Berkeley protests anti-Semitic acts

Appalled by an outbreak of anti-Semitic vandalism and fliers attacking the Jewish owner of a well-known bookstore, a local rabbi wants the Berkeley city attorney to investigate the incidents as a hate crime.

"The fact the city attorney will not prosecute this is a crime," said Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley.

At a rally on Thursday of last week outside Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue, Jacobson was among more than a dozen civic and religious leaders who spoke out against the anonymous attacks targeting bookstore owner Andy Ross.

"It has no place in Berkeley at all," said Jacobson. "Why not find the perpetrator or perpetrators?"

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said in a later interview that none of the three incidents she has heard about constitute hate crimes because, in her opinion, neither Ross nor his property was threatened.

"Hate speech is not a hate crime," she said, noting the free speech protections offered by the First Amendment. Because of the concerns raised, however, she has asked the police to brief her on all the incidents reported by Ross.

Over the last six months, Ross said he's routinely washed chalked swastikas and Stars of David from his store's windows and sidewalks. Windows have been shattered and Ross has found fliers depicting him as a fascist oppressor of the homeless. A letter called him Adolf and a "venomous Jew."

Speaking before about 150 demonstrators, Ross tried to defuse talk that the attacks were the work of homeless people riled by his support for a now-defunct plan to prohibit sitting on city sidewalks.

Homeless people are "not to my knowledge responsible," he said, to applause from the crowd.

Organized by Mayor Shirley Dean, the rally was punctuated by an occasional heckler and the tinkling of finger cymbals from passing Hare Krishnas. During the event, Julia Vinograd, a poet and Telegraph Avenue institution better known as "The Bubble Lady," asked, "Can we go back to calling bad people `pigs'?"

Speakers included author Ishmael Reed, Berkeley councilmembers, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl as well as representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay.

As a bookseller, "I care passionately about freedom of speech," Ross told the group. "However, as a community, we must attempt to live by rules of civility. Too frequently, we have targeted our political enemies and called them fascists or Nazis.

"We must not tolerate the language of the swastika and the politics of Kristallnacht," he said.

In the crowd, homeless activist Emanuel Sferios criticized the tactics used against Ross. He suspects the attacks were the misguided work of "some punk street kids."

"There's a couple of kids who are angry and irate and less articulate and have been calling him a Nazi," Sferios said.

But Sferios was alarmed that the incidents were stirring up what he considered unnecessary "hysteria."

"To throw this around and say he's the victim of anti-Semitic attacks is a smokescreen," he said.

Discussing the ongoing confrontations between the homeless and merchants like Ross, Sferios said, "We should all get together and talk about the real issues of homelessness and find common solutions."

Kehilla's Jacobson also called upon the community to work together. But he couldn't dismiss the attacks on Ross as harmless.

Nor could Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Congregation Beth El. A Holocaust survivor, Raj said, "Words are very important…From words to deeds, the distance is not great."

Ted Feldman, executive director of JFCS of the East Bay, said he'd canceled a meeting with Holocaust survivors to speak at the rally.

"Their great fear is people will forget," he said. The swastika "is a symbol of ultimate evil and it doesn't belong in our community.

Noting that her city was home to the Free Speech Movement, Mayor Dean said: "Berkeley is a very open free city but there are limits to what we will accept and hatred is unacceptable."