving prime minister of scuttling any chance of peace by expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and allying with far-right forces to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions and civil rights, among other things.     

Scharf, the spokesperson for the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, said members had differing ideas on what should happen to Israel and its more than 9 million people “post-Zionism,” but he stressed that the group opposes “an ethno-national sovereign state controlled by Jews in Palestine.” 

Fighting Zionism, he said, is “an essential aspect of our anti-racist practice.” 

A person raises their fist while standing below a billboard that reads “Lets be clear: Zionism is your problem too. Jews4FreePalestine” in the evening.
A person raises their fist while standing below a defaced billboard in Redwood City along Highway 101. | Source: Courtesy Jewish Anti-Zionist Network

Other progressive Jews who have spent years fighting for causes such as racial equity and LGBTQ+ rights have described feeling abandoned by some of their traditional allies on the left, who they say have not shown the same empathy for the Israeli victims of Oct. 7 and have been quick to cast Israel as a white colonizer, despite most Israeli Jews being descended from Middle Eastern and North African ancestors. 

Stephen Jaffe is a Jewish San Francisco lawyer who described himself as “not religious at all.” He ran for Congress back in 2018 on a platform of healthcare for all, police accountability and affordable housing, among other issues. He believes in a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. But at 78, Jaffe has stopped calling himself progressive, due to what he calls “thinly veiled antisemitism described as anti-Zionism on the left.” 

He recently bought an Israeli flag and an Israel Defense Forces T-shirt on the internet. 

“I never did anything like that,” Jaffe said. 

For the first time, he senses that the Jewish state may be under threat: “And if Israel’s existence is threatened, then I’m threatened.”