Peter Liu, pictured at a recent mayoral candidate forum, has sent a slew of attacks against Jewish people on an email thread this week. Credit: Amir Aziz

A candidate for Oakland mayor has been widely condemned for making antisemitic comments in mass emails first sent on Sunday. A fellow candidate has been criticized for his initial response to those comments.

On Sunday, Peter Liu, who has twice run for Oakland mayor and never gotten more than 1% of the vote, sent an email to over 60 people, including other candidates and members of the media, slandering and threatening the Jewish Community Relations Council, a Bay Area public affairs group, and congregants of Oakland’s Temple Sinai synagogue. Liu also accused both organizations of unfairly excluding him and other mayoral candidates from an upcoming forum at the temple.

“I am sick of these corrupt Jews and their media allies deceiving the public,” Liu wrote, invoking an antisemitic trope in which Jewish people are accused of nefariously controlling mass media outlets.

And today, Liu threatened Temple Sinai, saying in his latest mass email that he would “notify all national veteran organizations” about his grievance against the temple. He followed this up with another email stating, “I am not afraid of jail. I long overcame fear of getting killed, I was a combat veteran. If I die, I die on righteous grounds. I fear no enemies at this point.”

Reached by telephone, Liu told The Oaklanside he believes there is “Jew supremacy” in Oakland and worldwide, echoing conspiracy theories that have long been used to target and persecute Jewish people. 

The Oaklandside has chosen not to quote much of what Liu said during our interview and in his emails. Many of his comments were based on racist, homophobic, and antisemitic views that have no basis in fact. Such views have gained increasing numbers of adherents on the internet in recent years, especially with the rise of once-fringe candidates like Donald Trump who come to power while peddling racist myths.

These ideologies have fueled far-right violence in recent years, including mass shootings. Groups specifically singled out by Liu—Jewish, Black, queer and trans people—have also been targeted by such violence. For instance, in 2018, 11 members of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered by a white supremacist. 

“Comments like these contribute to a darkening environment of antisemitism,” said Tye Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the group organizing the mayoral forum.

“There’s kind of two sides to the coin here,” Gregory continued. “One one hand we don’t want a fringe candidate with these beliefs to have an elevated platform. On the other hand, it’s a good reminder why the Jewish community decided to have its own forum.”

Gregory said the Oakland police are aware of Liu’s comments and that OPD will be present at the Temple forum. “It’s unfortunate that we have to have that kind of security,” he said. “Our houses of worship are supposed to be places inviting for everybody.”

Although Liu denies that his recent comments are inflammatory and said he means no harm to anyone, he has a history of harmful speech aimed at minority groups. In 2018, when he ran for mayor, Liu took to Twitter to blame his dismal performance on “Jews shamelessly rigging elections via owning [and] controlling mass media.” In 2017, he urged a boycott of Disney because they “sneak gay scenes into innocent kids’ movies.” He said he was subsequently banned from Twitter for hate speech. The Oaklandside reviewed Liu’s old tweets, which he saved on Facebook, for this story.

Liu is one of 10 candidates running for mayor this year. His platform includes building giant water slides in parks and allowing people to carry concealed firearms. He describes himself as a self-made millionaire and said his views about the world are shaped by his Christian beliefs. He told The Oaklandside that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2015 after serving in the military.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Liu had sent over 17 responses in the same email chain, lobbing more accusations tinged with hate speech at the Jewish community forum’s organizers, even as fellow candidates and other observers urged him to stop.

Quickly condemned by other candidates in the Oakland mayor’s race

The discussion unfolding on Liu’s email thread follows several weeks of a broader conversation around participation and visibility in the Oakland mayoral race. This conversation intensified last month when a city clerk’s error led to the disqualification of multiple candidates for mayor. Candidates spoke out about what they saw as an undermining of the democratic process in the city.

In a field of 10 candidates, some have also raised concerns about other forums and debates that featured only a few people running. For instance, an event hosted by Visit Oakland, a nonprofit partly funded by taxpayer dollars, and the Jack London Improvement District included only three candidates: Treva Reid, Loren Taylor, and Sheng Thao, all current members of Oakland’s City Council.

Reid, Taylor, and Thao are also the only candidates invited to the upcoming forum hosted by Temple Sinai and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Any private group or organization can decide to host a mayoral forum and invite whoever they choose. Tye Gregory of JCRC said the event’s organizers decided who to invite based on fundraising status; they went with the three candidates who have raised the most money so far.

Mayoral candidate Tyron Jordan told The Oaklandside that he thinks “all 10 qualified candidates should be invited to participate in forums,” attributing the exclusion to “oversight” in some cases and a decision not to invite certain candidates in others. 

But that’s no excuse for bigotry, Jordan said. “I absolutely deplore Peter Liu’s anti-[Semitic] comments…We’ve seen the consequences of hate speech, particularly over the past few years.”

Other candidates also rebuked Liu by responding to his email.

“If you want to criticize a forum sponsor for how they prioritize candidates whom they choose to invite to their privately hosted event, that is wholly appropriate and I will support your right to do so, exercising your free speech,” wrote Taylor, one of the recipients of Liu’s original email. “However, I will not stand idly by and remain silent when you make generalizations about an entire race of people, perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes that undermine the foundations of the strong, unified, and diverse community most of us endeavor to build and strengthen here in Oakland.”

Gregory Hodge, another candidate for mayor who was not invited to the forum, wrote that it is “unacceptable to engage in any anti-Asian, anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-trans or any other form of oppressive behavior and language. Period. Hard stop.”

And Hodge defended the temple’s decision only to invite three of the 10 candidates running for mayor.

“The organizations who choose to provide forums for candidates to share their views and their approaches to healing the hurt in our City, are within their rights to invite anyone to participate based on any criteria that they believe relevant,” he wrote.

Candidate Seneca Scott criticized for suggesting a protest at the temple

The first response to Liu’s email on Sunday was from Seneca Scott, a West Oakland resident and founder of the entertainment company Oakhella who is also running for mayor. Scott replied to Liu’s email within two minutes with just one word: “Protest!?!” 

Liu wrote back that they should organize a sideshow—a demonstration of illegal stunt car racing—in front of the temple.

Several people posted screenshots of this exchange on social media. Among them was Cat Brooks, an activist and Oakland mayoral candidate in 2018. Brooks wrote that she interpreted Scott’s comment as an endorsement of Liu’s anti-Jewish views.

“His response was absolutely inappropriate,” Brooks said in an interview with The Oaklandside. “This can’t be divorced from what’s happening nationally, the political base that Trump built.” She said it’s dangerous to endorse the idea of a protest at a Jewish temple at a time when hate crimes are rising. Just days before Scott responded to Liu’s incendiary email, Brooks had taken to Twitter to share “grave concern” about Scott’s candidacy.

Scott told The Oaklandside today that he is “absolutely not antisemitic” and that his reply was meant only to express frustration with the fact that some candidates have been invited to appear in public political forums and others have not. Later in the email thread, he encouraged Liu to apologize “to let folks know you are not making a blanket statement about Jews.” 

“It’s just way too loaded as is,” Scott added. 

Scott has faced criticism in recent months due to a recent photograph in which he posed next to a well-known transphobic activist named Chris Elston. Elston, who is known for spreading misinformation about the kinds of medical treatments provided to young transgender people, visited the Oakland First Fridays event in June wearing sandwich boards printed with transphobic hate messages. Scott agreed to be photographed wearing one of the sandwich boards, and Elston later posted the photo to Twitter.

Scott told The Oaklandside that was the first and only time he’d met Elston and that he knew little to nothing about medical treatments offered for trans people, but agreed to wear the sign after listening to Elston talk about the issue. He said he didn’t read the sign before putting it on, and called the move a mistake in a conversation today.

“I don’t agree with those statements,” he said. “I don’t agree with that guy.”

Oakhella, the entertainment company Scott co-founded in 2016, distanced itself from him over the weekend with a statement posted on Instagram. “Oakhella was founded on the pillars of food justice, community co-creation, inclusion, and celebrating everything that is beautiful about Oakland. We especially create space for Queer and Trans people, and have done so since day one,” it read. “We all shared these values in our founding, and as we have been made aware, one of our co-founders has strayed from this vision in their pursuit of political office. We have intentionally remained as neutral as possible in the Oakland Mayoral race, but when we are openly associated with Transphobia, we have to make it clear that WE DO NOT SHARE THOSE SENTIMENTS.”

Not the first time Liu has shared hateful views or targeted the Temple Sinai

During his first mayoral run in 2014, Liu criticized Temple Sinai for not inviting him to participate in its mayoral debate. According to emails Liu posted to his extensive Oakland Wiki page, the temple invited only candidates who were receiving support from at least 5% of likely voters in recent independent polls. Liu was not among them.

Zennie Abraham, an independent video blogger and longtime Oakland political commentator who was also a recipient of Liu’s emails over the past several days, responded to Liu that he feels threatened and harassed and that he’s considering taking action under the city’s hate crimes law.

Editor’s note: this story was updated Sept. 7 to correct the spelling of antisemitism to conform with AP Style.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.