Protesters condemn Berkeley mayor for trip to Israel

Demonstrators called the Berkeley mayor’s trip tone-deaf because it took place soon after the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Demonstrators listen to former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport (in wheelchair) speak during a protest condemning current Mayor Jesse ArreguĆ­n’s recent trip to Israel. Credit: Nico Savidge

Mayor Jesse ArreguĆ­n is facing criticism for attending a sponsored trip to Israel earlier this month.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators took part in a protest outside Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting to condemn ArreguĆ­n’s visit, saying it was an affront to the city’s values and calling on the mayor to denounce the Israeli government. Some said ArreguĆ­n should be recalled.

“Every place you went, it was our home,” said Ziad Abbas, a Palestinian-American speaker at Tuesday’s protest, which was organized by the Middle East Children’s Alliance. “Israel is a colonial system.”

ArreguĆ­n was one of 18 Bay Area officials who took part in the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco’s Israel Seminar, a 10-day tour of the country that includes conversations with “speakers from all perspectives” of the conflict, according to Tyler Gregory, the council’s CEO. A spokesman for the mayor said ArreguĆ­n left on May 11 and returned Sunday; the council pays for attendees’ travel with donor funds, Gregory said.

ArreguĆ­n defended his decision to attend the seminar in a statement.

“This was an important experience for me, not just to be a more effective advocate for peace in the Middle East, but also to be a more effective public servant for a community with a large Jewish and Palestinian community,” he said. “Interpreting my travels as an endorsement of how either side has managed the conflict would be an unfortunate mistake.”

Several demonstrators called the mayor’s trip tone-deaf because it unfolded as Israel’s government faced mounting criticism over the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed the day ArreguĆ­n departed. A CNN investigation published Tuesday found evidence that Abu Akleh “was killed in a targeted attack by Israeli forces” while reporting on a raid at a Palestinian refugee camp.

Tuesday’s protest continued inside the Berkeley Unified School District board room, where the in-person component of City Council meetings are held. ArreguĆ­n was not present for the demonstration, however, and presided over the meeting remotely.

In his statement, ArreguĆ­n called Abu Akleh’s death a tragedy and said, “The perpetrators should be held to account.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco has taken Bay Area leaders on tours of Israel since the 1980s, according to a pamphlet on its website, as part of its efforts to engage in “pro-Israel advocacy through community relations.” Gregory said the trip included discussions about Abu Akleh’s killing with Palestinian Authority officials, and that local leaders are free to “make up their own minds about what they’re seeing and hearing over there.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.