Cal pro-Palestinian rally sparks heated reaction, debate

Israel supporters stood by in quiet protest last week as pro-Palestinian demonstrators at U.C. Berkeley decried the university's investment in Israel and demanded an end to "Israeli apartheid."

Intent on showing solidarity with Israel, at least 50 students from the Israel Action Committee of U.C. Berkeley, joined by Bay Area Jewish community members, rallied with signs and informational fliers near the Students for Justice in Palestine demonstration outside Dwinelle Hall on March 7.

"We're not here to make a lot of noise and infringe on their right to protest," explained senior Lev Metz, a member of the Israel Action Committee. "We just want to offer another point of view to counter their misinformation."

Demonstrators had built a makeshift Palestinian refugee camp to portray what they called "the dispossession and entrapment of Palestinians by Zionist forces after the establishment of Israel."

Surrounded by droves of campus police officers, a group of roughly 60 pro-Palestinian students and community members sat within an expansive two-foot-high barbed wire fence loudly chanting for the right to return home. Poster-sized photographs depicting Palestinians suffering inside refugee camps surrounded the fence or leaned against nearby walls.

Meanwhile, fliers accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing were distributed to those passing by.

Students for Justice in Palestine circulated a petition urging the University of California to withdraw several billion dollars in endowment funds currently invested in companies with ties to Israel. "Preliminary research into the U.C.'s finances shows that at least $6.2 billion of the endowment goes to companies that have subsidiaries, branches, partners, or sizeable operations" in Israel, according to a SJP handout. The group also alleged that some of the funds directly support Israel military and contribute to the deaths of Palestinians.

At times the students sounded more like peppy cheerleaders than angry protesters, chanting "Hey-hey, ho-ho, let the refugees go home" while clapping their hands to the beat.

At other times during the three-hour event, the tone turned hostile — like when demonstrators dressed as members of the Israel Defense Force performed a skit, brutally forcing those representing Palestinian refugees to enter the camp against their will.

Watching the demonstration, junior Oren Lazar, co-chair of the Israel Action Committee, said he was "simply offended" and called it "a denial of historical fact."

"While I deeply sympathize with those in refugee camps, to assign the blame for their refugee problems on the government of Israel is absurd," said Lazar, who wore an Israeli flag draped across his shoulders like a cape.

Pointing to a poster depicting a Palestinian woman showering herself in bullet shells, Lazar grew frustrated. "If the shells are from inside her house that means they came from inside," he said. "Anyone walking by with an ounce of intelligence should be offended by this offensive propaganda."

Amir Segal, director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Israel Center, agreed. He called the demonstration "a cynical way to get attention."

"Some of the refugee conditions are very bad," he said, "but they should ask themselves who made it, who could help and how much Israel is actually involved."

Noting that refugee camps are in Arab territories and not in Israel, Segal admitted the establishment of Israel "did make [Palestinians] refugees."

"But not because of the establishment of Israel, because their leaders told them run away; we'll come back and conquer [the Jews]. Those who stayed were never put into camps and became Israeli citizens. So, you see, they created the problem themselves."

As long as Students for Justice in Palestine continues with this "cynical approach" of presenting an "incorrect picture," added Segal, "we can never have a serious discussion."

SJP member Will Youmans, countered that as long as "there are refugee camps in occupied areas" the protests and demonstrations will continue.

"Our goal on campus is to create awareness about Israel's policy to deny rights to Palestinians," he said.

As the afternoon wore on both the temperature and the tension began to heat up; discussions between those with opposing opinions often escalated in volume, more than once catching the attention of campus police.

Off to the side of the demonstration, Alyson Turner, a graduate student from South Carolina, perched herself atop a wooden bench and took on the role of a "bystander."

"I'm just watching the two groups to see…how they're handling their rebuttals with one another," she said. "Both sides seem to be doing a fairly good job."

Propositioned several times to sign the SJP petition, Turner declined. But she felt that many students were "getting caught up in the propaganda without knowing all the facts.

"There's an emotional reaction to the idea of a refugee camp, of course, but a lot of people are getting caught up in that and sitting in with them and signing the position without really considering that there's another side," she said.