An investigation into an alleged antisemitic attack on a Jewish fraternity at the University of California, Berkeley has revealed that the incident that has raised the anxiety level of Jewish students on campus and Jews throughout the country was a prank that veered out of control.
Ynet has learned that a first-year student confessed to the police that it was a prank that got out of control and not an antisemitic incident, as had been suspected. According to students at the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity house, the student "did it as a joke. He is known to the fraternity members and they withdrew the complaint. The student is now overwhelmed by the escalation it received, and due to the media coverage and police involvement, it's difficult to undo the situation."
The university's spokesperson confirmed to Ynet that it was indeed a student who threw the seafood in a number of student fraternity houses without knowing the religious significance of the act.
The Berkeley Police Department said that they do not officially comment on ongoing investigations.
The incident has sparked significant outrage within the American media and the Jewish community, which is presently on heightened alert due to the escalating number of anti-Semitic incidents across the country. The student's friends say he is distressed by the prank that got out of hand. "He's just a young man who found himself in a predicament. He couldn't have foreseen the rapid escalation of the situation," one says.
This case brings attention to the swiftness with which the Jewish community raises the alarm, which can be seen as crying wolf, while also prompting inquiries about the accuracy of categorizing numerous acts as "anti-Semitic" hate crimes within the country.
A spokesperson for the international Alpha Epsilon Phi organization said in response to Ynet's inquiry that "I do not believe this. If in fact, it was 'just a prank,' it crossed a line and raised safety concerns for Jewish students who felt harassed."
The Jewish community in the United States is currently on heightened alert due to the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the country and on campuses in particular. On the other hand, there are also claims that the Jewish community has a quick trigger finger when it comes to claims of antisemitic attacks, which later turn out to be unfounded.
The university is taking the incident very seriously and is helping the students deal with its impact, according to a campus spokesperson.
"Regardless of the chain of events, the members of the Jewish fraternity were very understandably upset to see what appeared to be a targeted attack on their Jewish religious and cultural traditions. UC Berkeley campus leadership has taken this issue very seriously and has been in regular communication with key stakeholders on campus and at the fraternity about next steps and how best to move forward," the spokesperson said.
"To be clear, regardless of the facts as they unfold, we understand that the members of AEPi experienced this as an antisemitic attack and in conversations that have been had with AEPi leaders, that sense of harm was very evident. When dealing with the emotional and social fallout from incidents of bias and bigotry, intent can be distinct from impact," he also said.
At the beginning of the week, police opened an investigation into the suspected antisemitic hate crime, after students claimed that a group of unknown persons arrived at the Jewish student fraternity building at UC Berkeley and threw mountains of seafood, including shellfish, oysters and crabs, in through the windows.
Regardless of the chain of events, the members of the Jewish fraternity were very understandably upset to see what appeared to be a targeted attack on their Jewish religious and cultural traditions
Some students who live in AEPi fraternity house said that they had finished the first Friday night dinner of the new school semester, when suddenly around 1:00 a.m. they noticed suspicious people approaching the front door of the house carrying buckets. Before they realized what was happening around them, the group emptied the contents of the buckets everywhere.
The students at first thought it was another typical college prank, but later discovered they were the only target that night. "It was clear beyond a doubt that this was a deliberate incident aimed at scaring our fraternity," according to an official statement after the incident. They called the police and, according to them the officers arrived at the house quickly, took evidence from them and began investigating the vandalism case as a possible hate crime.
The true estimate of the damage was discovered only the next morning, when the sun rose and with it also a fishy stench that spread all over the house. "It was so disgusting. We went through the house with a huge trash can, plugged our noses and cleaned up all the crab claws and legs that were scattered everywhere. We found one head on the pillow in someone's room," said one of the students. Although they took photos, they were forbidden to share them so as not to disrupt the investigation.
"I have never encountered an incident like this. We have experienced cases of verbal and even physical violence in the past, but this is completely new to me," Jon Pierce, spokesman for the international Alpha Epsilon Phi organization, told Ynet at the time of the incident. "You can say that the haters are becoming more and more creative in their malicious ways. It's no longer a matter of antisemitism yes or no - what's important is that students should be aware and sensitive to it." According to him, they will now consider placing additional security measures on the fraternity house on campus.
In the official statement published after the incident, they wrote that "the six people strategically poured shellfish over our front door. They continued to throw them into the house and onto the front porch, also scattering it around the premises. By singling out AEPi, the Jewish fraternity, and deliberately employing non-kosher food, this act of vandalism goes beyond mere destruction, it represents a calculated decision to target Jewish students within our campus community."
The statement continued: "Regrettably, this occurrence is not an isolated one on college campuses across North America and the world. Instances of antisemitic activity are widespread within university settings and must be addressed. Universities serve as a platform for the free and open exchange of ideas, and Jewish students should not be subjected to feelings of insecurity within their campus residences. We are working closely with both Berkeley and University Police, as well as campus administration, to identify the individuals responsible for this hate crime. Our goal is to send a strong message that this type of behavior is not acceptable in our campus community."
The University of Berkeley said in response that "We are saddened and shocked by what appears to be a hateful incident of antisemitism directed at members of the Alpha Epsilon Phi fraternity. The campus administration has a long-standing and unwavering commitment to combat anti-Semitism in all its manifestations, as we do with all forms of bias, discrimination and hate. An investigation into the matter and we, as always, will make sure that there will be appropriate consequences if it is found that the laws, campus policies or the student code of conduct have been violated."
The Israeli consulate in San Francisco, which is also responsible for the Berkeley area, has been in contact with the university.
"We expect that whoever is responsible for the incident will be brought to justice. They reacted relatively quickly and we are happy about that, but we are also following the developments continuously," Israel's consul general in San Francisco, Marco Sermoneta, said. "It is important to us that cases of this type are dealt with immediately and severely. There have been a series of alarming cases of antisemitism in our area, both on campuses and outside them, and we are doing the maximum we can to try to combat the phenomenon. We are in contact with both the students and the Berkeley police. Everything is still under investigation, and we will intervene and assist where necessary."
Since fall 2019, there has been an Antisemitism Education Initiative on the Berkeley campus. It is housed in the university’s Center for Jewish Studies and works in collaboration with the Chancellor’s Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate, the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, Berkeley Hillel, and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life. Faculty and community leaders are working closely with university administrators and student leaders to promote antisemitism awareness and education. Since January 2023, the campus has employed a full-time director of the Antisemitism Education Initiative.
A week ago, a group of 84 US congressmen from both parties in a letter addressed the American Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, demanded that he protect Jewish students on campuses across the United States and act immediately against the unprecedented rising antisemitism in institutions of higher education in the country. In the letter, the legislators note that the number of complaints received by department regarding antisemitic incidents among Jewish students increased from approximately 10,000 cases in 2019 to more than 19,000 cases last year, and that 54% of Jewish students feel they are paying a social price for supporting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.